It was New Year’s Eve 1942 when we left Scapa Flow to cover Convoy JW 53.They were given those prefixes, JW for going up, RA for coming home. HMS King George V together with Howe, Sheffield and Berwick and the aircraft carrier Victorious slipped out Scapa Flow and headed north. Our job was to get between the convoy and the Norwegian coast as it was thought that the Tirpitz was preparing to put to sea. We would cover the convoy up as far as Kola inlet and then patrol around Jan Mayan island on the edge of the pack ice to await the RA convoy going home.
The moment we left Scapa Flow we knew we were in for a good hiding; the weather was atrocious, but go we must. The further north we went the worse the weather got until we were in a full-force hurricane with winds off the Beaufort scale. I have never seen waves of the like since; looking from the bridge of King George V they were level with our eyes, and when you imagine that every wave of forty to fifty feet has a trough of a similar depth there were many times when, seeing a wave like that coming towards the bows, we could be forgiven for thinking that she would never make this one.
But they were sturdy ships, and make it they did, even though the damage was considerable. We lost most of our upper-deck boats and light anti-aircraft guns on the bows and the ventilation covers were torn off, which meant flooding of the mess decks to a foot deep and everyone having to live with their trousers rolled up.
HMS Sheffield had the top of ‘A’ turret ripped off like a tin of sardines; any thoughts of protecting the convoy went by the board, for no self-respecting enemy would put to sea in that weather. In all, I think it was known as the worst weather ever encountered by a Russian convoy.
Our task force gave up and headed for the safety of Iceland were we had three major bases, Hval Fjord, Seydis Fjord and Akureyri Fjord, which is just above the Arctic Circle. The fjord leading to Akureyri was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. I believe it is thirty-two miles long between enormous snow-covered mountains which dwarfed the fjord until our enormous ships looked like so many twigs floating down a stream. The houses in the town itself all had different coloured roofs, making a glorious patchwork. I have always wanted to go back as we weren’t really welcome then; after all we were an occupy- force in a way, deciding to set up bases before the Germans did.
Two memories of Russian convoys stay in my mind. One is the constant ice and cold. Nowhere could you get warm. The other is that, if when eating a meal you were up against the ship’s side, you could feel the sea thumping against it and hear it swishing past, and you had the ever present thought that three inches of steel was all there was between you and a torpedo or a mine at any time, not only then but at all times when at sea. It didn’t do to let the mind dwell on that too much.
From Bugle Boy by Len Chester published by Long Barn Books.