73 North: The Battle of the Barents Sea

73 North: The Battle of the Barents Sea

by Dudley Pope

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Overview

The events and decisions that culminated in the Battle of the Barents Sea—what many consider to be the most important naval engagement of World War II's European theatre—in which eight of the German navy's most powerful ships failed to sink a Russian convoy guarded by only four small British destroyers, are brought to life by the author in this tale of men struggling to carry out their orders in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590136911
Publisher: McBooks Press
Publication date: 07/01/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 896,764
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Dudley Pope, a naval defense correspondent of the London Evening News, progressed to writing carefully researched naval history. C.S. Forester urged Pope to try his hand at fiction and saw the younger writer as his literary heir. Pope began what was to become an impressive series with Ramage (1965) and, over the next 24 years, produced 17 more novels tracing Lord Ramage's career. Pope died in 1997.
Dudley Bernard Egerton Pope was born in 1925 into an ancient Cornish seafaring family. He joined the Merchant Navy at the age of sixteen and spent much of his early life at sea. He was torpedoed during the Second World War and resulting spinal injuries plagued him for the rest of his life. Towards the end of the war Pope turned to journalism, becoming the Naval and Defence Correspondent for the 'London Evening News'. At this time he also researched naval history and in time became an authority on the Napoleonic era and Nelson's exploits, resulting in several well received volumes, especially on the Battles of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Encouraged by Hornblower creator CS Forester, he also began writing fiction using his own experiences in the Navy and his extensive historical research as a basis. In 1965, he wrote 'Ramage', the first of his highly successful series of novels following the exploits of the heroic 'Lord Nicholas Ramage' during the Napoleonic Wars. Another renowned series is centred on 'Ned Yorke', a buccaneer in the seventeenth century Caribbean and then with a descendant following the 'Yorke' family naval tradition when involved in realistic secret operations during the Second World War. Dudley Pope lived aboard boats whenever possible, along with his wife and daughter, and this was where he wrote the majority of his novels. Most of his adult life was spent in the Caribbean and in addition to using the locale for fictional settings he also wrote authoritatively on naval history of the region, including a biography of the buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan. He died in 1997 aged seventy one. 'The first and still favourite rival to Hornblower' - Daily Mirror

Read an Excerpt

73 North

The Battle of the Barents Sea


By Dudley Pope

McBooks Press, Inc.

Copyright © 1988 Dudley Pope
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59013-692-8



CHAPTER 1

Route Green


At a quarter past two on the afternoon of Tuesday, 22nd December 1942, the windlasses on the fo'c'sles of fourteen merchant ships gathered in Loch Ewe, on the north-west coast of Scotland, wheezed and clattered mournfully as they hove in anchor chains. The ships were travel-stained; patches of dull red rust mottled their grey hulls, and they seemed slab-sided because they were loaded down to their marks with the heavy munitions of war. Straight stems, bluff bows and flat sheerlines made them chunky, the ugly sisters of the lean destroyers anchored nearby; but designers had drawn out the lines of their hulls to cram in the maximum amount of cargo. Speed was, in wartime, a vital consideration; in the competitive days of peacetime charter rates, however, it meant higher fuel bills, and so the fastest of the fourteen ships could do but eleven knots, and the majority only nine. At least, they were the speeds their masters gave; but being wary men, they knew their chief engineers would have a knot or so in hand for emergencies.

Four of the ships flew the Red Ensign, nine the Stars and Stripes and one the pale blue and red flag of Panama. From each ship's halyards flew a two-figure hoist representing its number in the convoy formation. The once-gay colours of the flags were darkened by soot and by the heavy rain, but they seemed to be trying to stream out bravely in the chill wind which squalled its way across the loch.

Soon the windlasses stopped their asthmatic grumbling: anchors were aweigh and engine-room telegraphs on the bridges were swung over to bring the propellers to life. One by one, in a pre-arranged order, the ships steamed out through the boom gate in a long single line stretching for more than two miles. Soon the convoy was in the North Minch, the long channel of water shielded from the full winter fury of the North Atlantic by the rocky outcrop of islands known as the Outer Hebrides.

This was indeed the convoy's Hebrides Overture, for the merchant ships were bound for North Russia, by sea more than 2,000 miles away, taking succour to an ungrateful and suspicious ally. Much of the voyage would be beyond the Arctic Circle. The convoy's track was listed as Route Green and consisted of geographical positions labelled alphabetically from A to H in the convoy orders. It was through the track of the great winter gales that swept in from the broad wastes of the Atlantic, raged across the seas round Scotland and Iceland for days on end and then howled their way across the Greenland Sea to die away, their phrenetic energy expended, in the high latitudes between Spitzbergen and Norway.

