History & Learning

Convoys Remembered

Thomas John Sargent Bigmore

Thomas John Sargent Bigmore

Written by Joan Hollings (daughter)

My father, Thomas John Sargent Bigmore (1915 – 2011) was on board the Empire Tide during the fateful PQ17 Convoy. He was in the Royal Navy but was assigned this Merchant Ship to be part of the Radar crew.

My father’s Official No. was JX203440. His record, and the memories he shared with us, shows that he served on the King George V and the Rodney amongst others during World War II. He was in fact a member of the Rodney Association.

On the 20th of February this year, I emailed the museum about an article I spotted online about the Diary of Rodney J Davies (PQ17, QP14) for the year 1942, compiled by his youngest son, Paul.

I was particularly interested in contacting Paul Davies and his family as it appears that Rodney Davies and my father probably worked in radar together on the Empire Tide.

Having read the diary, I can see there are several clues as to them having close contact:

  1. On the 28 June, the diary states "Decided to halve lookouts with Tom"
  2. 19 July – "Memo – No Eskimo". For years, my father would, with a twinkle in his eye, talk about a heavily built black American Sailor (I think he was the cook at the time) stating that he wouldn’t be going ashore saying "I ain’t no Eskimo" which seems to tie in with the diary entry.
  3. 1 September – Rodney’s diary states, "Started Peg’s serviette ring" He was obviously making this for his wife as was my father. I have this serviette ring proudly displayed at my home, along with a wooden box Dad made.
  4. Saturday 10 October – "Tom & S in Lake District" – was this on shore leave after they returned? Was "S" Steve Miles, a close friend of my father’s?
  5. 12 November "Met Jim & Tom"
  6. 17 November "Played for Welsh XV v England won 5-3". My father, as a Welshman would have relished that victory!

A brief account of my service years during WW2 by TJS Bigmore

Initially I felt I should not be part of this celebration as I was not part of the Far East war but this is the end of the 1939/45 war. So I will talk about the three parts of my 5 plus years Navy service.

First part was training as Radar operator and service on HMS King George V until, with HMS Rodney and what seemed to be the rest of the RN, we destroyed the German battleship Bismarck in 1942 without suffering any damage although her (Bismarck’s) guns were in order and only her steering gear not working.

The middle and most dangerous (part) was when I joined the CAM (Catapult Aircraft Merchant) ship, SS Empire Tide, a 10,000 ton merchant ship, as part of Convoy PQ17.

We had a Hurricane fighter plane on a catapult intended to destroy as many German planes as possible with the help of the Radar set, which I controlled. When the pilot, in the Hurricane, had used up his ammuition or his fuel he had to ditch in front of the convoy and hope to be picked up before he froze in the icy water.

We were attacked by bomber and torpedo planes but only lost a couple of ships, on US Independence Day. The following day, the Admiralty made the fatal mistake of assuming that Bismarck’s sister ship the Tirpitz had left her harbour in Norway to attack us and ordered our convoy to scatter, withdrawing all the destroyer escort.

The result was that individual merchant ships were picked off and sunk by U Boats or aircraft all over the Barents Sea. We outpaced an attacking U Boat and sheltered in a bay in Novaya Zemlya, where we picked up dozens of survivors.

Eventually we were escorted to Archangel where we endured a not very welcome reception. We stayed there until October when PQ 18 arrived and we survivors were escorted back to the U.K. I find it difficult to believe I survived this experience, losing, as we did, 24 of our 35 merchant ships.

Third part was service on HMS Rodney mostly at anchor in Scapa Flow until we anchored off the Arromanche beaches, on the second day of the Normandy landings acting as a gunship. We used our 16inch guns to destroy German tank concentrations and sniper positions. Finally we bombarded Caen some 20 miles away to allow our troops to advance.

Altogether five plus years, which I feel fortunate to have survived.

Naval Memories Extracts inc PQ17

My wife, Lota, and I married in Preston in June 1940 but had no time to ourselves before I was called up in July, electing to join the Navy. I started my training as an Ordinary Seaman in Collingwood near Portsmouth. After a few weeks the Chief Petty Officer (retired but called back to train us) asked our group if we wanted to train for R.D.F. When asked what that meant he confessed he knew nothing except that "they" were wanting volunteers.

