History & Learning

Convoys Remembered

Eric Craig

Royal Navy

Able Seaman Eric Craig – HMS Campania

Written by Eric’s son, Eric Craig Jnr

I would like to share some small parts of the life of our father, grandfather and great grandfather which may give some insight into his service during the convoys to Russia. As war broke out, our father managed to get an apprenticeship as an engineer’s fitter and turner in the locomotive works of the local docks. Whilst working, he joined the civil defence force part time, as he was not quite old enough to enlist. At seventeen he enlisted and was now exposed to the real effects of war; no longer would they be firing blanks during practice. He chose the Navy to enlist because the Captain goes into battle with the ratings and you all face the enemy together in the same ship. Therefore the skill of the Commanders/Captains and execution of the commands by the crew determine to an extent the fate of the ships and their crew. In contrast to his own fathers and grandfathers World War 1 experiences with the army more often than not directed by commanders remote from the battle field. His first assignment in the navy was on a small boat towing a target for the navel gunners to practise their shooting skills. He said he could never remember them ever hitting the target fortunately they did not hit the boat he was crewing.

By the time Dad was 18 years old, he boarded the HMS Campania escort aircraft carrier to escort convoys to Russia. He was one of the crew manning an anti-aircraft gun aboard this vessel. (See photo) I believe his ship escorted 12 convoys over the latter period of the war 10 to Russia. There were attempts made to attack nearly all of those convoys by either U-Boats, or a substantial force of Ju 88 torpedo bombers operating out of Bardufoss, Banak and Trondheim in Norway. Some individual convoys were attacked two or three times. The threat was extremely high. If that was not enough danger, the extreme weather conditions of continuous severe cold, ice flows and high winds and enormous waves, were their enemy as well. I have included a photo of HMS Nairana, the sister aircraft carrier taken on board his vessel, the Campania, which was in one of my father’s albums, its bow was well out of the water on 100 foot waves. Dad had written underneath the photo “six weeks on one wave” as though they were surfing it. This was his way of laughing off a dire situation of the extreme weather conditions. There is another photo of crew clearing the flight deck of ice and snow onboard the Campania in the Kola Bay. If you were swept off the deck in the Force 11 winds or your vessel was torpedoed you would last a very short period in the icy waters and unlikely to survive before being rescued.

My father never really talked about this period of his life except to recount a funny story of obtaining a joint of meat on the black market, or how he had double butter rations because he went to the Russian Arctic. He never praised the food on the convoy but said there was always plenty of it to keep you going. I do recall him say corned beef was a common thing on the menu. He often recounted how beautiful the Aurora Borealis was above the Arctic Circle and seeing the midnight sun during the summer. By contrast keeping watch in the bitter cold in the virtually 24 hours of darkness during the winter months and doing whatever was necessary to keep the aircraft airborne. I recall him mentioning feeling very vulnerable as the land deck lights going on as the brave airmen flew their Swordfishes back having completed night patrols with the ship presenting an illuminated silhouette. The Campania and the Nairana would have been easily recognizable targets for any U-Boat or bomber that may have slipped through. The HMS Nairana in the same convoy as the Campania was narrowly missed this way. Quoting from a scrap of newspaper form the Northern Echo about this incident which my Father kept with some of his discharge papers:-

Newspaper Article Titled “Convoy in seven day battle”

Campania attacking in darkness a Swordfish illuminated the U-Boat while a second aircraft obtained a perfect straddle with depth charges. Thirty seconds later the U-Boats stern reared out of the water to an angle of 45 degrees. Then the vessel sank, victim of a perfect copy book attack. Dropping their torpedoes at a range of 700 yards it appeared they could not miss but the Nairana, by taking evasive action avoided the torpedo by a matter of about ten feet.”

Also quoted in the same paper: “One of our fighters (from the Campania) was near when the attack took place and the young pilot was last seen going hell for leather to help” said the commander “He was lost, it was a gallant action against heavy odds.”

Cold was one thing that Dad did talk about he mentioned the cold weather clothing of duffle coats and thick gloves. He also mentioned that there was only enough for one crew shift so the crew not on watch or manning there stations would hand over to the next shift. So if you had to go up on deck for any other reason you did not have that cold weather clothing. Similarly the beds and hammocks never got cold one crew using the bedding each shift. I cannot imagine you would be able to get any sleep if your ship was called to action stations or tossing about in the atrocious weather. I know my Dad occasionally slept in a hammock I was curious how he could get to sleep he said somehow with everything going on around you were so exhausted you got used to it. One thing my brother reminded me of, although our father rarely if ever went to the pub there was still a tradition of a tot of rum which was the navy custom of the day. He rarely drank spirits but said on occasions he was glad to have it in his cocoa to warm up. But generally he topped up a small flask and he said this was useful for the odd favours amongst his fellow crew. There was a phrase “sippers or gulpers” so depending on the favour perhaps getting a bunk rather than a hammock it was worth a sip or a gulp of rum amongst the other crew.

