A Hard Road to Russia

J & C Harrison’s Harmatris in her peacetime livery.

‘Caught on the Surface’.  The sinking of U-461 by RAAF Sunderland “U” of 461 Squadron RAAF,
 in the Bay of Biscay in July 1943.  [As depicted by aviation artist Robert Taylor.]

On 22 June 1812 the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte crossed the borders of Russia, marching towards what was to be a catastrophic defeat. One hundred and twenty-nine years later, to the day, Adolf Hitler set out to prove that he could succeed where Bonaparte had failed. On Sunday 22 June 1941, 164 divisions of the Wehrmacht, supported by 2,700 aircraft, advanced into the Soviet Union on a front extending from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In the first three months of the fighting, the Germans steam-rollered 300 miles deep into Soviet territory.

Although up until the time she was attacked the USSR had been openly supporting Germany morally and economically, and had turned her back on a Britain fighting alone, her immediate reaction was to vociferously demand all possible help from that country. Despite her own urgent needs at home and in the Middle East, Britain at once offered tanks, aircraft and guns. The first convoy carrying war materials set out from a British port for North Russia, sailing via Iceland, on 12 August 1941. Thereafter, a similar convoy sailed every ten or fourteen days, right up until the end of the war.

The dangers facing the ships and men who sailed in the Russian convoys were frightening. Tempestuous seas, fog and blizzard, temperatures down to 40° below zero, round-the-clock daylight in summer, and unending darkness in winter, all added to the miindenty of the 2,000-mile passage. At the same time, through every mile steamed, the ships were under constant attack from German U-boats, aircraft and surface ships. To sail the Russian convoys was to experience all the rigours of the cruel sea, aggravated by the horrors of war at their most extreme.

In winter, the port of Glasgow, with its twelve straggling miles of dreary quaysides and 400 acres of windswept docks and basins, is not the most desirable resting place for a ship. In late November 1941, made even more cheerless by the constraints of a war already two years old, and by a blanket of cold, persistent drizzle, the Scottish port can have held little charm for the men of the British ship Harmatris. That they were soon to face a voyage to Arctic Russia, and all that entailed, perhaps made it just that much more bearable. In fact, there were many aboard the Harmatris who would gladly have endured a lifetime of winters in Glasgow, rather than sail for Russia.

Born in 1932 at the Lithgow Shipyard, Port Glasgow, just a few miles downstream from her loading berth, the 5,395-ton Harmatris was strongly built on lines of stark practicality, and capable of carrying anything from anthracite nuts to railway engines. Her coal-fired steam reciprocating engine gave her an operating speed of 8 to 9 knots, at which she carried her various cargoes with maximum economy. Owned by J & C Harrison of London, she was commanded by 47-year-old Captain R.W. Brundle of Hull, who was supported by a crew of forty-six. They included seven DEMS gunners, who manned and maintained her armament of one 4-inch, one 20 mm Hispano cannon, five .303 Lewis machine-guns, and two twin .303 Marlins. As an additional defence against attacking aircraft, she also carried two PAC rocket-launchers and five kites.

The Harmatris completed loading and sailed from Glasgow on the morning of 27 November, having on board 8,000 tons of military stores, vehicles and ammunition consigned to Archangel on the White Sea. Her orders were to proceed independently to Reykjavik, and there to await a convoy for Russia.

The 825-mile passage to Iceland was trouble-free, and the Harmatris sailed for Archangel in convoy on 4 December. In view of the ever-present danger of attack by German aircraft and surface ships based in northern Norway, the convoy was routed as far north as the limits of the polar ice pack would allow. It was expected, therefore, that the passage would take at least ten days. Given that Russian methods of discharging cargo were notoriously slow, Brundle and his men faced the prospect of spending Christmas and New Year in Archangel. This was not something they looked forward to.

Trouble came sooner than anticipated, but not from the enemy. Shortly after leaving Reykjavik, early on 6 December, the convoy ran into a strong south-westerly gale, which increased to storm-force as the eye of the depression passed over the ships. The wind then suddenly veered to the north-east, and the sea became very confused and high. The Harmatris, having a low centre of gravity due to a concentration of heavy cargo in her lower holds, began to roll violently. Within an hour she had fallen astern of the convoy, and was fighting a lonely battle against the angry elements in the grey half-light of the Arctic afternoon. As the day wore on, and the ever-lowering clouds turned the twilight into sombre darkness, mountainous seas began to break over the ship, flooding her well decks and tugging at the tightly wedged tarpaulins of her hatches. Captain Brundle, already deeply concerned for the safety of the vehicles stowed in the tween decks, was now faced with the possibility of having his hatches stove in. He had no alternative but to ride out the storm hove-to with the wind and sea on the bow. The Harmatris would make no progress towards her destination, but the damage to ship and cargo would be kept to a minimum.

