Battle in the Arctic sea
Prologue: In 1943 Russia was at war with Germany. To help Russia in her struggle, Britain was furnishing her with war material, transported by ships over the Arctic Ocean. My uncle served on a cruiser that accompanied one of those ship convoys. This is his story.
As so often happens with the greatest adventure in one’s life, it started by accident. At that time, in November 1943, I was working at the Admiralty in London. My job title was : wireless operator, but I had very little to do with transmitting messages – either by radio or morse. Most of the time I was in the War room, assigned to just pinning coloured pins on charts to show the movement of ship convoys over the Atlantic.
One day, my chief called me to his office.
“Dhookit, you’ve been commissioned on the H.M.S Duke of York,” he said. “Their wireless operator is down in bed with flu and you are to take his place.”
The idea of going out to sea did not displease me. But at the same time, I could not help feeling apprehensive. We were at war and most probably, the H.M.S Duke of York would be accompanying a convoy. In 1943, the tide of the war was beginning to turn in our favour, but German submarines or U-boots, as they were called, were still a real menace in the war at sea and very often, of the fifty or so ships that set out, less than a dozen reached their destination.
Still, I could not refuse and what more there lay my chance to work as a full-time wireless operator.
The next morning, as I climbed up the gangplank to step on the H.M.S Duke of York, beside that pier near Tower Bridge, the commander was the first person to greet me. I knew him well. He was Admiral Bruce Fraser and I had often passed by him as he was hurrying along the corridors of the Admiralty.
I was surprised. It was rare that a commander stood on the bridge waiting for his crew to arrive! But there he was in his navy blue suit, his white-topped cap on his head, and the gold braids on his arms gleaming softly under that timid autumn sun.
“Right on time,” he said, a quizzical smile on his face, as he gave me a crushing hand shake.
“I like people who are punctual,” he went on. “I’m sure we’ll get along very well.”
We quickly walked past a few sailors who were cleaning the deck with mops, descended a steep staircase and walked down a long corridor that smelled oddly of tobacco and fried bacon! (The sailor’s mess, as I found out later, was at the end of the corridor.) Near a cabin, another sailor, pistol at the hip, was standing straight as a sentry and he snapped to attention as the commander pushed open the door.
I found myself inside the commander’s cabin and I was immediately struck by its spartan’s aspect. There was a bunk against the wall, a closet, a desk on which there were several furled charts, and two chairs. Not a single picture or ornament decorated the white plastered walls. He gestured me to a chair.
“We’ll be sailing this very afternoon,” he said, as he fixed me with his greyish blue eyes. “You are the last member of the crew to step aboard and we’re on our way to Russia.”
“To Russia?” I just echoed stupidly, as I stared at him. (Little did I realise that the captain himself had just received this secret sailing order while I was on my way by train to Tower Bridge. But I was to learn this much later.)
“Yes, to Russia,” he said tersely. “We shall be accompanying a convoy and you will be our wireless operator.”
He took a pipe lying on the desk, opened a pouch and proceeded to fill it with some strong scented tobacco. His eyes did not leave me as he struck a match to light his pipe.
“In all your transmissions the convoy should be referred to as J W 55 A,” he said, puffing out a plume of blue white smoke. “In plain English this means the fifty fifth of the ‘Aid to Russia‘ convoys, making the trip eastward through the Arctic.”
Then he took a red file that was on his desk and started to flip through it.
“You learned morse at the H.M.S quarters in Mauritius?” he asked.
“So, you’ve got 5 O levels, you know French, you are keen on photography, you …”
He continued to go through my personal file and then asked me a few questions about Mauritius. After five minutes, he was through with me. He pressed a white button that was on his desk. A sailor came and took me to my cabin.
My first moments on that battleship should have been memorable but strangely enough, it’s all a bit of a blur. Was it because of the excitement? – I cannot tell. I remember vaguely walking, in a bit of a daze, the whole length of the ship looking absent-mindedly at the radar, the radio antenna, the funnel and the huge 14 inch guns. But what stands out stark and clear is that moment when we left the Thames and made for the open sea. It was early afternoon, we were all leaning against the rails, and to fool the spies, who might have been watching us from the shore, we had all changed into light outfits just to pretend that we were on our way to the Mediterranean!
But the next day when we were on the high seas, we slipped back once more into our thick jumpers. There were some occasional swells but the sea was surprisingly calm and we saw a lot of gulls, their white wings outstretched, cawing loudly over the waves. They were attracted, it seems, by the large shoals of herring, and each time, the birds flew over them, the silvery fish would swim round and round in ever widening circles, as if in panic.