I learned later that few in the Navy knew what it was, most of the R.D.F training and equipment going to the R.A.F. at that time. I moved to Portsmouth Barracks marching each day to the R.D.F. school behind the Royal Marine barracks.

I found that my schooling in Electricity and Mechanics helped me understand how electric pulses were sent through the air to be reflected from aircraft or ships and then received on a special set on a ship or ashore.

After this training I was posted to H.M.S. King George V, a brand new battleship commissioning in Rosyth. I found there was a crew of six RDF ratings temporarily under a Chief Telegraphist and wearing the telegraphist badge (all for security reasons).

The first Saturday aboard was "Captain’s Rounds" and the Chief Telegraphist, thinking we would be in the way, sent me and a Scottish rating up the foremast to "examine" the RDF aerial. I had always feared and avoided heights but managed to climb to the top of the 140 foot mast which seemed higher as we were in dry dock. The platform was only big enough for the two of us to stand.

Coming down my legs proved too short to reach the first rung on the mast. My foot slipped but I remembered the Navy advice to have one foot and two hands or two feet and one hand attached.

When we later reached the deck Scotty said, "I would never have got down if you had fallen." My reply was that in that case I could not have cared! After that Scotty and I were always "volunteered" for mast climbing.

Some time afterwards we had a rough trip across the Atlantic, taking Lord Halifax to Canada. On the way we hit a violent storm, which made the ship roll heavily. We were in our hammocks and did not notice the rolling but a really bad one woke us all up when she rolled way over and all the crockery in the racks on the bulkheads (wall) spilled out on the deck. It took ages to clear up the mess.

I had a few hours ashore in Nova Scotia and bought some silk stockings for Lota (they could not be bought in the UK). The next day we sailed down to Chesapeake Bay (the US Naval base} but my watch did not get ashore as we sailed the next day to join a convoy of merchant ships returning to the UK. It was with this convoy that I realised that most of the Navy knew nothing about RDF.

We were sailing in the middle of the convoy and I was on watch on the surface RDF set when I saw the ship astern of us creeping up to our stern. I reported this to the officer on watch on the bridge who then asked whether the ship had one or two funnels. I tried not to sound too sarcastic in explaining that we did not get a picture of the ship but only a "blip" on our straight line screen, which indicated how far away the ship was. It was quite some time before we in the Navy had the now familiar circular screens, although some television programmes recently have mistakenly shown round screens on ships at that stage of the war.

Shortly after returning to Scapa Flow we learned of the "break out" by the German battleship Bismarck followed by the awful news of the sinking of H.M.S. Hood and the damage to our sister ship H.M.S. Prince of Wales. The Admiral of the Home Fleet, Admiral Tovey, immediately took us and any other available ships to sea to try and sink the Bismarck.

The two cruisers Norfolk and Suffolk tracked her by RDF and then lost her. We chased her all over the Atlantic until she was eventually spotted by a RAF Catalina and then attacked by Swordfish Fleet Air Arm planes which did enough damage to her steering to enable the K.G.V. (now fortunately joined by HMS Rodney), to pound her and sink her.

I still can see the flames engulfing her, and cannot understand why she did no appreciable damage to either of us. Ironically I joined Rodney 18 months later and had to put up with the comments of my fellow Petty Officers that they sank the Bismarck with some help from the K.G.V!

Most of the crew were given leave when we reached Scapa Flow. To reach Preston I had to first go to Portsmouth, passing Preston on the way! I remember being given a terrific reception by Prestonians because I had been part of this important victory.

Lota and I had only a few days together before I had to return to Portsmouth for some more training on new sets. By this time the name had been changed to RADAR.

Six months after returning to Portsmouth I was told to report to the DEMS service in Liverpool. I received no information in Portsmouth but when I reached the DEMS office I was given a kit-bag of fleece-lined blanket, sea boots and jacket. Then I knew I was not meant for the Mediterranean!