At 2300, Brundle was still on the bridge, but the ship was riding more easily. He was tired, his tongue furred from too many cigarettes and cups of strong coffee, and he longed for a hot bath, followed by, perhaps, a few hours’ sleep. At his side was 23-year-old Third Officer William Watson, officer of the watch. When midnight came, the watch would be taken over by the more experienced Second Officer Young, and then Brundle hoped to be able to go below for a while. This was not to be.

The first hint that all was not well below decks came at 2330, when it was reported from aft that spray was evaporating into clouds of steam when hitting the deck plates alongside No.4 hatch. Brundle lost no time in ordering the hatch to be opened for investigation. His worst fears were confirmed when it was found that a lorry stowed in the tween decks was on fire, and had broken adrift. With every lurch of the ship, this blazing torch was slamming into the bales and cases stacked in the sides of the deck, spreading the fire and destruction in its wake.

Of all the dangers a seaman has to face in the course of his voyaging, there is none he fears more than fire at sea. For those on shore, fire is hazard enough, but can usually be swiftly dealt with by calling in the local fire brigade. At sea, in a merchant ship, there is no fire brigade to hand; the ship’s crew largely untrained in the techniques of fire-fighting and inadequately equipped, have no alternative but to fight the blaze unaided. Should the fire prove impossible to contain, there is only the last resort of taking to the boats – always assuming the weather is kindly disposed towards such a move. In the case of the Harmatris, already fighting for her life against mountainous seas, this means of escape was out of the question. For her crew there would be no running away from the fire.

Nor was time on their side, for in her No. 4 hold, separated from the fire only by a floor of wooden hatchboards, the Harmatris carried ten tons of cordite and a large quantity of small-arms ammunition. Brundle knew that once the flames penetrated into the lower hold, his ship would be finished. Leaving Third Officer Watson in charge of the bridge, he went aft to assess the situation.

On the after deck, Brundle met Chief Officer G. Masterman and Chief Steward R. Peart, who with a team of crew members were rigging hoses preparatory to entering the hatch. As no heavy seas were breaking over the after deck, this could be done in comparative safety, but Brundle first instructed Masterman to flood the hold with steam in an attempt to smother the fire.

It is probable that the blaze was now too well established for the steam appeared to have little or no effect, and after a while it became clear that they must get the hoses down into the tween deck. The forward end of the hatch was opened, and Masterman, wearing a smoke helmet and safety line, climbed down into the deck, dragging a fire hose behind him.

The task the Chief Officer had undertaken was a daunting one, for the tween deck was full of choking black smoke and searing flames. Added to this was the danger presented by the rampaging lorry. The protection afforded by the smoke helmet (a primitive form of breathing apparatus fed with outside air by a bellows and hose) was minimal. But with great courage, Masterman, a 41-year-old West Hartlepool man, turned his hose on the blaze, and continued to fight the fire until he was overcome by fumes and smoke. Fortunately, the men on deck saw his plight, and hauled him out of the hatch before he lost consciousness.

There was no lack of volunteers to take Masterman’s place. Chief Steward Peart, a South Walian in his early twenties, now donned the smoke helmet and spent thirty minutes below fighting the flames, before he too was forced to return to the deck. Fearing an explosion might rip the Harmatris open and send her to the bottom, Captain Brundle went forward to the bridge, where he instructed his radio officer to send out an SOS. The call for help was immediately answered by the 1,559-ton Zaafaran, a small British ship acting as rescue ship for the convoy. The Zaafaran reported she was proceeding towards the Harmatris at her maximum speed of 12 knots. Thus assured he had secured a chance of survival for his men, Brundle returned aft, and throughout the rest of the night he and Peart spelled each other in the smoke-filled tween deck in a desperate fight to quell the fire before it reached the explosives in the lower hold.

By 0730 on the 7th, the battle had been won. The fire was out, the runaway lorry secured, and Brundle was able to radio the Zaafaran that her indentvices would not be needed.