As we sailed further north, the sea became rough. An icy rain kept whipping the racing waves and it became so cold that I had to put on my fur hat. Whenever I was off duty in the wireless room, I was always on the spray-soaked bridge, the wind howling in my ears, my rain-coat flapping madly about, and my camera dangling round my neck. And I clung to the rails for dear life as the ship kept rocking over the waves, my eyes never leaving the grey and lonely sea.
One late morning, while I was on my lonely vigil, Dawson, the second mate came towards me.
“What’s you doing alone on the bridge, sonny?” he asked. “Watching for subs?”
“Subs? Oh no,” I said. “I’m looking for whales.”
I pointed to my camera and added:
“I’ll take some snapshots, if I see one.”
“You won’t see any, sonny,” he said. “Not at this time of the year. They’ve all gone south.”
He pointed to something over the horizon.
“That’s all you’ll see, now” he said.
Far way I saw some white specks over the skyline. “What on earth, are these?” I wondered. And before I could ask Dawson, I heard the bugles sounding through the ship, summoning the crew for their midday meal. Dawson threw me a mischievous grin and went below deck.
When I climbed back on the bridge, in the afternoon, I saw a lot of icebergs drifting about, some of them as big as four-storeyed buildings. It was late autumn and there was scarcely any sun. But a little before sunset, some of its rays managed to force a way out of the thick dark clouds, and for a few unforgettable minutes the icebergs became all suffused with the colours of the rainbow. This was too good an occasion to miss. I opened my camera and threw out the black and white film and I hastily slipped inside the one and only one colour film that I had (colour films were very rare in those days) and I took snapshot after snapshot.
On the eighth day at sea, the commander addressed us on the quarter-deck.
“We are routeing far North and the further up we go, we’ll have to contend more and more with floating ice packs, and these can be as great a headache as the subs… though mind you, they don’t like icebergs either… If we manage to avoid these subs, we’ll have to watch out for dive-bombing attacks at low levels from Heinkels and high-precision bombing from Junkers. And let me tell you, they’ve had a lot of practice on J W 53 and 54 … But we won’t be intimidated!”
He stopped for a few seconds and fixed us with his greyish blue eyes, as if to let his words sink in.
“J W 55 A will soon join us and you must surely know what this convoy consists of…. Aid to Russia … the aid that Mr Churchill has promised to our ally and come what may, we always keep our promises.”
This fetched a cheer from the sailors.
“That’s the spirit, keep it. And one day I hope, you’ll be proud to say that I was there with that convoy… You think that I am the most important man on that ship, do you? Well, that’s only partly true! We are all important… we, all have a role to play. So keep your eyes and ears open, keep your brain alert and keep your heart ticking over every minute of your watches… and God bless.”
He roamed his eyes over us all, saluted stiffly and went below deck.
The next day, in the wireless room, I got an encrypted message in morse: our rendez-vous with convoy J W 55 A would take place at three in the afternoon. At noon, when I went on the bridge, I saw that we were in the midst of a thick fog and I wondered how on earth J W 55 A – coming from America, on the other side of the Atlantic, could ever hope to find us!
But at three, there they were, on the dot! I saw the ships emerging out of the fog, one by one, all in line, their decks dangerously low in the water, because they were crammed tight with ammunitions, guns and planes for the Russians. I gasped in wonder. How is it possible, I thought, that this secret meeting at sea could have been plotted with such accuracy? The more so, when it dawned on me that it must have been done thousands of miles away on shore, in a secret war room, days if not weeks ahead!
The next day we saw an enemy reconnaissance plane. Like a bird of ill-omen, it was flying round and round over the horizon – just out of reach of our guns. Immediately the sailors found a name for it: Snoopy Joe. We watched it for some time and a sailor, with an Aldis lamp, even flashed a message to it in international code which ran something like this: go home Jerry, this is a war you cannot win! But Snoopy Joe was soon joined by two other chums (Was it some sort of defiance, I wonder?) and their dull rumbles went on and on throughout the whole morning.
Just after midday, when the mists had lifted completely, I counted the ships: twenty-two in all, steaming quietly on their way to their destiny. Everything looked so calm. Was there really a war going on? I heard footsteps behind me. It was the quartermaster. He stood beside me and peered at the horizon.
“The bastards,” he said. “They’ve got one of us!”
Then, with his great ham fist, he hit hard on the rails.
I turned round to stare at him.
“Where?” I asked incredulously.
He pointed to the rear of the convoy. I strained my eyes and I saw a ship that had left the line and which was drifting far behind. It was floundering fast. Its stern was already below water and its bow was rising up at a steep angle.
“But I haven’t heard anything!” I said. “When did the planes bomb it?”
