History & Learning

Convoys Remembered

Laurence Strong

Laurence Strong

Written, and images provided by Jonathan Strong (son)

Profile of Laurence Vezey Strong DSC MiD

Born on 21st January 1918 and educated at Tonbridge School, Laurie left School in April 1935 when his Father sent him on a European Tour. He subsequently joined the family printing firm – “Henderson & Spalding” – and went to The London School of Printing between 1936 and 1937.

In June 1939, he was worried that his OTC training at school meant he would be likely to be called up for the Army but he wanted to go to sea and didn’t want to be what he described as ‘canon fodder’. So he tried to join the RNVR through HMS President but was told that the Navy was not recruiting.

On Trafalgar Day after war had been declared, he went to his local recruiting office and indeed a Petty Officer did suggest a Commission in the Army. His persistence in wanting to join the Navy led to him being called up as a rating for training in signals (a “bunting tosser” in Navy slang).

After a Medical (Grade 1) on 8th December 1939, he was sent to HMS Royal Arthur at Skegness (the requisitioned Butlins Holiday Camp complex). He passed out as Ordinary Signalman (First Class) in March 1940 but with a white cap band having been identified as ‘officer material’.

At the beginning of April 1940, he joined an old Welsh ‘smokestack’ trawler – HMT Brecon Castle -converted to a minesweeper and operating in the Falmouth, Dartmouth and Plymouth area.

In August 1940 he attended a Preliminary Selection Board at HMS Defiance, Devonport and then passed Final Selection at HMS Excellent, Portsmouth at the beginning of October. He received his Commission on 13th December 1940 as a Temporary Sub-Lieutenant and was immediately posted for officer training to HMS King Alfred, Hove (nicknamed ’The Pub’ because it had been a hotel before the war).

On 26th October 1940 at St. Nicholas’s Church, Rochester, Laurie had married Honor Mary Battersby Stewart, whom he had known since childhood and with whom he shared a Godmother.

In January 1941, he was posted to HM ML 240 as First Lieutenant. She was being built and commissioned at Bowness and after sea trials sailed to Scapa Flow where Admiral Jellicoe’s battleship – the Iron Duke – was her depot ship. The Iron Duke had been bombed, was partly submerged and was being cannibalised for parts. One part fell in Lieut. Strong’s hands! – a brass pulley wheel from an ammunition hoist. He had this fashioned into an ash tray which sat on his desk until he died.

On 10th February 1942, he was transferred as Signals Officer to HMS Boadicea, which was on convoy escort duties in North Atlantic. Within 2 weeks he had been appointed as Navigating Officer. This ’B’-Class destroyer (H65) took part in a number of convoys across the Atlantic and one down to South Africa before she joined PQ15 in Iceland (see below for Laurence’s own account of this convoy). The convoy had assembled at Oban and sailed for Iceland on 10th April 1942 and then onwards to Murmansk arriving 5th May. She returned to UK waters with QP12 later in May. On 31st May 1942 he gained his Watch-Keeping Certificate.

On 16th August 1942 he was sent to HMS Vernon, Brighton for further training and received his Commission as a Lieutenant on 4th November 1942.

In April 1943 he had embarkation leave before shipping with others his MTB (sometimes referred to as “The Spitfires of the Sea”) to Malta and onto Sicily to support the Allied landings as part of 24th Flotilla. MTB 81 then served in the Adriatic harrying the Germans and dodging them to supply the guerrilla forces operating in Greece and Yugoslavia and ferrying agents to and from secret rendez-vous.

12th July 1943 Laurie sank a U-Boat near the Straits of Messina. The U-Boat had surfaced directly ahead of his MTB and he had to order “all engines full astern” in order to give his torpedo time to arm itself and hit its target before the submarine dived again. His quick thinking and success was rewarded with a DSC.

2nd December 1943 the Luftwaffe carried out a surprise attack on the Allied-held port of Bari on the East coast of Italy and sank many merchantmen and naval vessels. There was considerable loss of life with the harbour ablaze. News of the attack was embargoed until 1980 because one US cargo ship – SS John Harvey – was carrying mustard gas, contrary to the Geneva Convention. The “Powers that Be” apparently believed that the Germans retreating through Italy might resort to the use of chemical weapons and the Allies wanted to be able to retaliate. Lieut. Strong and his crew on MTB 81 and with a Flag Officer aboard, helped in the rescue operations including securing a warp on a burning supply ship and towing it out of the harbour. He was mentioned in despatches for this bravery.

