Saturday, 26 December 2009

A very different Christmas: You will understand why I act as I do now.‏

DECEMBER 1943: I was the youngest seaman aboard the destroyer HMS Matchless. Still very much a lad, I had barely started to shave. We were escorting convoys carrying war supplies to Murmansk for our Russian allies. I still recall the howling gales, mountainous seas, biting cold, freezing spray, 23 hour dark, sea sickness and the ever present German U-boats.  A ‘ping’ on the Asdic echo-sounder brought a sudden surge of power and a heel to port or starboard as we raced to drop a ‘pattern’ of depth charges where the U-boat was thought to be.
CHRISTMAS EVE 1943: Signal received, “Detach from returning ‘empty‘ convoy, and join Convoy JW55B (a Murmansk bound convoy, approaching Bear Island) at full speed”.  There was a full gale blowing. Pitching and rolling along at about 10 knots with the empty convoy was one thing: ‘Full speed’ (36 knots) was another!  Throwing herself through the mountainous seas, Matchless’s bow would rise in the air, hover for a moment and come down with a crash as though on concrete, enough to split the seams (though thankfully they did not). Violent seas crashing on to the upper deck had smashed to smithereens the whaler and motor boat (our lifeboats).  Christmas Day was spent thus, during which time the name ‘SCHARNHORST’ was passing round the ship.  The name was spoken with a mixture of excitement, awe and fear.  The Scharnhorst had a reputation - and had earned it!  She was a German battle-cruiser.
BOXING DAY: Signal “Leave convoy JW55B and join 10th Cruiser Squadron (HMS Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield)”. They were in action a few miles away, and yes, it WAS the Scharnhorst! She had broken off the engagement and with her superior speed had got out of range and contact. Having joined the cruisers, our force headed North to protect the convoy, V/Admiral Burnett guessing this to be her intended target.  His guess proved to be correct.  About noon we met up with her and a short gun battle took place, during which the Norfolk was hit.  Scharnhorst broke off again and headed South for the safety of her Norwegian Fjord base.  Our force was outgunned by her 11” guns and, as said, with her superior speed she had the initiative.
However, she was heading straight for another British force, led by the battleship Duke of York, with her 14” guns.  We were aware of this, the Scharnhorst was not.  So, we took up a shadowing role.  By then the weather had eased a little; the twilight around noon had given way to the black of a winter Arctic night.  The shadowing was done by radar, ours being superior to the Germans.
At 5pm the blackness of the night exploded into light, star shells from the Duke of York and our force lighting up the Scharnhorst as bright as day.  For the next two and three quarter hours a running battle took place.  Shells from the Duke of York, cruisers and destroyers, torpedoes from cruisers and destroyers all hit the Scharnhorst.  She fought back magnificently but, outnumbered, outgunned and, most importantly, her speed reduced by damage, there could only be one end.
About 7pm Matchless came steaming in on a torpedo run, Scharnhorst to our starboard, we on her port quarter.  From my position as starboard bridge wing lookout, I had a perfect view at close range. That magnificent ship, the most successful, most feared, the bravest, and surely the most beautiful fighting ship of any navy, was listing to starboard, fires blazing aboard her, but still firing with such guns as were able to do so.  We did not in fact fire our torpedoes, as storm damage prevented the tubes being trained to starboard, so we hauled around and started a run to use them from port.
As we did so the star shells ceased, and we were in darkness for a few minutes, the Scharnhorst nowhere to be seen.  We slowed, hove to, and in fact found ourselves almost exactly over the spot she had gone down.  Using our our searchlight, we soon saw many floating men, most of them dead, face down in the water, bodies supported by their life belts – but some were alive.  “Scharnhorst Gerzunken?” called out our captain, anxious to know whether she was still a threat to us.  “Ja, Scharnhorst Gerzunken” came the reply. We threw scrambling nets and ropes over the side to haul the survivors aboard.  There were 36 all told, from a ship’s company of nearly 2000.  We on Matchless picked up 6 of them.
My main recollections of those days are the ferocious storms, the biting cold, the freezing spray which formed solid ice on the upperworks, the seamen on the upper deck looking like gnomes in their ‘goon suits’ (duffel coats were not enough under those conditions).
My main recollections of that particular Christmas are the full speed chase, the sight of that marvellous, magnificent ship, fighting to the very last, one of her 20mm guns (a pea shooter in comparison, which could have no part in this battle), firing a stream of tracers from the listing deck in a futile gesture of defiance right to the end, and the sight of so many who succumbed, floating in their watery graves.  Having picked up those six survivors, a signal came from the CinC “Join Duke of York to escort her to Murmansk”.
Voices were still calling for help from the black of the  winter Arctic night as we switched off the searchlight, hauled up the scrambling nets and steamed away, leaving the owners of those voices to certain death.
I’m sure Lt. Shaw, our skipper (the youngest of the flotilla), would have liked to disobey orders, as we all would.  It seemed wrong at the time but, harsh though they were, the orders were right.  Hove to, searchlight on, we were a sitting target for the U-boats in the area.  Staying a moment too long could have ensured that we joined those unfortunate men.
On New years Day 1944 we steamed into Scapa Flow to a Hero’s welcome from all the ships and shore bases there, and headlines in the newspapers.