“It’s not been hit by planes,” he said roughly. “It’s been torpedoed by a U-boot.”
The war at sea had started!
It did not take me long to understand what had happened. The position of our convoy had been relayed to that U-boot by the reconnaissance planes. But what was our covering force doing? – I wondered. I knew that cruiser Jamaica and four other destroyers were keeping watch on us somewhere below the horizon. They were supposed to be following us, fanned out in a half-circle, and they were surely equipped with sonars. How could that sub have slipped through? Bloody German submarine, I thought. Was there a way, it could have foiled our sonar?.. It had even managed to evade our depth charges, sunk one of our ships and – before we could retaliate – disappeared once more in the meanders of the deep. A shudder ran through me. Who will be the next victim?
Late in the afternoon I got a message in morse from cruiser Belfast, escorting convoy J W 55 B further North. It was encrypted. I passed it on to Higgins, our decoder, and I watched him as he thumbed through the code book and wrote a cypher word in a square to do the decoding. Suddenly I saw his face tense.
After a minute or so, he scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to the Commander who had come in quietly behind us. The Commander’s face froze as he read the one-line message.
“Bad news,” he said, “the Scharnhorst has been sighted in the west, off the coast of Iceland.”
This was indeed “bad news”. The Scharnhorst, or “lucky Scharnhorst” as she was known in Germany, was the pride of the German Navy. It was a fast cruiser equipped with nine guns and was considered by the Germans to be unsinkable. In 1941, off the coast of Norway, it had sunk the Glorious, an aircraft-carrier, and two destroyers. Then it had run amok into the Atlantic, sending British after British ship to the bottom of the sea. In 1942 it had forced its way out of Brest (then under blockade by the British Navy ) to sail impudently into the English channel, under the very shadow of the big guns of Dover, and before the Home fleet could react, had turned North to attack Russian-bound convoys.
For a few seconds Commander Bruce Fraser seemed locked in his thoughts. Then he said, “The Scharhorst is more powerful than the Belfast. It is equipped with 11 inch guns compared to our 6 inch guns, and it is faster, too. Sooner or later it is bound to close in on the Belfast and open fire… It is an uneven match. The Belfast will be destroyed and the entire convoy will be sunk.”
He shook his head sadly.
“We can’t leave these poor beggars to their fate,” he said.
He took a quick decision. Right away, I was to send a message to the Admiralty in London, asking permission for the Duke of York to join forces with the Belfast further north. The Jamaica and the Stord would keep watch on our convoy.
A few minutes later, a message from the Admiralty dropped in:
“Continue to proceed eastwards. Cruisers Norfolk and Sheffield will join forces with the Belfast.”
The commander’s face lit up. He puffed on his pipe, a big smile on his face.
“The Scharnhorst is being lured into a trap,” he said. “Convoy J W 55 B is a bait, the Belfast is the anvil and the Norfolk and the Sheffield will be the hammer.”
He looked at me and Higgins.
“For once, the fog has been of help, gentlemen,” he said. “It has provided such perfect cover for the Norfolk and Sheffield that the German planes haven’t been able to spot them.”
He continued to puff on his pipe.
“I wonder where these two ships are,” he said. “Somewhere off North of Norway, I presume. Hope they join forces with the Belfast quickly. The Scharnhorst is a fast ship.”
The next day was hectic. Messages kept dropping in from the Admiralty and there was that memorable message (intended for our cruisers further North) from the First Sea Lord: “Scharnhorst must not escape. Track her and sink her by gunfire.”
The commander was just behind me, puffing as usual on his pipe. I heard him curse softly: “Damn it! To track a ship, we must see her first!”
At midday the Belfast reported that Scharnhorst has been spotted on radar and that the cruisers Norfolk and Sheffield were closing in fast. It became deathly quiet in the wireless room. The sea battle could start at any time now.
Shortly after 12.30 the Belfast radioed that the Scharnhorst had been sighted off the horizon. The moment was tense but I was glad the message had not been sent in morse. I was pretty fed up hearing just these monotonous “dee dah dee dee dah…” and hearing a human voice over the air sort of cheered me. More, I was overjoyed! It was a voice, I knew well: Terry Cooper’s!
Unforgettable Terry! It was he who had taught me morse at H.M.S headquarters in Vacoas. Once he had even caused a minor scandal by inviting me to the Gymkhana (then an exclusive British club) for a glass of beer and had infuriated all those Britishers present by speaking to me in Kreol! He had been in Mauritius for barely more than one year but he had picked up the language fairly quickly.
I was overjoyed, for a friendlier man you could rarely meet.