24th September 1944 he was appointed as a Staff Officer Operations, Western Mediterranean based in Malta until 7th July 1945 when he returned home to see his daughter for the first time. She was born on 31st October 1942. He and Honor had a second daughter and a son.

Laurie was very proud to have been given the 40th Anniversary Commemorative Medal in 1991 and The Medal of Ushakov in 2013. At least the Russian Government recognised the vital importance of the Allied Russian Arctic Convoys eventually leading to that Country’s success in forcing the German retreat from the Eastern Front. He was equally proud to receive the long awaited Arctic Star from the British Government before he died on 25th February 2014 aged 96. He is buried at St. George’s Church, Benenden, Kent.

Memories of PQ15 by Laurence Vezey Strong DSC, MID, RNVR

As a Sub-Lieutenant, I was the acting navigating officer on a destroyer – HMS Boadicea – on convoy duties back and forth across the Atlantic. When in Liverpool in April 1942, we had the first intimation that we were likely to be going North; a lot of warm clothing came on board including heavy duffle coats*. Our orders came to sail up to Seyðisfjörður, Iceland as fast as we could, on our own. We set sail and travelled mostly at 30 knots all the way. PQ 15 had left Oban on 10th April 1942 for Murmansk via Iceland.

We arrived at the east end of Iceland and the whole place was white, ice white, covered in snow. The inlet was quite fantastic. Full of ships, cruisers, more destroyers, and I thought this is going to be quite a convoy. We set sail two days later in formation with the cruisers leading and the convoy came out of the North Channel. The Commodore of the Convoy was in a large merchant ship and we formed up off two cruisers in the middle of the convoy with destroyers on either side and a tug for rescue operations. In the middle of the convoy towards the rear was the convoy tanker.

It was wasn’t long before we had some excitement. One of the watch spotted a floating mine ahead and we had to alter course. It was a near thing. It just missed us on the port side and the only thing that made everybody laugh was a gunner who was sitting on a stool by the torpedo tubes, who got such the shock of his life as the mine floated by. He fell off his stool into the scuppers and was never allowed to forget that.

We made way quite peacefully for at least 24 hours and were ordered to oil from the tanker. That is quite an operation at sea because the tanker first of all fires a heaving line to your ship attached to which is a tow line. Once the tow is secured, you stop engines so that during fuelling you are towed by the tanker. She then floats a fuelling pipeline down to you. Once that has been hauled on board and is connected to the bow fuelling point, a signal is sent to the tanker to start pumping. Fortunately it wasn’t rough. I don’t know what it would have been like if it had been. But it did make me wonder what would happen if we were called to action stations during fuelling. We would have to drop everything very quickly. And it would have be panic stations because you have to signal the tanker to stop pumping, disconnect the fuel pipe and put a stopper on the end of it and only then can the ship’s engines be engaged and the tow dropped. Fortunately that didn’t happen but, as it was, it was a nail biting time until we got rid of the oil pipe.

When we got nearer to the North Cape, air attacks started from the airfield in German hands.

We could expect attacks at any time but they were usually around midnight. It was never completely dark off the Cape just night-time gloom. It always seemed to me that the attacks started just after I had gone off watch and when the alarm bells went, I had to get up on the bridge again. One night when this happened, I had actually gone down into my cabin and was in my bunk but as I got my head out of the hatch to get up on deck, I saw a tanker hit by a bomb and a body flung into the air, followed by a huge explosion and then nothing. I was absolutely flabbergasted. I can only hope that it was so sudden that nobody in the tanker knew anything about it not even the poor chap that I saw blown into the air. It was a frightening experience and one I have never forgotten.

As the Officer responsible for navigation, I became very confused one midday. I think it was our fourth day out, when I sighted a returning convoy apparently upside down on the horizon. I thought to myself that can’t be true. It’s a mirage. I didn’t think any more about it but the following day when I was taking my noon-day sights, I found that my calculation put us 60 miles adrift from the Commodore’s reckoning which was always announced at 12.00. I became very worried about this and reported to the skipper who told me “I don’t believe it”. Together we took four separate sights from different positions on the ship from the bow, stern, bridge and the gun deck. Our sights were exactly the same and they were 60 miles wrong according to the Commodore’s positioning of the convoy. I recalled seeing the mirage the day before so I mentioned it to the skipper. He said “Ah that’s your answer. You had a false horizon. Would you say that it was 10 degrees?” I said “Well near enough, sir. Yes”. He said “Well there you are, 6 miles per degree is 60 miles. Remind me when we get back to order a bubble Sextant and you can navigate like RAF pilots do in such circumstances”.

