Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942


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She certainly seemed in a bad way, from what I could see of her as both ships were being lifted on the top of the heavy broken swell.

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She looked well down by the stern, and had a great list over to port. Within minutes of our arrival, I saw her going further and further over, until she lay completely on her port side. I could see the figures of men, some with red lights on their life jackets and some even smoking, clambering through the rails and on to her starboard side which had now become her deck. As she went further over until she was floating completely bottom up, the men slid down her side and into the water, her keel now pointing to the heavens. Then as the men in the water started swimming towards the Gem, we stood on our deck and listened in amazement as we heard their voices giving out with a rendering of 'Roll out the barrel'.

Here they were in dire peril, not only from drowning, but freezing to death if we could not get them out of the water within a few minutes, singing at the tops of their voices. Those who had survived the action and the struggle to keep their ship the Achates afloat, were now fighting for their own lives, to save themselves in those cold and freezing waters of the stormy Arctic Ocean. Their agony was our agony, and the few minutes, until the gallant Achates slid beneath the surface of the disturbed seas, taking with her the dead and the badly wounded who could not be moved for ever, seemed more like hours, until we had got safely onboard all that was possible of those who were still alive.

Along with several others of our crew I took a spell for a few minutes over the side on the rescue nets.

We entwined our legs in the nets to leave our arms and hands free, making sure that we should not be pulled away by the suction of the seas rolling under the ship's hull, or by the weight of the men in the water, as we grabbed them and hauled them up high enough for others of our crew to pull them over the ship's rail and onto the deck, from where they were taken below as quickly as possible into the warmth of the seamen's messdeck.

It was freezing as we were rolled incessantly and completely under the water, and we could only stand it for three or four minutes at a time; we were relieved by others of the crew who took our places on the nets, while we stamped up and down the deck to bring some life back into our limbs.

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Then we picked up a heaving line or anything like that to throw to those in the water. I myself at this time took a line to the port quarter of the Gem, and managed to catch one man and drag him back to the nets and safety. Running back to the same place, I saw a young lad drifting passed the stern with his arm outstretched to catch a line; as I threw it to him it dropped over his shoulders, but he seemed to have lost all the feeling in his body due to the cold.

I screamed at him to hold on, but he could do nothing to help save himself, so I tried to throw several loops of the line around his arm, but in those last few seconds, I distinctly heard him crying out for his mother. I know that I was crying myself with helplessness and frustration as I saw him go. Just at that precise moment, there was a terrific underwater explosion, and the Northern Gem was lifted bodily out of the water.

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The surface of the sea shivered for a few moments then burst into a boiling cauldron of confused froth. When it returned to its former state, there was no one left alive in the water, there were probably six or eight bodies floating past, still with their life-jackets, on which glowed the red lights, but there was no sign of any life; they had either been killed by the explosion, or had succumbed to the frightful cold of the water. Our CO then thought it wise to go onto full speed to catch up with the convoy as the German surface vessels as far as he knew were still lurking in the area, and the Gem wasn't built to fight a ship to ship battle of that sort.

Everyone was now clear of the deck for with going full ahead the ship was being swept with heavy seas, and it was not safe to linger about. I had run down to my cabin and changed quickly into some dry clothes, my others being frozen. When I had done so, I went down to the forward mess deck, dodging the seas on deck as I went.

I had to take stock of how many survivors we had managed to pull aboard. The total was eighty-one officers and ratings; some had been wounded in the action, twelve seriously enough to warrant the attention of a doctor, but unfortunately we did not carry one. One of the wounded was a young sub-lieutenant named Barrett; this young man never uttered a word all the time he was being stripped and made comfortable in a bunk.

There were no obvious or outward signs of wounds or injuries on his body, but he was in a very serious condition.


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I went round the mess with the old rumjar and gave every one a liberal 'dose' of the stuff to help get the blood moving again. Those survivors who were able helped themselves to towels, dried their bodies and rubbed their limbs briskly to bring back some life to them, then climbed into bunks, and were wrapped in warm blankets; I made certain that I missed no one with the rum jar.

As the circulation gradually came back to the limbs of many of these men, some were screaming with pain, a pain which must have been excruciating. Our lads were doing their best to alleviate this by massage, followed by covering them with warm blankets or clothing brought up from the store of survivors' clothes, after some time the sounds of the men in pain gradually died away as they lapsed into various depths of sleep.

The wounded were a problem, for as I mentioned we had no doctor onboard, but we had amongst our crew an ordinary seaman named Eric Mayer. He was forty years old, and had been a bank clerk before joining the service. His wife was a State Registered nurse. He also had a friend who was a doctor, and of course Eric Mayer had picked up a bit of medical knowledge from these connections, so he was put in charge of the wounded. He soon realised that many of them required more skilled attention than he could give them, and with the few medical stores that we had onboard at the time, he could do no more than clean and disinfect their wounds and bandage them up to the best of his ability.

