History & Learning

Convoys Remembered

Murdo Macdonald


Information and images provided by Christine Allan (daughter).

Murdo Macdonald enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve in 1934, and before the war he travelled to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Dutch East Indies, New Zealand, the Persian Gulf, New York, Gothenburg, and Australia. He was from North Tolsta, on the Isle of Lewis. The following account of his war service was kindly donated by his daughter.

On being discharged on 21st August [1939], Murdo went to London where he met some Tolsta boys who had been called up for active service. He returned to Lewis, and the following day, Friday 25th August, he reported at the Stornoway Custom House, and left for active service that very night, after only one night at home.

On his arrival in Portsmouth on Sunday 27th August, he went to the barracks and when only about 20 yards inside the gate, he met some lads from HMS Penelope, who had been recalled from leave.

On Sunday, 3rd September, 1939, while sitting in the Mess with Murdo Murray after returning from church service, it was announced over the tannoy that Britain had declared war on Germany. A tremendous cheer rose from the mess-deck, but Murdo Murray turned to him, with the remark, “Little do they know what they are in for”. He had served as a youngster in the First World War, along with his father and elder brother, who died of wounds when only nineteen.

The following week, Murdo was among a train load of service men who left for Thurso, but as all of them were billetted in the Town Hall, while a few, including Murdo, were lodged in the Police Station. One of the Special Constables there was Jack Mackenzie, a son of the Rev. Roderick Mackenzie, the Back District Minister. The men were given a cup of tea before going to the cells to sleep, and also, the first thing in the morning, on emerging from them.

That same day, the sailors crossed to Scapa Flow, where the old battleship, HMS Iron Duke, had become the depot ship, along with the St Magnus and another Saint ship.

Here the men were drafted into bording parties, each of which consisted of ten seamen and two officers. Three or four of these parties were sent to armed cruisers, formerly merchantmen, which patrolled the Denmark Strait, between Greenland and Iceland. Murdo was sent to HMS Enterprise, most of whose crew had been on HMS Penelope, so he was not among strangers.

Up in the Strait, neutral ships were boarded and their manifests checked to see if their cargoes were controlled material. Sometimes in the early days of the War, four or five shipsmight be boarded daily – not exactly a pleasant job in the rough, cold, northern seas. Each boarding party carried iron rations in case they had to take the boarded ship to a British port. Every member of a boarding party had his own job assigned to him beforehand. Murdo’s was to make for the bridge, probably because of his experience as a quartermaster in the Merchant Navy.

One Norwegian ship, trying to run the blockade, was sent with the party Murdo belonged to, to Kirkwall where the Army took her in charge immediately she dropped anchor, leaving his party free to rejoin their own ship when they could. As it was too late that day to get transport to Scapa Flow, they were allowed to sleep in St. Magnus’ Cathedral. On other occasions when boarded ships were brought to Scapa Flow, the men stayed on the depot ships to await the arrival of their own cruiser.

One night, the Iron Duke was bombed and she began to sink, but she grounded and stayed like that for the rest of the War. The bomb did not land very near her, but she was so old that her plates sprang a leak, or leaks.

Murdo was having a bath when this happened, having just come back with a boarding party, and he had some difficulty in reaching the deck, owing to the sailors rushing up, like himself, from below. When the order “Abandon ship!” was given, many jumped overboard, but Murdo made for the upraised stern for he didn’t like the look of the water. There he met a young Lewisman who was stripping, preparatory to swimming ashore. Murdo suggested to him that he should leave his pants on in case he met ladies on landing. The lad duly complied with the suggestion and put all his clothes back on, and later the two of them spent part of the night in a launch picking up those sailors who had taken to the water.

He was also in Scapa Flow waiting for HMS Enterprise the night HMS Royal Oak was sunk. There was a certain amount of panic that night and some of the boarding parties were put on fishing boats to patrol the booms for three or four days and nights.