I started to babble joyfully over the air, telling him what a happy coincidence he was the wireless officer on the Belfast and how happy I was to hear his voice again after all those years… until I heard a sharp cough behind me. It was the commander.
“Careful, Dhookit,” he said. “Don’t tell more than you should. The enemy might be listening. Security!”
Our casual conversation was soon cut short anyway when Terry reported that the HMS Norfolk had opened fire on the Scharnhorst and had apparently scored a direct hit on the German warship. The wireless room by then had become jam-packed with sailors and a loud ‘Hurray!’ broke out. But a minute later there was a stunned silence. The Norfolk had been hit by a shell from the Scharnhorst and was now zigzagging erratically. Fortunately more encouraging news was to come: the Scharnhorst under heavy attack from the three British warships had been forced to divide its fire and while aiming its guns at the Norfolk had opened its flank to the Sheffield. That was the moment the Sheffield was looking for and our warship had immediately rammed a torpedo into the Scharnhorst.
We were in the thick of a naval battle but Terry’s voice was surprisingly calm. You would have thought he was reporting on a charity fair! Ah, those phlegmatic English! And half an hour later, he reported in a matter of fact voice that the Scharnhorst had turned tail and was apparently heading for a base on the Norwegian coast.
Almost immediately after, the messages in encrypted morse started coming in. Terry had stopped using the radio because he was now transmitting secret information. Apparently, the Belfast had suffered minor damage and we had lost one cruiser.
I heard the commander sigh.
“That’s it, gentlemen,” he said. “In any battle, there’s bound to be casualties, that’s unavoidable. But we have succeeded in our mission. There’s no stopping convoy J W 55 B now and it’s bound to arrive safely to Russia with all its precious cargo of guns, planes and ammunitions.”
He took a puff on his pipe and added, “And let’s hope we get the Scharnhorst!”
The Belfast had a reconnaissance plane and sooner or later Terry would not fail to inform us the course that Scharnhorst had taken. And then our strike force (Force Two) would go towards it to engage battle. But it was bound to be a fierce encounter. For even though the Scharnhorst might have been out-manoeuvred by Force One, the German battleship, with its 11 inch guns, was still a formidable foe.
The Scharnhorst had another advantage: its speed. With its flared “clipper bow” it could attain the extraordinary top speed of 33 knots while the Duke of York could expect to attain at most 28 knots. But if we knew exactly in what direction she was heading, we might hatch a stratagem – like, fan out our warships in such a way as to cut her path and hence bring her under our fire.
But then came that most extraordinary message from the Admiralty. No more message in morse! The Germans might have cracked part of our code. The commander kept staring at the message in disbelief. He stopped puffing at his pipe and through the porthole he stared at the horizon, as if deep in thought. After a while, he took some tobacco from his pouch and proceeded to fill his pipe.
“There might be some sense in what they are saying,” he said. “We have been using some coded signals so often that the Germans might have figured out what they are.”
He fixed me with his greyish blue eyes.
“How many times have we been transmitting words like North, South, East and West?” he asked.
“All the time, sir,” I said.
“There you are! The Germans are not stupid, you know.”
But what were we to do now? Without guidance from Force One, we were blind: there was no way of knowing where the Scharnhorst was heading. We had only our intuition to rely upon, and our radar. But to spot the Scharnhorst on the radar it had to be within a 100 miles radius.
The commander unrolled a large map of the Arctic sea on a table and studied it for several minutes. Then with his forefinger he started tapping at a point on the chart. It was where the Scharnhorst had been hit by the Sheffield.
From that point he then traced several lines on the map with his finger. He shook his head helplessly.
“All these routes are possible,” he said. “How are we to know which one?”
At this very moment I had a flash of insight for I had suddenly remembered that Terry could speak Kreol.
“Commander, I could ask by radio in which direction the Scharnhorst is going,” I said. “I could …
I did not have time to continue. He cut me short with a gesture of his hand, his eyes flaring up in anger.
“Dhookit, you surprise me,” he shouted. “Fancy hearing that from you. I can’t believe my ears.”
“Allow me to continue, sir,” I said quickly. “I will communicate to Terry in kreol, I mean Terry Cooper, the wireless operator of H.M.S Belfast. He has stayed in Mauritius for many years and he knows the language quite well.”
The commander continued to look hard at me.
“Kreol, the language you speak in Mauritius?” he asked. “From what I’ve heard it’s a kind of broken French. Don’t you think the Germans know French?”
“I am sure they do, sir,” I said. “But I must tell you that Kreol is not broken French. It’s a language in its own right!”