The tracks of these centripetal depressions were often the same as the routes of the convoys bound for Russia. After passing Iceland many of these storms advanced only slowly to the north-east, so slowly that the convoys often steamed along with them, and heavy seas and foul weather stayed with them for much of the voyage.

Day after day the wind screamed in the rigging, overwhelming their senses with its noise. Freezing spray driving across the decks in blinding sheets clung to the guns and steel plates of the ships' superstructure. The fearful cold numbed men's bodies until limbs felt like bent bars of wrought iron, and their spirits were attacked by the almost continual darkness of the Arctic winter.

With these great winter storms came heavy, mountainous seas which could force a thirty-two-knot cruiser, with 75,000 h.p. engines, to a struggling, pounding eight-knot crawl, and fling about its 600-ft length and 10,000-ton bulk as if it were a waterlogged tree trunk; seas which overpowered merchantmen and forced them to heave-to or steer contrary courses; seas which could in a few hours scatter a convoy across hundreds of square miles, like chaff before a March wind.

At the moment, as the ships steamed up through the North Minch, the gales were not yet blowing, but the "glass" was falling. Each hourly tap on the barometer dropped the hand another millibar; white crests rose up on the waves in automatic response to the increasing but unseen pressure of the wind.

Leading the line of ships was the Empire Archer, built two years earlier in Dundee and, with her engine-room and funnel right aft, looking more like a tanker than the dry-cargo ship that she was. For this convoy she was the Commodore's ship and carried — in addition to her normal master, officers and crew — Captain R. A. Melhuish, now retired from the Royal Indian Navy, and his staff.

He would be responsible for JW 51B (the convoy's official designation) though not for its escorts. Locked in the Empire Archer's safe, and now known almost by heart, were the convoy orders; the route it was to take; action if attacked by U-boats, bombers or surface raiders; the position of ships in the convoy formation; the meaning of various cryptic code signals; what stragglers were to do, and a host of other instructions necessary for the safe passage of the convoy.

Down below in the Empire Archer's holds was ton upon ton of war equipment. Apart from 4,376 tons of mixed cargo, she carried 141 lorries, 18 tanks, and 21 fighters. If she arrived safely in Russia those weapons should be in action on the Eastern Front within three months.

The Commodore and his staff were veterans, although this was their first Russian convoy. Most of them had been on survivors' leave and were naturally rather disappointed to receive telegrams of recall just before Christmas. There was, for instance, L. F. Matthews. Slim, young and quick-thinking, he was the Yeoman of Signals and as such the senior rating. His previous voyage had been the first with Captain Melhuish (the two of them were destined to sail together for the rest of the war, for voyages to such diverse places as India, New York, the Sicily landings and eight trips to the Normandy beaches).

The pair of them had been unlucky in North Africa because, after landing their troops at Bougie, their ship, the three-funnelled P & O liner Narkunda had been bombed and sunk. Matthews had been enjoying his survivors' leave when his telegram arrived, and the 17th December saw him on the night train for Liverpool. Arriving dirty and tired at 0500 he reported for duty. He spent the next two days correcting and bringing up to date the Confidential Books needed for the next voyage and on the 20th, with Captain Melhuish and the rest of the staff, boarded the night train for Loch Ewe.

"We were carrying warm coats and thick gloves in our gear, so we deduced we were in for a nice Russian trip in the depths of winter," Matthews wrote later. "I had been in Liverpool when the survivors of the ill-fated PQ 17 had arrived, so I had a fair idea of the pleasures that might await us."

At 1300 on 22nd December, an hour and three-quarters before the convoy was due to weigh anchor, Captain Melhuish and his staff had boarded the Empire Archer, met her master, Captain Maugham, and stowed their gear.

Astern of the Empire Archer steamed the Daldorch, registered in Glasgow, her holds loaded with 264 lorries as well as 1,744 tons of mixed cargo. Third in line was a modern-looking tanker, the Empire Emerald, built on the Tees a year earlier and registered at Middlesbrough. Her crew received extra danger pay, and they deserved it since for the whole voyage they would be living on top of 7,400 tons of highly inflammable aviation spirit and 2,580 tons of fuel oil. One mine, one torpedo, one bomb or shell could, in a second, reduce her trim lines to a flaming and exploding hulk. If she sank without blowing up, then that innocent-looking fuel oil, if swallowed by men gasping as they swam for their lives in the water, could kill them with the slow certainty of poison.