After leaving HMS Enterprise at Devonport in November 1939, the boarding parties took a non-stop train to Thurso, with only sandwiches and fruit to sustain them on the journey north. Minesweepers and destroyers took them over to Scapa Flow where Murdo was sent to HMS Montclare, another armed cruiser and back again he went to the Denmark Strait Patrol, where fewer ships were to be met with still trying to run the blockade, especially because of the wintery weather and the effectiveness of the blockade. The odd ship, however, was still taken on charge. Greenock later came to be used as the base for these northern operations.

On one occasion, Murdo and his party arrived in Inverness from Kirkwall on a Friday night and as the Montclare was not due back to Greenock until the following Tuesday or Wednesday, the officer in charge allowed the men to have the weekend at home. By this time, Murdo was a Leading Seaman, and his boarding party consisted chiefly of Lewismen.

On boarding the Lochness at Kyle of Lochalsh, he went to see her captain, who agreed to take their rifles and ammunition to his quarters, where he kept them under lock and key until they were reclaimed on the following Monday.

Murdo managed to get transport from Stornoway to Gress on his way home, but he had to walk the last five miles. There was no light in the house when he arrived and he did not want to shout too loudly as he did not want to disturb his sister Chrissie who was on her deathbed. However, low as his call was, his mother heard and recognised his voice and joyfully opened the door for him.

When Montclare was sent to dry dock in Belfast, her crew was returned to Portsmouth on 2nd June 1940.

Shortly afterwards France fell to the German Onslaught, an the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France began. The Admiral of the Fleet ordered all the French ships in British ports to be boarded, with orders that if their officers and men did not want to fight the Germans, their vessels were to be confiscated.

One evening, shortly afterwards, volunteers were called for from boarding parties to deal with the French ships in Portsmouth Harbour. What a turn-out that was! Trucks took the volunteers to the docks, where they were told which ship each party was to deal with.

Murdo’s party was given its objective the minesweeper La Malponeuce. All the boarders wore sandshoes so as not to make any noise.

The gangway sentry was quickly overpowered and the sleeping members of the crew rudely awakened to find themselves looking into levelled revolvers. This crew, however, was quite willing to serve against the Germans, so they suffered no further inconvenience.

The following morning, at Divisions, which is the start of the working day, with everyone on parade for hoisting the colours, volunteers were asked to take part in a special assignment. Everyone knew what this assignment was – the evacuation of the troops from France, and more volunteered than were required.

Two officers, four able-bodied seamen, a stoker and Murdo was Leading Seaman were chosen to man a small Dutch coaster, the Wega that had been commandeered for evacuation duties. She made three trips across the Channel, returning each time packed with troops. The last of these was to Cherbourg which was partly in enemy hands.

Some of the sailors from the various evacuation ships went ashore, there to assist, if possible, the soldiers in their work of demolition and destruction of homes, houses and equipment of any kind which might be of use to the Germans, whose planes were constantly bombing the town.

Murdo took off his boots on his way back along the breakwater from the town in order to run faster back to the Wega. Years later, in 1970, his brother Donald was to visit Cherbourg and Murdo suggested that he should look for the good boots he left behind there in 1940. Perhaps he should have posted an old pair back to him.

As soon as the Wega’s party returned to her, she made for the open sea, tightly packed with soldiers, on her deck and in her hold, all delighted to be leaving France.

After landing these soldiers in England, the Wega was dispatched to Jersey in the Channel Islands to collect some civilians at the port of Gorey on the east coast.

As her crew had been eating tinned food during the evacuation period, they were delighted when one of the ABs happened to come across an unattended butcher’s shop. On discovering its owner had fled the island, he cooked and everyone aboard, who wanted a portion, served.

The course was set for Poole, in Dorset, where the Wega was handed back to her rightful owner, while the crew returned to Portsmouth Barracks at 4.30pm on a Sunday.

The reason this day was remembered by Murdo was that at the time of his return, the Lewis lads were coming out from the Gaelic service, held every Sunday at 3.30pm by the Rev. John Macleod, a native of Stornoway.

Murdo had been so long away from the Barracks, about a fortnight, and in teh meantime a Tolsta rating had gone on leave, and on his arrival home had reported that he had not returned from France, all the other Lewis lads, who had taken part in the evacuation, having returned except him.