I had expressed that last sentence with force, raising my voice in the process. For a brief instant, I had got so carried away that I had forgotten I was talking to a commander of His Majesty’s navy.
There was a wry smile on the commander’s face. He calmly took a puff on his pipe.
“So you are saying that if you communicate in that language, the Germans won’t understand.”
“Not at all sir!”
“Very well, then. You may communicate with the Belfast and ask them which way the Scharnhorst is heading. But I need not impress upon you that if the Germans grasp the essence of your message, they will change course.”
My mind worked fast. Somehow I must find a way to make my Kreol unintelligible to any German eavesdropper. My Kreol should have a minimum of French sounding words.
Full of apprehension, I took the mouth piece of the radio transmitter.
“Terry, mo pu koz ar twa an Kreol, korek? Nu anvi kone kot zot finn ale. To kone ki ‘zot’ ve dir? Truv enn manyer pu dir sa san ki zot gayn enn lizur. Pa servi oken pwin kardinal. 1Over.”
Terry did not respond. There was just a lot of cackle over the wireless. Terry must have forgotten his kreol, I thought. The commander was staring at me, a quizzical look on his face, and I began to feel foolish. A few seconds elapsed, and still more cackle. Had I spoken too fast? Perhaps I should speak more slowly. I moved the mouthpiece closer to my lips.
Just then, Terry’s voice came through.
“Korek monwar, mo finn byen konpran twa… Seki mo kapav dir, zot finn al anba. 1Over.”
Unbelievable Terry! How could it have crossed my mind that he had forgotten kreol? And he spoke with a flawless accent, too! “But what was ‘anba‘?” I thought. “Did he mean ’south’? How was I to make sure?”
Suddenly I remembered that he had a smattering of Bhojpouri (an Indian dialect). For my part, I could not speak Bhojpouri but I could count up to ten in that language.”
“Mo kwar ki mo finn konpran ki to pe oule dir par ‘anba’. To kapav dir mwa sa avek plis presizyon an Bhojpuri? Dir li an sif selma. An sif, tonn gayn mwa? 2Over.”
“Monn gayn twa, monn gayn twa. Uver byen zorey: ek, sat, panch. 3Over.”
“Korek, monn gayn twa. 4Over.”
I swung round on my chair and looked at the commander.
“South,” I blurted out. “They are heading south, sir. One hundred and seventy five degrees, to be more precise sir.”
And that’s how we came to track the Scharnhorst, pride of the German Navy and terror of the seas. We spotted her on our radar some five hours later. She was not going at her full speed and that could only mean that the torpedo from the Sheffield must have done substantial damage.
At eight miles we opened fire. I still remember how our big guns roared as the shells shot through the air, how the empty shells casings fell on deck spreading an acrid smell of cordite, and how chunks of ice slithered off from the superheated guns, and fell into the sea. A few seconds later there was an orange glow in the distance – an eerie glow that pierced the darkness of the Arctic night – and this was followed by the sound of a dull explosion. We had hit the Scharnhorst! She tried to limp off towards the Norwegian coast but her fate was already sealed. She was rapidly caught by our other destroyers (the H.M.S Savage, the H.M.S Scorpion and the H.M.S Saumarez) and brought at bay.
I was on the bridge when we hammered into her the 14 inch shell that turned her into a burning wreck. I shall never forget those red and yellow flares leaping angrily towards the sky nor those shattering explosions that ripped open her bowels, flinging masses of burning metal into the frozen sea.
The next day she had already sunk and in the Arctic twilight we managed to pick some survivors going adrift in a lifeboat. They were shivering with cold, they looked stunned and for several hours they could barely speak. But in their eyes we could all read the tragic drama they had gone through.
Epilogue: My uncle has showed me once a photograph of the sinking Scharnhorst. Although it is in black and white, the picture of that ship blowing apart is stunningly vivid and conveys all too clearly the horrors of war. But what has moved me most is not this dramatic scene. It is the key role played by our two native languages (crude dialects according to some!) in one of the greatest naval battles of World War II. But take it as you will, crude dialects or not, they might well have had their say in changing the course of history. For, in January 1944, Leningrad (besieged by the Germans for 900 days) was liberated – and who can say that the sinking of the Scharnhorst had nothing to do with it?
Jean Lindsay Dhookit
1 Terry, I’ll speak to you in Kreol, Ok? We want to know where they’ve gone. Don’t utter any cardinal points in your message.”
1 Ok, I’ve got your message. All I can say is that they’ve gone down under.”
2 I guess, I understand what you mean by ‘down under’. Can you say it in Bhojpuri, please? Use numbers only.”
3 Got it! Listen carefully: one, seven, five.
4 Thanks! I’ve got you!
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