The fourth ship was also a British tanker, the Pontfield, built in Sweden in 1940, the year after Hitler's march on Poland. Her hull was electrically welded, and her owners, Hunting & Son, had registered her in Newcastle. Now her master, Captain L. B. Carr, had the task of getting his ship and her vital cargo of aviation spirit and fuel oil safely through to Kola Inlet.

Those four ships were the only ones flying the Red Ensign. There should have been a fifth, the Dover Hill, but she had developed an engine defect at the last moment and could not sail. Together they were manned by a total of 43 officers, 128 seamen, and 74 DEMS gunners who served the ancient 4-inch guns mounted on the poop, the Oerlikon 20-mm. cannon and the machineguns with which they had been fitted.

Fifth in the line of ships was the Executive, flying the Stars and Stripes. Owned by the American Export Lines, registered in New York and built twenty-two years earlier at Hog Island, Pennsylvania, she now carried 130 lorries and 4,210 tons of mixed cargo in her holds with four bombers, in huge crates, lashed to her deck. Her eight officers and thirty seamen were backed up by the twenty-four DEMS gunners.

Astern of her came the Puerto Rican, with tanks, fighters, bombers and lorries, as well as 5,300 tons of mixed cargo loaded in her holds or secured on her decks; and she was followed by the Texas Company's Vermont, built a year after the end of the Great War at Alameda, California, and registered in Wilmington, Delaware. She had a similar cargo.

So the ships slowly — for this was an eight-knot convoy — left the safety of Loch Ewe behind them ... the Jefferson Myers, whose master was the Rear-commodore of the convoy, carried 376 lorries and thousands of tons of mixed cargo in her holds. Four bombers now in crates on her decks forward and aft were well snugged down; but were to cause a lot of trouble later when a powerful gale hit the convoy. Owned by the Pacific-Atlantic Steamship Company, she was registered in Portland, Oregon.

Following close in her wake was the Calobre, whose American master was the Vice-commodore and thus second-in-command to Captain Melhuish, the Commodore. He would have to take over should the Empire Archer be sunk or become detached from the convoy. Tenth in the line came the John H. B. Latrobe, which was going to be forced to heave-to in the fury of a gale in seven days' time; then came the Ballot, registered in Panama and now under charter to the United States Maritime Commission.

The last three ships in the line were also American. There was the Chester Valley, which in company with a trawler was to lose touch with the convoy in a big gale. At the same time she was to miss a great battle, as well as mislead the radar of two British cruisers seeking the enemy. Finally came the Yorkmar and the Ralph Waldo Emerson.

These fourteen ships formed the smallest convoy yet to leave for Russia; but few as they were, they carried a valuable help for Stalin's hard-pressed armies now fighting for their very existence — 2,040 lorries, 202 tanks, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 20,120 tons of oil fuel (many of the merchant ships carried some in their deep tanks), 12,650 tons of aviation spirit, and 54,321 tons of mixed cargo, ranging from copper to explosives, and zinc to shells. (The individual cargoes are given in Appendix 2.)

Once in the open water and steering north, the Commodore ordered Matthews to run up the pre-arranged flag signal RZ 2. When these signal flags were hauled down it was the executive order for the formation of a second column. Slowly each alternate ship, starting with the Daldorch immediately astern of the Commodore, hauled out to port and increased speed until it had moved up a place.

By now the escorting warships were getting into position: the minesweeper Bramble — her fate nine days later was to become a mystery until after the war — whose captain, Cdr H. T. Rust, D.S.O., was the Senior Officer of this escort force, three of the small Hunt class destroyers, Blankney, Chiddingfold, and Ledbury, three corvettes, Hyderabad, Rhododendron and Circe, and two trawlers, Northern Gem and Vizalma.

The three Hunts and the Circe would be leaving the convoy at Position C, the third geographical position detailed in their orders merely as a spot on the chart one hundred and fifty miles east of Iceland. Seven of the larger fleet destroyers, their fuel tanks freshly topped up at Seidisfiord (on the east coast of Iceland), would take over as escorts for the convoy's passage through the Greenland and Barents Seas, where the main threat of attack by the enemy was to be expected.

As soon as they were well clear of Cape Wrath and the Butt of Lewis, Captain Melhuish ordered the signal RV to be hoisted in the Empire Archer. When all ships had understood the signal it was hauled down. Slowly, almost hesitantly — since some of the American masters were new to convoy work — the last of the three ships in the port (left-hand) column hauled out to port and moved up, while the last four in the starboard column hauled out to starboard and moved up. Thus the fourteen ships of JW 51B were now steaming northwards in four columns, Calobre (Vicecommodore) leading the first, Daldorch the second, Empire Archer (Commodore) the third, and Jefferson Myers (Rearcommodore) the fourth.