Word soon went round the village that he was missing, and Murdo Murray’s wife Ciorsty Eoin, told his sister Nan the rumour, but the latter kept the news to herself and did not tell her mother.

An elder called at the house, but Nan warned himnot to mention the rumour, as there was no official word yet of his being missing, and until that came,she would not believe the rumour. A scribbled postcard from Poole dispelled the disquiet.

Murdo also wrote to other members of the family, mentioning how glad he was that his brother Alasdair would not have been engaged in evacuation duties. Little did he know that Alasdair, who was also engaged in the same important work, between St Nazaire and England, was equally pleased that his young brother was not taking part in this task. He thought he was still up in the Denmark Strait.

Shortly after returning to barracks, there was an invasion scare, and once more volunteers were asked for, to man the old forts between Devonport and Southampton. Four ports were garrisoned. Murdo was sent to Fort Whitney, south of Cosham which had been unoccupied since 1918, so it was in a bit of a mess. This place was manned until Britain’s batterd army was reorganised, when it took over these forts from the Navy, to the great delight of the sailors who were returned to barracks.

Shortly afterwards Murdo went on a gunnery course on HMS Excellent, better known to the sailors as “Whale Island”. This was the Navy’s premier Gunnery School. Classes were sent there weekly and he went there on July 26th 1940, and later passed out as a Third Class Gunner.

On Whale Island no-one was allowed to walk from 8.00am till 4.00pm except the Captain who had the privilege of walking if he so desired. Everything had to be done at the double. Men ran everywhere and at the end of the day, everyone was glad to go to bed, and very comfortable indeed did these beds feel after the day’s exertions.

The discipline was strict, but one got used to it. It was the only naval establishment from which the men went ashore without being inspected for tidiness as the officers knew that no-one would tarnish HMS Excellent’s reputation.

Murdo returned twice more to HMS Excellent for his Second Class Gunnery course and First Class Gunnery course, in which he was successful. This desire to become a naval gunner may have its origin from the time he served on one of the escorting destroyers with HMS Nelson when she bombarded the fortress at Algiers. Kenneth Macivor was on another of the escorting destroyers. Both of them had a cheery spell ashore later in Gibraltar.

During the initial spell of gunnery training, Murdo acted the part of gunner’s mate in the film “Gunnery from Nelson’s Time to the Present Day”, shot mostly on HMS Victory.

On the completion of his first spell at “Whale Island”, he was transferred to the Northern Parade School, which the Navy had requisitioned to house the overflow from the Gunnery. It was situated on the outskirts of Portsmouth and he was appointed the school postman, a most enviable job, as the holder had no shifts from 8.00am to 5.00pm, with Sundays free. Twice a day the mail was cycled far from HMS Excellent. Murdo held this post until drafted to HMS Bulldog on 8th August 1941.

In June of that year he cut his right hand badly, a day or two before going home to his sister Chrissie’s funeral, and the day before he was due to return from this compassionate leave, he went on to see the naval doctor in Stornoway, who was also his own family doctor, Dr C. B. Macleod, for an extension of leave because the gash on his hand had become so badly infected that he could only dress himself with difficulty. To his request, the doctor brusquely replied “You can walk, can’t you?” On his return to Portsmouth he had to spend three weeks in hospital.

The Bulldog, an old destroyer, was engaged on escort duties for Atlantic convoys in the North Atlantic for the next three months. She was based on Greenock and used to meet the convoys from Canada in Mid-Atlantic, where west and eastbound convoys exchanged.

Some convoy commodores preferred to come with their charges through the Minches while others preferred the more direct route west of the Hebrides. The sailors on the destroyers preferred the Minch route as the convoy could then be left to the care of the frigates and trawlers for the remainder of the trip to the Clyde. One of the destroyers in this escorting group with the Bulldog was HMS Achates, on which Murdo’s old friend, Kenneth Maciver was one of the quartermasters. Every morning, each of these looked to see that his friend’s destroyer was still all right.

