PQ-17 - A 1942 pleasure cruise in the North Atlantic
I was the Chief Radio Officer on the SS Exford, an old 'Hog Islander' built during the WWI period. She was chartered by the Armtorg Corporation of the Soviet Union, from the American Export Lines in December of 1941 to carry war supplies to Russia. The cargo consisted of 5,000 tons of ammunition, explosives and other war supplies.
An interesting statistic about the SS Exford is that she was the only ship in the US Merchant Fleet in 1942 that survived both the Artic Convoys PQ-17 and PQ-18.
We formed up in Iceland in June of 1942 for the trip to Murmansk Russia. Our ship, the SS Exford, was armed with two 30 caliber Lewis machine guns, which were surreptitiously delivered at 0200 in New York, before we left the pier. They were boxed, packed in creosote and grease after WW-1, and that's the way they were delivered to us. The Third Mate and I were given the job of unpacking the machine guns, cleaning and mounting them on the flying bridge.
It took us the better part of three days to do the job. But we got it done. The parts were cleaned and the guns were assembled and bolted to the deck on the wings of the bridge. We had no U S Navy Armed Guard aboard our ship in those days.
We felt very well armed at the time --- the machine guns looked very formidable and impressive, that is, until we got a look at one of the new Liberty ships, with their four inch gun mounted aft and 20 mm anti-aircraft pods mounted on both sides, up and down the length of the Liberty ship. We all began to wonder – if the Liberty ships were being sunk so often, what chance did the old SS Exford have?
The crew had a Union meeting and sent a delegation to the Captain with a request that he request the SS Exford be equipped with additional armaments to better defend ourselves during combat. In addition they requested He apply for Armed Guard to man the weapons. They returned from the meeting looking like beaten dogs with their tails between their legs. The Captain informed them that he had requested additional arms and Armed Guard to man them, over a dozen times but was refused, the excuse being 'there was a war on' and supplies were very limited and had to be assigned to the most important ships. The crew meeting that followed was a dilly. It was filled with cussing and shouting with some crew members almost crying as they realized that it was almost certain death for the SS Exford to make the trip to Murmansk, equipped as she was.
Compared to most of the other ships we looked naked and hoped that our convoy position assignment would be next to one of the new and heavily armed Liberty ships --- we needed the protection, at least mentally.
Our convoy was under the sole command of the British Admiralty, although we did have some American warships with us. Our instructions at the convoy conference, attended by all the ship's Captains and Chief Radio Officers were very specific, about forming up, staying in position and dispersing procedure if and when enemy surface vessels were sighted.
The USS Washington, an American battleship, and two American cruisers, the USS Wichita and the USS Tuscaloosa, were part of the protective guard for convoy PQ-17. This was a major change in the Artic convoy strategy. This convoy consisted of 38 merchant ships, the largest single convoy to attempt the northern route to Russia at that time. We felt pretty confident of our chances, every time we looked around and saw the large number of warships escorting our convoy.
The convoy was under continuous attack by enemy submarines from day one, The submarine 'Wolf Packs' were both trailing and hunting us from the center of the convoy. Our Canadian Corvette, 'anti-submarine squadron', was charging around and dropping occasional depth charges at the perimeter and in the center of Convoy PQ-17. They did sink a number of submarines as we heard the constant va-arr-r-room of the depth charges going off at their depth set points. It was a comforting sound at the time for us worrywarts who were only thinking of our ship being hit. The British ship the Empire Steven, looked like a giant match, when she was hit - - - there was a flash – a large odd shaped fireball and then nothing - no ship - no flash - just nothing -and an empty space in the convoy column position.
[Ed. Note: There was no Empire Steven in PQ-17, and no ships were sunk before the Exford turned back. Dave is probably remembering the Empire Stevenson, which was sunk in PQ-18.]
But that didn't stop the subs. Every once in a while the ships would start flashing each other with Aldis lights and reporting subs in the middle of the convoy. The Corvettes would make a mad dash for the position but not before we would see a flash and another ship gone. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see my folks and use my ham radio station again; or anything, for that matter.
An interesting aside about convoy PQ-17, which has never been told, is that during a dense fog, with zero visibility, the battleship USS Washington cut a Canadian corvette in two while she was chasing a submarine in the fog. The depth charges on the launchers on the deck of the Corvette were at ready when the Corvette was cut in two and went down, the depth charges exploded as they sank to depth settings. The subsequent explosions severely damaged the range finding and sonar equipment on the USS Washington, causing the American Captain to withdraw the USS Washington from the convoy's armed protection fleet.