These were standard convoy positions for the Commodores. It had proved a wise arrangement, since the more experienced captains were given these tasks and were naturally better at leading the columns. However, it presupposed the Germans never guessed this, but they did, and U-boats made a practice, if they had the chance, of sinking the leading ships and thus disposing of the Commodore and his deputies.

The merchantmen were now in the formation which it was intended they should keep all the way to North Russia, and Captain Melhuish set a course for Position A, sixty-five miles north from Loch Ewe. Night came down and with it the wind increased, the audible herald of the barometer's pointing finger. By midnight Captain Melhuish reckoned the convoy had passed through Position A, and the ships steamed on the same course for Position B, eighty miles ahead and midway between Shetland and the Faeroes.

To some merchant seamen, no less brave than other mortals, the Russian run was a death sentence with little or no chance of a reprieve. Even in a security-conscious Britain and America, some of the horrors and perils of war at sea beyond the Arctic Circle were common knowledge; and there was also plenty of rumour, gossip and fact surrounding the official secrets of many epics in these waters.

There were rumours that convoys were being decimated by heavy and bitter attacks by the Luftwaffe and U-boats; there was gossip that something terrible had happened to convoy PQ 17 the previous summer — that the Navy had left the merchantmen to their fate and only eleven out of thirty-three got through to Russia.

How long did you survive in the freezing sea if your ship sank — was it two minutes or five? And how many hours in a life-boat (even if you could launch it in time, and row it away)? One? Or was it three? The law was not very strict about life-boats: only one was supposed to have an engine — the rest relied on oars which were nearly always broken or lost, often through exhausted men collapsing over them. There was, the men said cynically, always the Pool (the organization which supplied seamen for the merchantmen) and it was a deep one, so the Ministry of Transport did not have to worry itself unduly. Lest anyone should think the warships were more fortunate, it should be remembered that their life-saving equipment was no better.

It did not need a very vivid imagination to realize that if your ship was sunk your chances of survival were extremely slender. Nor was it hard to guess that a good half of the convoy was likely to be sunk — perhaps more, with a small convoy like this. One out of two; five out of ten ... every alternate finger on both hands.

A fifty-fifty chance of death, in fact; either the sudden all-obliterating death from the explosion of mine, bomb, shell or torpedo (and that, if one had to choose, was the way one would prefer); or the somewhat slower death from exposure in bitterly cold waters of the Arctic — just above freezing point; or the struggling, choking strangulation that is drowning.

In each of the merchantmen the cold wind whined in the rigging, searching for gaps in protective clothing, making half-closed eyes water and blur. Slowly the seas began to build up in size on the beam as the protective lee of the Hebrides was left astern, making the ships roll, pitch and yaw convulsively, a nightmare to officers of the watch trying to keep station in their columns and to helmsmen trying to steer a reasonable course; and a misery to the men off watch trying to snatch some sleep.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from 73 North by Dudley Pope. Copyright © 1988 Dudley Pope. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Forewordix
Introductionxiii
Chapter 1Route Green1
Chapter 2The Sea Lord13
Chapter 3Zone of Destiny25
Chapter 4"In Defeat, Definance"34
Chapter 5The Problem45
Chapter 6Turkey Time50
Chapter 7"By Hand of Officer"63
Chapter 8Christmas Eve, 194276
Chapter 9"Anchor Aweigh"82
Chapter 10The Row Begins94
Chapter 11"So Much Old Iron"111
Chapter 12Use Caution125
Chapter 13Action Stations130
Chapter 14Hipper Attacks145
Chapter 15Onslow Is Hit163
Chapter 16The Last Signal180
Chapter 17Lutzow Joins In188
Chapter 18Shoot...Shoot...Shoot!201
Chapter 19The Lutzow Challenges222
Chapter 20Achates Fights for Life232
Chapter 21A Wife Waits246
Chapter 22Silent Night253
Chapter 23Sherbrooke, V.C.271
Chapter 24A Bloodless Victory284
Chapter 25Hitler's Harvest298
Appendix 1Awards for gallantry made after the Battle of the Barents Sea301
Appendix 2Ships and cargoes of Convoy JW 51B304
Appendix 3List of Allied convoys to Russia, 1st August 1942 to 11th January 1943305
Notes306
Index313

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