In bad weather it was a difficult task for the Merchantmen to keep their position in a convoy, especially at night, and the speed of the convoy depended on that of the slowest ship, often doing only 8 knots in good weather. A convoy might consist of from 10 to 30 ships, excluding their escorts, and often steaming in three or four lines. It was a wonder there were so few nightime collisions. After one wild night, near St Kilda, dawn showed the convoy scattered over a wide area, with a surfaced U-boat, quite near. Who got the biggest surprise, the ships’ crews or the German submarine, nobody will ever know. In any case, the destroyers couldn’t use their depth charges for fear of damaging some of the merchant ships. All, however, reached Greenock in safety.

On November 20th 1941, on the Bulldog going into dry dock for an overhaul, most of the crew returned to Portsmouth and Murdo went for his Second Class Gunnery Certificate, on November 25th. On his successful completion of this course, and when parading in front of the Commander, for their marks or points in the Examination, the candidates heard over the tannoy the names of the ratings who had to report to the Drafting Officer. His name was among those called. As soon as he learnt he had passed his examination, the Chief Petty Officer, his instructor, shook hands with him, wishing him luck.

On reporting to the Drafting Officer, he discovered he was to return to HMS Bulldog, as her captain had sent word that any of his old crew, still in the barracks, should be drafted back to her again. At least two-thirds of the former Bulldog crew made it back again for convoy work in the North Atlantic. By this time, Murdo was the Captain’s Cox.

One very stormy day, south west of Iceland, a message was received by the destroyer from one of the merchantmen asking for the services of a doctor for a badly injured seaman.

Without any hesitation, in spite of the atrocious weather conditions, a boat was launched with Murdo in charge. All of a sudden, a huge wave, like a rushing wall of water sprang up, seemingly from nowhere, and rushed towards the small boat, threatening to engulf her.

Aboard the destroyer, the sailors lost sight of her and gave her up for lost, but her cox, like the experienced Hebridean sailor he was, on noticing the advancing monster, promptly orderd “full speed astern!”

The shocked sailors on the Bulldog gavce a tremendous cheer when the lifeboat was seen coming over the wave top, and then advancing towards the ship on which the stricken seaman was. She returned safely later and the cox was sent for to go to the Captain’s cabin, where he was warmly congratulated on his seamanship.

“We can all be proud”, said the Captain, “of how well the Royal Navy trains its seamen”.

“I am not Royal Navy”, replied Murdo, “I am a Royal Naval Reservist”.

“I did not know there was an R.N.R. aboard”.

“I am the only one”, was the reply.

“Where were you taught your seamanship?”

“I was taught by my father. When trying to land on our open beach in Lewis, we often had to back water, on seeing a wave which threatened to break on top of us. The lessons learnt on exposed beaches certainly helped me today.”

While in Belfast some time later, to civilian electricians were on board attending to some minor repairs when word came ordering the Bulldog to sea. As the Captains Cox, Murdo was wakened from his sleep to take them ashore. It was a dark stormy night so he could not stop alongside a jetty to put the electricians ashore. Instead he told them that he would make two approaches to the jetty, but wouldn’t stop. They would jump ashore, one at a time, when he told them. In this way they both landed safely and the boat turned back, at full speed, to the destroyer. The return passage was somewhat bumpy and he was seasick for the first and only tme in his life.

The North Atlantic was not the Bulldog’s sole sphere of operations. She was met with an occasion down West Africa way. While in Dakar one Sunday, a radio operator came to Murdo with a message.

“I don’t know what it says”, he said, “it must be in code”.

It was in a very homely code took, for it said “A mhic brothair mo sheanor, bidh mi a null eader an da choinneimh”.

(Son of my grandfather’s, I shall be across between the two services”).

The sender was his cousin, Lieutenant George Morrison … better known as the “Breve”. He was the navigating officer on a corvette recently arrived with a convoy from Cape Town and there was a shortage of beer aboard her. George was quickly refreshed on boarding the Bulldog.

When Russia was invaded by Hitler’s forces supplies were shipped to Murmansk to help the hard pressed Soviet forces and the Bulldog was also engaged in this work. The welcome the sailors received in Murmansk and elsewhere in the Soviet Union left much to be desired. They were met with the deepest suspicion.