[Ed. Note: I could not find confirmation of this incident. There was a similar incident in PQ-15, and in PQ-17 one of the corvettes with the Washington rammed another vessel – this may have been the incident Dave recalls. In any event, the USS Washington was in "distant cover" and returned to Iceland after several days.]
The USS Washington with her group of smaller support vessels abandoned the convoy and returned to port for repairs. The information passed around the convoy in a matter of minutes via Aldis light signaling. At lunch that day, in the 'Officers' Mess', not a word was spoken – we were all worried sick about being abandoned in the middle of the attack zone - - while under attack, by a good portion of our protective warships shield. No one ate much that meal, and we all slunk off to do our jobs without saying a word about what had happened. When I looked at the Second and Third Mates I could swear that they were about to cry. I felt no different --- our lives depended upon the presence of the support warships. We all felt like someone had committed us to certain death in the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. The worst part was knowing that there was no escape. We all felt we were done for. What could be worse?
In six hours we found out.
Suddenly, radio silence was broken; and I copied a broadcast from the British Admiralty ordering the entire convoy to immediately disperse and take protective measures. - - - The German battleship Tirpitz was reported to have left her anchorage in the Norwegian Fiords, avoided contact with the Allied surface fleet there, and was spotted by a search plane to be heading in our direction at full battle-speed.
I didn't know what protective measures a freighter with a top speed of nine knots and two 30 caliber machines could take under these circumstances; but there were a lot of things I didn't know at the age of twenty and I was apparently not going to get the chance to learn before the disaster ended.
When I brought the Captain the message, he turned white. We stopped our lunch and had an Executive Meeting right then and there. A quick decision was made to proceed due north into the artic ice fields, for protection against the submarine wolf-packs. Apparently this possibility had been discussed at the conference meetings and this was a last resort for the slower ships seeking protection - - like the SS Exford.
[Ed. note: the official dispersal order was several days later. I'm guessing this was a preliminary notice to change course or to seek safety, perhaps relayed by Aldis Lamp. It was thought that submarines would not want to follow into the ice fields]
We changed course, heading due north. According to the latest Admiralty charts, the ice fields were within fifty miles of us. The convoy had been proceeding just south of the artic ice fields. As we got closer to North Cape Norway we would start encountering the German Luftwaffe flying out of their airfields on North Cape; from where they attacked all the convoys trying to make Murmansk, Russia.
The dense fog persisted. We were thankful for that, but now had to look out for other ships as they broke convoy columns and headed in all different directions trying to escape the coming disaster. Some Captains decided to try heading away from the ice fields, knowing that the Enemy expected the convoy to try to escape to the north.
Steaming at nine knots in the dense fog was the most frightening aspect of the situation. We knew the submarines were all around us and within an hour, so to, would be the icebergs. Men were stationed on the ships bow and along the sides and two were even sent up to the crow's nest to spot icebergs.
In one hour we cut our speed down to slow ahead (three knots) and proceeded with the utmost caution. Now the submarines were not our greatest danger – the icebergs were!
Voices were hurtling around in the dark –'all clear – all clear", as the ship continued north. The ships of Convoy PQ-17 were now heading in all directions – no one knew exactly what to do and how to do it. The Exford came within fifty feet of hitting one of the other ships - but we missed - and she continued on her chosen escape route.
We had gone full speed (nine knots), into the heavy fog with our fingers crossed. We ran at full speed for two hours and then proceeded with 'slow ahead.'
It was June 29th, 1942 and it was my 21st birthday. I had purchased two bottles of Cutty Sark Scotch in preparation for what I thought would be a birthday party dinner that night. I never got a chance to mention it to anyone aboard.
It was 0300 hours, on the 29th of June, in a dense fog with zero visibility. We were proceeding at SLOW (three knots), when ship the ship came to a screeching stop with a grinding crunch and crash. We all fell off of our chairs in the Officers Mess and realized immediately that we had either hit another ship or an iceberg. It was an iceberg! We could see the shadowy outline of the iceberg off our starboard bow, looming through the fog like a shadowy face.
Before we could say 'Jack Robinson' some of the crew had jumped to the lifeboats and were lowering boats #1 and #2 into the water. The Second Mate shouted to them to stop! He said, "You guys will all be frozen by morning if you take off in those boats"
One of the boats stayed at the ship's side but the other pulled away toward the iceberg. In all fairness to them, they thought the ship was either sinking or going to explode, most of us thought the same at that time. They were just trying to save themselves and I felt too cowardly to join them.
A group of us went up to the bow. But there was no more bow, it was a crumpled mass of metal, smashed and folded up like the bellows of an accordion; the entire forepeak was gone with our supply of fresh water. The inner forepeak bulkhead had held and we saw there was a chance for some makeshift repairs.