I was sent to Newport, South Wales, to join a Merchant ship, Empire Tide, which I learned was a Catapult Aircraft Merchantman (C.A.M.). She had a Radar set, and a catapult from the bridge to the bow, on which a Sea Hurricane could be catapulted off to destroy German planes, the pilot ditching into the sea, hopefully to be picked up before he froze to death.

One of our two pilots had lost an eye in the Battle of Britain. Were these men brave or foolhardy to volunteer for such a job?

I did manage a day in Cardiff and saw my father. He was the only one who knew where I was going. We had a spell in the Irish Sea tuning our Radar and picking up our aircraft.

We sailed to Iceland where we joined some 30+ merchant ships, which were to become Convoy PQ17. We waited for days while the Admiralty decided if they dare send us to sea while the Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck, was lurking in a Norwegian harbour.

We did set sail up the west coast of Iceland but lost one ship, which ran aground. With hindsight perhaps that was the wise one!

After a day or two, a shadowing Blohm & Voss plane appeared. Our Hurricane was not allowed to take off as it was thought too much of a waste, as the shadower would be replaced.

We were attacked by submarines and lost a couple of ships but the escorting destroyers did a great job. However on the 4th July (how appropriate in view of the large number of US Merchant ships) we were attacked by waves of torpedo and dive bombers.

Our radar was, by order, silent but we might have spotted so many planes which the RN sets did not.

Our pilot’s language at not being allowed to fly was unprintable. The RN gunners on the escort and merchant ships did splendid work and we suffered our only casualty when a US gunner fired across the convoy instead of in the air.

A Russian tanker astern was hit by a torpedo, which was probably meant for us. But she recovered enough to join up with the convoy and in fact was one of the few ships to reach Archangel.

Then came the infamous call from the Admiralty to Commander Broome to disperse the convoy and to take all the destroyers to join the Home Fleet against the Tirpitz. Mistakenly the Admiralty assumed Tirpitz was at sea aiming to attack the convoy.

Some years later I spoke to Broome who was still furious that he had not been allowed to make the decision instead of those many miles away. I still think, as did Broome, that had the convoy stayed together we would not have lost as many ships under the protection of the "local" escort and the not so far away Home Fleet as we did when scattered.

We were lucky, in Empire Tide, having a skipper like Captain Harvey.

Near Novaya Zemlya, on seeing a ship stationary we went to investigate and a large German submarine surfaced. The skipper swung the Empire Tide to port and got a few more knots out of her than she had ever done before. We got away and hid in Moller Bay and picked up many survivors from US ships that been sunk or run aground. They were not too welcome as we were short of food and water but our Chief Engineer built a make-shift stream to bring water from the hills.

At one stage a German plane flew over, but well out of range. Following this our "guests" were told by their officers to go ashore in case we were bombed. One coloured lad said "Ah’s no going ashore. Ah’s no Eskimo!". We were very pleased because he had baked the first decent bread since we had left Newport. The next day the skipper refused to let those that had gone ashore back aboard!

After what seemed an eternity a Royal Navy corvette arrived to escort us to Archangel. We were most concerned that our "guests" would take all the boats if we were attacked leaving us with none.

Before we left, our Radar crew were infuriated by the Corvette officer who told us we should not have used our RDF as it might have disclosed our position. Once again it was clear that few in the Navy knew anything about RDF.

We received a "frosty" welcome when we did reach Archangel. We were not allowed ashore for days and an armed guard was placed on our gangway. However, our Hurricane and the Swordfish, which had been left by its "mother ship", did cause some interest.

We lost count of the days we were there having nothing better to do than visit the Servicemen’s canteen and put up with the air raids by the German planes just over the border. The only consolation was that the weather was great, not like that at home, which we learned later was poor.

We left Archangel with some ships and escorts from the later convoy PQ18, but still lost some ships on the way home. Empire Tide docked in Hull and I was allowed to travel to Preston to see Lota for the first time in six months.

A couple of years ago I met a leading light from the Russian Convoy Club who had been the R.D.F. Leading Seaman on Empire Lawrence, the CAM ship in PQ16. He was unlucky in that his ship was blown up but lucky in that he had been rescued spent some time in a Russian hospital. He stayed on in the Navy and became a Commander.

Click to expand photos