Anyhow we were very fortunate and despite midnight and some mid-day attacks, I think 24 merchant ships and the rescue tug out of the convoy of 28 reached Murmansk with no loss of escorts.

We did learn that a British cruiser – HMS Edinburgh – had been sunk with a cargo of gold bullion on her way from Murmansk to the UK. The story was that she had an escort – four destroyers – two of ours and two Russian. So she would have been well protected except that the Russian destroyers decided to go back to base which left her with only two escorts and there was a German U-boat in the area which didn’t need a second invitation. She was torpedoed. When we reached Murmansk on 5th May 1942, we offered our Russian pilot a drink and he said “I’m sorry; I’d love to have a drink but I daren’t”. It appeared that one of the navigators from one of those two destroyers that had left the Edinburgh to her fate, was having a drink in a wardroom with Officers from other destroyers and got drunk and was shot as a lesson to others.

While in Murmansk we managed to get oil from HMS Trinidad, which had been torpedoed on the way up in a previous convoy and was in dry dock. However, we were very short of food and our Coxswain went to see if he could get some supplies from her. Not only were there no supplies available but clearly the Russians were very hungry too. The Coxswain came back and reported that there were a number of Russians on the shore beside Trinidad clearing snow and ice when suddenly waste from Trinidad’s galley was tipped onto the quay. All the Russians made a dash for whatever food was there and whichever Russian was in charge of the shore party drew a gun and shot one of the workers. They all subsided and he made them take their trousers down and sit on the ice to cool off. I imagine that the story had become exaggerated in the telling but, even if it was only partly true, it was pretty horrific.

The harbour and ships used to be bombed at noon and just before it was dark. The Germans had an airfield at a place called Petsamo, I think, and they came like clockwork; you knew when they were coming and you were ready for them. In the meantime, we used to have all sorts of activities to amuse the troops and sailors and to keep them active. These included tug of war competitions and rowing races in whalers. I had rowed on the Thames as a student and there was an Old Etonian selected with me by the First Lieutenant who picked two others who could handle an oar to race against a crew of Petty Officers. He insisted on being the stroke. Our cox was a Warrant Officer. You couldn’t have had a heavier cox! So we trained, waiting for the bombers to come over at midday and then we used to take a whaler out and practice. I have to say that the First Lieutenant needed a lot of practice. His timing was almost impossible to follow. I persuaded our the cox – I can’t remember his name – we called him ‘Guns’ – to suggest that we change the order. I told him that I had been the stroke of various crews and I would like the Old Etonian behind me and the First Lieutenant could go number three. He said “That’s a tall order”. I said “Well, we’re not going to get anywhere as we are. Every time I take a stroke, the First Lieutenant’s back gets in the way and he doesn’t know how to keep time.” Well ‘Guns’ managed it and thereafter we made quite a good crew.

But what happens on the day of the race? We line up; the Germans had gone, dropped their bombs and we were rowing, I suppose the race was something between quarter and half a mile. So the starter fired a gun. What happened? The Old Etonian “Wet Bob” pulled a crab; stopped us dead. We got going again, pulling like mad. Those oars are incredibly heavy but at my suggestion, the cox starting raising the rate by beating on the hull. The Petty Officers were about a length and a half up on us and the crew on Boadicea was frightfully excited, lining the side, yelling support using shipboard language which cannot be repeated. We slowly but gradually caught up and when the finishing gun fired, we were about a canvas ahead – if whalers had canvas on their bows, that is. The Petty Officers were booed by the crew. So, we invited them to come to the wardroom and to have a tot and all was well.

On another occasion, some fellow Officers and I decided to take a walk ashore. We took a pinnace and pulled the boat up on the shore. We had only walked a hundred yards or so when someone started shooting at us. Well we weren’t going to hang about. We raced back to the boat and got back on board as fast as we could. That experience was very unpleasant particularly as we had come God knows how many sea miles over filthy water being attacked most of the way, only to be shot at by the people to whom we were bringing supplies and helping in the fight against the “common enemy”!

*Laurie’s duffle coat has been loaned to the Museum by his family together with some other items of his Navy kit and artefacts, which would have been with him on PQ15 and the return convoy.

Click to expand photos