While homeward bound on one of these P.Q. convoys, off Bear Island, the British forces were attacked by submarines, planes and surface ships. In the action which followed, the cruiser Edinburgh was damaged and later had to be sunk while she was being towed back to Murmansk.

During the fight which followed the loss of the Edinburgh, the old Bulldog had to take charge and with three other old destroyers made at full speed for the three modern German destroyers and drove them off. The fight lasted altogether 24 hours. Murdo was in charge of the Bulldog’s “B” turret and is believed to have fired 400 rounds in that period. The main difficulty the gunners had was that the flying spray from the speeding vessels froze on the breech blocks. Murdo’s strength kept his clear throughout the action. his gun never stopped firing, though some others had to.

One of the sailors on HMS Amazon wrote the following poem:

Salute to the Brave

We’ll never forget the 1st of May, 1942,

On convoy, four destroyers, met a force out of the blue;

Homeward bound with merry hearts, and little thought of care.

At 2p.m. that afternoon, full tension filled the air.


The ‘Beverly’, a Yankee boat, was first to spot the Huns’

Three well-armed destroyers, and modern every one;

‘Twas hands to ‘Action Stations’, while ‘Beverly’ laid her screen,

To port the ‘Bulldog’ slewed them, like a warhorse brave and keen.


“Follow me”, she signalled, and the ‘Beagle’ fell in line.

With ‘Beverly’behind, while the rearguard ship was mine;

The good and fighting lady, or the q’Amazon’ to you.

‘Twas sign to speed the pulses, four old veterans tried and true.


Then the ‘Bulldog’ opened fire as befitted leadership;

The others followed suit, till air-borne cordite made eyes nip;

Four silken flags aflutter, Britain’s challenge to the world,

The Hun knows what it means, when the ensign is unfurled.


We gave them all we had boys, as our father’s did before,

While German shells, like bolts from hell, dropped round us by the score,

Though bitter cold, our blood ran hot, as towards the Hun we raced,

Then the ‘Amazon’ caught a packet that was only too well placed.


She never faltered in her stride, but followed in the chase,

As the ‘Bulldog’ and the ‘Beagle and the ‘Beverly’ set the pace,

No need to tell the details of that action bold and brave

Our ‘tinfish’ closed the chapter; sent a Jerry to her grave.


Murdo was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal on this occasion and the captain the Distinguished Service Order. Many others on the destroyers were also decorated and the convoy returned home practically unscathed. The Bulldog suffered some superficial damage.

In December 1942, the Bulldog and the Achates which had served on many convoys together were ordered to proceed from Greenock to Seidisfiord to escort a convoy to Murmansk.

On the way to Seidesfiord, the two destroyers ran into a Force 12 gale. The Bulldog’s foredeck split so badly that she had to return to the Clyde for repairs. The Achates made Seidisfiord though she was somewhat battered but she was repaired and went with the Murmansk convoy, the Bulldog being replaced by another destroyer.

In a sea fight off the North Cape, the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst and other vessels engaged the British ships. The Achates bore the brunt of the action and laid the smoke screen to hide the convoy. Kenny distinguished himself, a fact which surprised no-one who knew him, firstly by saving a wounded comrade whom he carried,on his shoulder, to afety from a flooded compartment and then taking over the steering, with only the use of a pocket compass, for the last two hours of the Achates’ life. He stayed in the wheel-house, where he had a wounded officer for company, until she was on her beam ends, with the wheel-house door where the ceiling normally was. When her crew began to abandon her, he was pushing the wounded men up through the doorway when other ratings came to his assistance. He came up then but he was so exhausted that he went down with the Achates, in the cold Arctic wastes, far from the beautiful Tolsta beaches which he knew and loved so well. He was posthumously mentioned in Despatches. A grand, gallent Lewisman was lost with the Achates, and so the drink in Greenock was Kenny’s and Murdo’s last together on earth, but who knows of hereafter.

Murdo was greatly upset when he learnt of his friend’s death. He always regretted not having been on that action with him.

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