N.J.G. YOUNG #1080 – 1939/40
The elements fell upon us the moment we sailed from the comparative shelter of Seydisfjord in Iceland. Snow flakes flew out of the wind like tracer bullets. The winter gloom accentuated the impression of shrieking demons whipping up the wind. It snatched fretfully at halyards and clothing. A frothing sea slapped and hissed at the bows. The temperature was at freezing point. But the conditions were bearable, for apart from being the sailor’s lot, we were buoyed up at the prospect of new horizons. Winter convoys to Russia had already been inaugurated but we were sailing only a couple of days after Christmas day, 1941 and felt that this was the first truly mid-winter convoy. Therein lay an element of challenge.
We steamed North and East, up past Jan Mayen Island, which broods alone in its nest of winter storms. Here the Arctic gloom deepened into an awful darkness. Even noon became night. The whole ship iced over, making the sea look black by comparison. The temperature dropped to new lows and the snow flurried about us in swarms of frenzied flakes. The cold exerted its cruel tortures and shocked us into silence. The initial enthusiasm began to freeze.
Fortunately the doctors had warned of the dangers of washing or shaving in sub-zero temperatures, so beards sprouted freely and the risk of frost bite was reduced. It seemed that with each watch, more and more clothing was donned, until at last one could wear no more. One barely managed to waddle along the deck, and could scarcely squeeze through man-holes. Still the cold penetrated. I think feet suffered most in spite of newspapers wrapped round them under seaboot stockings. The ship steamed directly into the wind so the rapid penetration of cold was understandable, for we stood our watches on the open bridge.
If compelled to use the bucket which hung behind the bridge, the urine froze five inches from the body. The bucket filled but did not spill, for the urine was frozen solid and overhung the sides like wax solidifying down the side of a candle.
The normal watchkeeping routine of “4 hours on – 4 hours off” was reduced to “2 hours on – 2 hours off”. Shipmates became morose and silent, almost hating each other. One was especially morose about those who got off watch first. They were the ones assured of the best place below decks where a little warmth might be regenerated. Such a place was the small electric heater in the gunroom. Apart from an area round the glowing elements, all the bulkheads were coated with half an inch of frosting. It was like being inside a refrigerator. Only by the heater was a little warmth and dryness to be expected. Consequently those coming off watch first, lay on the deck close to the heater. Late-comers had the outskirts. All the off watch midshipmen now slept near the heater. We slept in a pile, even on top of each other. In so doing we tried desperately to regain a little warmth. We slept as we were dressed except for gloves, sea boots and face wrappings. We whimpered and moaned as the agony of circulation started again in the extremities. The two hours “off watch” seemed piteously short.
Near Bear Island the extreme was reached and the chartroom thermometer registered forty degrees below freezing point. The guns froze. The turrets froze. Spray thrown up over the bows froze. It rattled and clanged like shrapnel against the bridge. Breath froze. It formed masks of ice on face wrappings. Ice built up on the siren control wire causing the siren to blow when the ship rolled. It seemed that even the ship was crying out at the agony of her voyage. The two hours “on watch” were an eternity. A freezing hell. Awful darkness – swirling snow flakes – whipping and wailing wind. They strained at the anchors of sanity. The appalling cold with its progressively increasing tortures dragged the physical self to the very limits of endurance.
Words cannot describe the full cruelty of the conditions. Bones ached with crippling intensity. Flesh screwed up with pain. Only extremities were granted the blessed relief of eventual numbness. The body twisted and squirmed in agony. Animal like whimpering was forced from the throat.
We passed into latitudes North of Bear Island. The ship was grinding along the edge of the ice-pack steadily swinging to South and East towards the Barents Sea. The sky began to clear and midday was defined by perhaps half an hour of twilight. Conditions improved. The Northern Lights were again visible and they snaked and danced across the sky in magic colour. Then, as we neared the Kola inlet which shelters the port of Murmansk, we marvelled to again see the sun. It peeped over the horizon at midday with a bloodshot eye, watched us for a short while then sank away behind the snow and ice of Northern Lapland. We steamed up the Kola Inlet and anchored just North of Murmansk.
When air raids came during the dark hours, even the Northern Lights took second place. As search lights worked the sky like giant knitting needles tracer bullets stitched it into quilting. Exploding shells winked and flashed like sequins. Amidst the chattering, the coughing and the rumble of guns one could hear the drone of high-flying planes and the whistle of falling bombs. Spent ammunition clips and fragments of shrapnel fell in a light shower. On one occasion a plane was caught in the searchlight web. A few moments of frantic twisting, turning and diving, climbing. The inevitable bright flash, a few flaming fragments. One had to make a conscious effort to realise that a bomber, complete with crew, had disintegrated.
During the lighter period, air raids were less frequent and one found time to notice other things. My mind still holds many memories of the time:- the distant grumbling of the guns along the Finnish Front. Only a dozen miles away. The savage shouting of Russian Ski troops under training as they came gliding down amongst the trees of a nearby slope. Lorries loaded with frozen corpses from the battle front grinding their way to a plasma factory. The sweet tinkle of bells from a trotting reindeer sleigh. The steady suspicion of the Russians, even though we were allies. The tough looking women who manned the oil-tanker which refuelled us. The sourness of black bread. And above it all the infinite clearness of the cold blue sky when it opened to us at midday.
Ten days later we were back in Scapa Flow with a V.I.P. passenger, Sir Stafford Cripps. He had completed his time as British Ambassador to Russia. We were a haggard, silent crew. The C-in-C’s words of congratulation fell on an emotionless company. Not even the granting of an immediate three days leave brought any response. The recent voyage was still to frozen in our minds. Other Winter trips came in due course, but by then we were better equipped. Even to the extent of daily ultra-violet ray treatment.
However, I have always been grateful for being able to participate in that first mid-winter trip – for on it I had an experience which over the years has often given me comfort. Particularly in times of suffering – whether mentally or physically. Some may say it was an hallucination. I believe otherwise.
It happened during the most extreme period of the voyage – perhaps half way through a “watch” – when the suffering from cold was on the edge of unbearable. From there I saw the inches of ice which coated and distorted the instruments and voice-pipes. I saw the telephone rating seemingly chained to his fate by the cord which ran from his headphones to the connector. He was bent almost double, the uncovered part of his face was screwed up as if crying. His eyes gleamed madly from frosted lashes, his feet tramped ceaselessly in one spot. I heard him moaning and whining in time to his slowly slapping arms. The Officer of the Watch and the P.C.O. were on either side of the compass platform. Like penguins they rocked from side to side. Their sea boots squeaked in the frozen snow. It was pathetic to hear the whimpers and groans which were forced from them. In the far corner of the bridge I saw myself, doing the same things, making the same sounds.
In a flash the experience was over. The darkness, the pain, the appalling cold were still there. But I had gained an awareness of a non-physical self and it brought a feeling of distant comfort. In the years since, that experience has often sustained me and given me a sense of understanding particularly in time of suffering.