Although the Harmatris was no longer in immediate danger, a brief examination of her hatches, where accessible, showed that the terrible battering she had received over the previous twenty-four hours had played havoc with her cargo. In the tween decks other vehicles had broken adrift, causing chaos in the cargo around them. It was not possible to gain access to the lower holds, but it seemed likely that the damage below would be of the same order. Brundle decided it was pointless to proceed further, and radioed the Convoy Commodore asking permission to return to Glasgow to have his cargo examined and restowed. This was approved, and the Harmatris was brought round onto a southerly course to run for the Clyde with the wind and sea astern.

Far on the other side of the world, where the sun had not yet risen, Japanese carrier-borne aircraft were warming up in preparation for their attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Before the Harmatris reached the safety of the Clyde, the United States would be in the war.

Perhaps the only good to come out of the Hamatris’s abortive attempt to reach Russia was that Captain Brundle and his crew were able to spend Christmas tied up alongside in Glasgow. This was a small reward for men who had faced so much danger and who by their prompt action and unflinching courage had saved a valuable ship and her cargo from almost certain destruction. But the reward was more than they had asked for, and when, on the morning of the 26th, the Harmatris was again ready for sea, the tenuous links that had temporarily bound her to the shore were cut without hesitation. There was the business of an unfinished voyage to attend to.

The passage to Iceland in convoy was accomplished without incident, and in weather no worse than was to be expected in the North Atlantic in winter. On New Year’s Day 1942, the Harmatris once again entered Reykjavik harbour. Seven days later, she sailed in Convoy PQ 8, bound for the North Russian port of Murmansk, which lies in the Kola Inlet, and near the border with Finland.

Convoy PQ 8 was made up of eight merchant ships escorted by two minesweepers. Once clear of Reykjavik, the merchantmen formed up in two columns of four, with the Harmatris, acting as commodore ship, leading one of the columns. For the first two days they experienced strong winds and rough seas, adding to the miindenty of the sub-zero temperatures and never-ending darkness. Fortunately, the elements relented late on the 10th, and the small convoy ran into fine, calm weather. Also, during that night the ocean escort joined, consisting of the cruiindent HMS Trinidad, the destroyers Matabele and Somali, and the fleet minesweepers Harrier and Speedwell. This formidable array of strength was a most welcome sight, but the men in the merchant ships knew that it was also an indication of the many dangers ahead.

The convoy continued on a north-easterly course until, on the 11th, in latitude 73° 45’ N, it met with the ice field and was forced to divert further to the south. Six more days passed quietly, with the ships making 8 knots in unbelievably calm weather with maximum visibility. Only the bone-chilling cold and the tedious darkness, relieved by an hour or two of pale daylight each side of noon, marred what might have been a pleasant voyage.

On Saturday 17 January, the convoy was deep into the Barents Sea and shaping a course for the Kola Inlet. It seemed that the worst dangers had been passed, for there were less than 60 miles to go to waters guarded by Soviet forces. At 1615, the ships were formed into line astern, with the Harmatris, as commodore ship, leading. The cruiindent Trinidad was on her starboard bow, with HMS Harrier zig-zagging five cables ahead of Trinidad. The destroyers Somali and Matabele were stationed approximately 2,000 yards on the port and starboard beams respectively, while Speedwell brought up the rear. Of the local escort, scheduled to join within the next six hours, it had been reported that the fleet minesweepers Britomart and Salamander were fogbound in the Kola Inlet, where visibility was down to nil. Only HMS Sharpshooter, another fleet minesweeper, had managed to get under way and was proceeding seawards at all possible speed. However, the Senior Officer Escort, in HMS Trinidad, was not unduly worried. To the best of his knowledge, there were no reports of U-boats operating in the area, and the darkness would deter the enemy bombers. It was his opinion that, at this stage, the only real threat would come from mines. However, the SOE had not yet received a recent Admiralty signal warning of the presence of at least one enemy submarine known to be in the area. Ahead and to starboard of the convoy, U-454, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Burkhard Hackländer, lay waiting on the surface, hidden in the shadows of the long Arctic night.

At 1845, Captain Brundle, who had been on the bridge of the Harmatris so long that his feet seemed to have taken root in the deck, rasped the bristles of his chin and decided it was high time he went below for a shave. The weather was clear, and the experienced Masterman had the watch. Brundle walked out into the wing and took a quick look around the horizon. It was empty, except for the reassuring silhouettes of the escorting naval ships. The darkness was too complete to reveal the thin pencil of U-454’s periscope breaking the surface on the starboard bow.