The captain immediately consulted the chief engineer and they decided if we could shore-up the inner forepeak bulkhead and give it some support, we may be able to get the ship going again.
All the ships crew started a scavenger hunt on the ship including the cargo holds. All lumber and dunnage was carried forward to the ship's bow and they started building a support for the inner bulkhead. Everyone worked feverishly for the next three hours.
Three of the men even got down into the cold water to help set the supports. Finally! It was done. A jury-rig to be sure, but it looked like it would help support the forepeak bulkhead. If the forepeak bulkhead let go the water would flood the engine room and the SS Exford would assuredly go down. All materials, no matter what, was used for the shoring and bulkhead support. Two men were left at the bow. The final assembly looked like a surrealistic sculpture. I looked at it and was proud to have been a part of building it. Men were assigned to watch the supports and see that they held, the rest of the crew returned to their normal jobs.
The Captain decided we would return to Iceland, at minimum speed, of course. Or as the Second Mate paraphrased it: "We will try and return to Iceland if the gods were good to us and looked with favor upon us – and the submarines were likewise good to us and didn't look upon us at all." We all went back to our jobs and the ship proceeded at a speed of three knots. "No noise!" was the order of the day.
The bulkhead supports seemed to hold OK and the submarines were not looking for us at all concentrating on other ships which apparently were easier prey.
I kept getting SOS calls from various ships but we could do nothing to help. We heard a couple of explosions and knew that some were not as fortunate as us –right now! That day I reported four more SOS's and ships lost. I hated to go to the bridge with these messages -the men on the bridge looked at me as if I was the cause of the entire situation. We stopped talking to one another and would just nod our heads for yes, and shake our heads for no. The Captain was the only one who spoke. He gave direct orders to all the crew and directed them to special duties at this time. He really took command of the situation.
During the return trip to Iceland, I kept getting radio reports of the remains of convoy PQ-17 and they made us all sick. It was a disaster- the ships were in total array; easy pickings for the submarines, and they were well picked. Ship were being sunk and blown up all over the place. They were dispersed and their only protection were the few Canadian Corvettes that were now spread out over the Artic Ocean trying to protect whatever ships they were near.
The Captain asked me not to bring him anymore reports on the remaining ships of Convoy PQ-17. The reports were too depressing, everyone felt sick over the fiasco.
We didn't think any of them made Murmansk. We later found out that eleven had made what was left of Murmansk after the continuous pounding by the German Luftwaffe, flying out of North Cape, Norway.
As we approached Iceland, we realized how lucky we were. We later found out the German radio news had listed our ship the SS Exford as being sunk with all hands in the PQ-17 fiasco. No one knew what happened to us, for we had maintained strict 'radio silence' until we reached Balfjord anchorage in Iceland.
[Ed. Note: This seems to contradict the claim that the Exford had received permission to return. However, given the extent of the damage it doesn't appear continuing on was an option. It is possible that the Exford reported the collision, but didn't bother to report the return voyage.]
We limped into Iceland and were directed by the US Navy repair ship USS Melville, to run the Exford on to the shore for possible repairs. We did this and watched the skilled mechanics of the USS Melville, cut up the crushed bow of our ship, build a forge on the shore and straighten out what sections they could and weld the entire bow back together.
In three weeks they had the SS Exford as good as new, and in addition they placed two anti-aircraft pods with 20 mm Oerlikon guns on the aft deck of the ship -- plus a four inch gun, which they removed from the damaged Italian ship the SS Exterminator, that was anchored in the fiord.
[Ed. note: Dave often told the story of how the gun was acquired: He had purchased a deep sea fishing rig on his travels and had spent the repair time fishing off the stern of his ship. A navy captain admired the gear and offered to buy it. Dave declined, but suggested he might be more willing to part with it if his ship had more armament. The next day the four inch gun arrived, and the fishing gear was presented to the Navy.]
Our ship was pulled off the beach by a couple of tugs and anchored in the bay. We were then informed that they did such a good job that the SS Exford had been assigned a position in the future convoy PQ-18, whose destination was to be Archangel, Russia.
That information made our day and our trip on PQ-18 to Archangel Russia is a whole other story: Convoy PQ-18 left Iceland with 40 ships, 27 of us made Archangle, Russia after eight days of the worst fighting that I ever was in the entire war.
After spending ten weeks in Russia we were given orders to head home to New York by ourselves, with no escorts or protection. The SS Exford again lived up to her reputation by going from Archangel, Russia to New York Harbor without sustaining another scratch.
I was told that the Exford was beached as a breakwater during the Normandy invasion of Europe and remains sunk off one of the invasion points.
Davis Rawal, Chief Radio Officer.