When my brother and sisters were quite young, we did meet a fellow sailor with one leg. It turned out he had slipped off the gang plank at night between two Navy vessels awaiting the convoy moored in the blackened port of Scapa Flow. The poor fellow misjudged his step in the dark and slipped off. The two vessels coming together in the ebb of the water crushed his leg.

.My father scrambled down between the boats and somehow managed rescue him. As young children this was our first insight to some of the misfortunes of war. He never mentioned that he had lost friends/comrades on those convoys and bravely rescued his shipmate risking his own life. When my father was in his late 80’s he finally started talking a little about some of his experiences. Prior this it was a period he wished to close into a box, seal up and forget forever. A bit like his medals, which were only worn for the first time at 84. One episode he recounted to me was about a good shipmate friend of his, who he had served together with on many convoys. On this particular convoy, RA 64, his friend was transferred to the HMS Bluebell which was travelling close to the Campania. There was a sudden explosion; the Bluebell was hit by an acoustic torpedo and vanished in a few minutes with more than 120 of her crew onboard perishing. The crews of the adjacent ships went anxiously looking out for survivors, but there was only one and it was not my father’s friend.

That was just one of the three navy ships and one merchant vessel torpedoed on the outward and return voyage. Two submarines were sunk. The outward voyage on this convoy was worse; forty eight (the number varies in different reports) Ju 88 torpedo bombers were dispatched in waves for a mass attack. Some carrying mines to drop in the path of the convoy. Six of these bombers were shot down by the carrier’s Wildcat fighter aircraft and one from the HMS Bellonia’s anti-aircraft fire others were hit and damaged by destroyer fire. Overall it was reported that eleven aircraft did not return to Norway either due to damage or getting lost and running out of fuel. Three more crashed on landing due to damage. A second attack was mounted three days later where seven Ju 88’s were shot down. A number of the aircraft from the Nairana and the Campania were lost defending these attacks. For seven days the battle raged on with the U-Boats and Bombers and the convoy escorts. But if that was not enough to contend with, after those attacks a force 11 hurricane scattering the convoy best described in a report: “Convoys to Russia :”

“The weather that followed deserves the description of ‘the great gale’. Other convoys suffered serious weather damage but none so bad as this. The convoy was greatly scattered. Numerous ships suffered severe weather damage. Several merchant ships were reduced to steering with block and tackle on the rudder head and on return to Britain twelve warships had to be docked with weather damage.”

Dad described an anti-aircraft gun 2 pound pom pom similar to the one in the photo, being entirely swept off its mountings during this storm. This describes the ferocity of the storm, relentlessly pounding the vessels. He also described how the deck was at 45 degrees until they headed into the wind and there was great fear that the ship might role over being a top heavy aircraft carrier. Aircraft and mobile equipment in the hangers double and triple lashed, broke loose and got damaged. My dad said to me “one hand for the Navy and one hand to hold on for your life”. I can now understand the reasoning for that phrase.

He also had tremendous respect for the German submariners. Sometime after the war he mentioned to me he thought of them equally brave to attempt to do what they did. I found this a strange comment especially considering that he had lost shipmates. But we now know that they had worse odds of surviving than his crew. He said to me many times you would never have got me to serve on a submarine. Referring to them rather coarsely as “steel coffins” which may reflect the number he was aware of being sunk.

When Dad passed away last December, I started typing these poorly crafted lines to honour and remind us of his life with us. I have struggled to select precious pieces of the mosaic of his navy service, using occasional reminders from my brother. We all agree our father witnessed a lot during his period of service and got on with the job as he did in life. He would never ever have described himself as a hero. He said if there were any hero’s it had to be the crews of the Swordfish and Wildcats who took off in all weather conditions on a pitching deck with 80 knot winds in both light and darkness. Their job was to act as the good shepherds defending the flock of defenceless merchantmen from the wolf packs marauding just out of reach of the ASDIC. They did their job well. This is best described in the book Alone on a wide wide sea by E.E Barringer. A quote from that book, “Just tell the people we had a job to do and we did it and that was that”. I imagine this is what my father might have said. He was just one member of crew and aircrew, together they did their job some of whom, I know will never have a true story written about them. I humbly write this true story to honour all those personnel as well as my father. From my perspective, he is our own family’s hero and not to highlight that, but to record a bit of our family history for his grandchildren and honour all those 3000 Navy and Merchant personnel, some of whom were his shipmates or aircrew from the HMS Campania, who which we are now forever grateful of their sacrifices and their lives to preserve our freedom today.

Eric Craig served on HMS Campania from 1944 – 1945.

Eric passed away 12 Dec 2013.

Images of HMS Campania are also included in in the book Convoys to Russia by Bob Ruegg and Arnold Hague.

Click to expand photos