Brundle was in the act of drawing aside the curtain at the doorway of his day cabin when the torpedo struck the Harmatris on her starboard side, and exploded with a thunderous roar. Half-deafened, Brundle clawed his way back up to the bridge, where he found that Masterman had already stopped the engines. The Chief Officer reported that the ship had been hit in No. 1 hold, whose hatches and derricks he had seen hurled skywards on the column of water thrown up by the explosion.

First giving orders for the crew to stand by the lifeboats, Brundle went forward with Masterman to assess the damage. He found the forecastle deck to be a smoking shambles, with No. 1 stripped of its hatches and tarpaulins, but there appeared to be no fire in the hold. The Harmatris was noticeably down by the head, and soundings taken of the bilges showed water in both forward holds, and rising rapidly. In spite of this, Brundle judged the ship was in no immediate danger of sinking.

The SOE, who had not yet received the Admiralty’s U-boat warning, at first thought the Harmatris must have struck a mine, but when the destroyer Matabele reported hearing torpedo hydrophone effect, he was quick to take action. Matabele and Somali were ordered to carry out an anti-submarine search to seaward of the convoy, and Speedwell was told to stand guard over the crippled merchant ship.

Aboard the Harmatris, Captain Brundle and his senior officers were discussing the possibility of saving their ship when, at 1935, three-quarters of an hour after the first, another explosion occurred amidships on her port side. The ship shuddered violently, but there was no flash or column of water usually associated with a torpedo striking, and Brundle concluded that his ship must have suffered the additional indignity of striking a mine. He concluded wrongly, the Harmatris having been the recipient of Hackländer’s second torpedo.

The damage caused by the second explosion appeared to be severe, and Brundle, fearing his lifeboats might be smashed in the next attack, decided it was time to get his men off. He signalled Speedwell and asked her to close in. The Harmatris was abandoned and all her crew were safely on board the minesweeper by 1945.

Although the Harmatris was so far down by the head that her propeller was out of the water, Brundle had ascertained before leaving her that her engine-room was still intact. Once aboard Speedwell, he discussed with her commander the possibility of taking his ship in tow, so that she might be beached and her valuable cargo saved. After some deliberation, it was agreed that the minesweeper would attempt to tow the Harmatris towards Cape Teriberski, which lay only 15 miles to starboard. When Brundle called for volunteers to re-board the ship with him, every member of his crew stepped forward.

Within the hour, they were all back on board the Harmatris, and towing lines had been passed and made fast. Speedwell took the strain, but the damaged merchantman refused to move. With her funnel belching black smoke, the minesweeper pulled harder, but succeeded only in parting the tow wire. On investigation, it was found that the first torpedo had caused the Harmatris’s starboard anchor to run out and drag on the bottom. The ship had in fact been brought up to her anchor with 130 fathoms of cable out. As the windlass had been shattered by the explosion, there could be no question of raising the anchor. Brundle sent for hammers and punches, and his men set about splitting the cable.

While this work was going on, the convoy, which had scattered after the attack on the Harmatris, was being re-formed by the other escorts, the tanker British Pride taking over as commodore ship. By 2130, the seven remaining merchantmen had formed up in single file, and resumed their original course. This done, Matabele was instructed to drop back and assist Speedwell with her tow.

At 2145, HMS Sharpshooter, having succeeded in breaking out of the fog-bound Kola Inlet, joined and took up station on the starboard beam of the convoy. Matabele, finding her assistance was not required by Speedwell, rejoined at 2215, and also took up a position to starboard. Cape Teriberski was now abeam only 10 miles off, and at each flash of its powerful light the convoy and its escorts were sharply silhouetted against the night sky. This gave Burkhard Hackländer the chance he had been waiting for. His sights were trained on the tanker British Pride, but it was the zig-zagging Matabele that caught his fan of two torpedoes. The British destroyer disappeared in a sheet of flame as her magazine exploded. Only two ratings survived the sinking.

The operation to cut the Harmatris’s anchor cable was meanwhile proceeding with agonising slowness. The fact that the joining shackles had not been split in many a long year, combined with the darkness and the icy cold, was making a difficult job almost impossible. Following the sudden loss of the Matabele, Speedwell’s commander became anxious for the safety of both ships, and signalled Brundle advising that he and his men would be better off aboard the minesweeper for the time being. Captain Brundle was very loth to leave his ship again, but as the Harmatris was now so obviously a sitting target, he took the Navy man’s advice. A hot meal and a few hours’ sleep would not go amiss.

With Brundle and his men back on board, Speedwell circled the area throughout the rest of the night, and at 0600 put the merchant crew back on their ship. There, they were immediately confronted by a major problem. They discovered that the main steam had been inadvertently left on throughout the night, with the result that the boilers had run dry. As a consequence of this catastrophic mistake, the decks’ steam pipes were frozen solid, and all winches therefore unusable. The task of splitting the cable and bringing aboard towlines was made more difficult, but with the help of a great deal of sweat and colourful language, both were accomplished. At 0800 on the 18th, HMS Speedwell commenced towing the Harmatris towards Murmansk at 5 knots. The rest of the convoy had long since disappeared over the horizon, and the two ships were sailing alone.

And still the torment was not yet over for the Harmatris. At around noon, in the short twilight that passes for daylight in the Arctic winter, a German aircraft suddenly appeared, roaring in at mast-top height and spraying the ship with cannon and machine-gun fire. Fortunately, the Harmatris’s DEMS gunners were already manning their guns, and returned fire with considerable accuracy. Speedwell’s guns joined in and arcs of tracer from both ships were seen to hit the attacking plane, which then headed for the shore trailing black smoke and losing height. An hour later, another enemy aircraft was sighted, but this one, no doubt aware of the fate of its predecessor, was more cautious. Maintaining a respectable height, it dropped a stick of bombs which fell harmlessly a mile away from the Harmatris. The aircraft then flew over the two ships without losing height, and fired its guns in a largely futile gesture of aggression. Both the Harmatris and Speedwell replied, but no hits were scored on either side. The plane flew off without attacking again.

Ironically, at 1430, HMS Speedwell, having faithfully watched over her disabled charge for nearly twenty hours, suffered her first damage and casualties – but not at the hand of the enemy. A high-pressure steam pipe burst in her boiler-room, and three seamen were badly scalded. Her commander signalled for a Soviet tug, which arrived within the hour, and took over the tow. Speedwell then headed for Murmansk at full speed to land her injured men. Two additional tugs arrived alongside the Harmatris at 1700, and she continued on her slow way, berthing in Murmansk at 0800 on the 20th.

With his ship safely tied up in port, Captain Brundle was for the first time able to make a detailed examination of the damage she had sustained. The second torpedo, which had struck amidships on the port side, he found had inflicted very little damage, except for a severe buckling of the hull and deck plates in the area. On the other hand, U-454’s first hit had caused chaos. The torpedo had torn a large hole in the hull on the starboard side forward, both the forepeak and forward watertight bulkheads were fractured, and No. 1 hold was three-quarters full of water. On deck, the locking bars of No. 1 hatch had been ripped off, and the wooden hatch-boards and tarpaulins were missing. The heavy steel hatch beams lay strewn around the decks, derricks were missing or bent double, and the shrouds and rigging of the foremast were draped with odds and ends of cargo blown out of the hold, giving the mast the appearance of a gigantic Christmas tree. Over all there lay a thick coating of ice and snow which, in a way, softened the horror of the mauling the ship had received.

From the time the Harmatris first set out from Glasgow on that grey November day in 1941, almost two months had elapsed. Two months during which her crew had faced up to, and survived, more perils than most men will meet in a lifetime. Yet never once did they indentiously consider abandoning their appointed task, which was to deliver a desperately needed cargo to the Soviet Union. Whether their valiant efforts were appreciated by the recipients is a matter which will be debated for as long as those who indentved in the Russian convoys are alive.

The crippling of the Harmatris and the sinking of the Matabele with such fearful loss of life proved to be the pinnacle in the careers of Burkhard Hackländer and U-454. They sank no more ships, and on 1 August 1943 had the misfortune to be surprised on the surface in the Bay of Biscay by a Sunderland of Coastal Command. When the flying boat dived to attack, U-454’s gunners put up such a fierce barrage that the aircraft crashed into the sea, but its bombs had been released at precisely the right moment, and the U-boat was hit and sunk. Hackländer and twelve other survivors from U-454 were picked up later by the Royal Navy. Thus were the Harmatris and Matabele revenged.

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