As I was going the rounds taking names, I came across Lieutenant Peyton Jones, the first lieutenant of the Achates; it was he who had taken command of her when the captain was killed on the bridge during the action. He was sat in the forward mess-deck, very concerned about his crew, though he realised that we were doing our best. I apologised for the fact that he had been taken to the seamen's mess, and conducted him to the wardroom to join the other three surviving officers where he was greeted warmly by them and our own officers who were present.

They had all thought him to be lost with the ship, and the surprise and pleasure on their faces when I took him in was good to see after the happenings of the last few hours. Later, he and our skipper made plans to go alongside a destroyer at the first opportunity to get a doctor onboard to attend to the wounded. With the sub-lieutenant, in the forward mess-deck who was to die later, this made five officers and seventy-six CPOs, POs, and other naval ratings taken aboard out of the sea.

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Some forty or so others, including the captain, had been killed in the action by the shelling, and apparently another thirty very badly wounded men who could not be moved, had been taken to the skipper's day room on the Achates. These unfortunate men had, with two brave men who had volunteered to stay with them to the end, gone down with the ship, together with those who succumbed to the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean, and those last few who had been killed by the explosion which had occurred.

I think about one hundred men had been lost, but I don't think that we could have done any more than we had done at the time.

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We had worked as quickly as was humanly possible under the circumstances, and as far as we knew the enemy vessels were still in the vicinity, and could have found us at any time. When the explosion blasted the surface of the sea into, first of all, a flat shivering expanse of water, then into a boiling white foam, we all apparently had thought the same thing as the Northern Gem was lifted bodily out of the water - that we had been hit by either shells or a torpedo on the opposite side to where we were pulling the men onto the deck, our starboard side, yet no one panicked.

It must have been either the boilers of the Achates blowing up, or her depth charges, but whatever it was, the explosion had given us all a fright. Much of our crockery had been broken, and some of the cabin clocks had been blown off the bulkheads, but more than that it had killed off all the men who may still have been alive in the water, and had robbed us of the chance of saving them. While taking the names of the survivors, one of them told me that the sub-lieutenant had been on the bridge when the salvo of shells hit the Achates, one of which had exploded on the bridge, killing most of the men up there and in the wheel-house.

What a shambles it had been. The cries of the survivors were dying down now, and although they were still in a state of shock, they were beginning to find that the Gem's mess deck was a warm, dry, and friendly spot to be in, even though it was heaving up and down like a tormented and demented thing. Going up on to the deck was like going into another world, a world of total darkness, a shrieking and howling wind going through the rigging like a tortured and mad being, snow blizzards helped to make it look like another planet, and feel like Hell.

During all this there was a scare on the Gem's bridge, when in darkness another destroyer was seen going across our stern. At first it was thought to be an enemy vessel, but fortunately for us it turned out to be the Obedient, another of that gallant band of destroyers that had fought off the attack made by the German surface forces. We were still steaming at full speed, making every effort to catch up with the convoy, the Skipper only guessing at the course to steer to pick it up once again, for it could have altered direction to any point of the compass to keep away from the enemy.

Seeing the Obedient going across our stern, signals were passed with a shaded Aldis, and the Skipper learnt that he was on the right track; a short time later we caught up with the convoy. At one point we passed the Onslow fairly close and in the dim light of the Arctic day, saw what a fight she must have had; men were on the foc'sle head apparently trying to get a collision mat over the bows, all around the bridge and funnel we could see signs of damage, and we wished her a silent good luck.

Now amongst friends again we got ourselves tucked in astern of the ships of the convoy, to stay there for the rest of the night, greeting the New Year of as we did so. When the northern skies had turned a shade lighter, getting on for mid-day on 1st January , orders were given for the Gem to approach and close the destroyer Obdurate to take on her surgeon. A boat could not be launched, the weather being still very bad and sea conditions still atrocious.

Even though we were fortunate in that the wind had dropped away a little, the fierceness of it had gone at this time. In any case our port boat had been swept away during the gales earlier on, I went up to the wheel-house to take over the wheel on the run up to the Obdurate, getting the feel of it in those heavy swells and choppy seas, ready for when we finally went alongside the destroyer, but at the last moment Skipper Aisthorpe entered the wheel-house and said, 'Right Cox, I'll take her. See if you can get the starboard boat inboard, if possible, but don't take any chances.

We don't want to lose anybody'. I got some of the hands who were standing watching, but try as we might with axes, hammers and shovels, we could not even clear a part of the small boat deck without using both hands to hold on with. So I reluctantly told the men to stand down from that dangerous job, and to get some fenders ready for going alongside the Obdurate. This also was a hazardous thing to ask them to do, for as a ship the size of a trawler rolls with the swell, the rail tends to dip under the water and the midships deck becomes flooded.

One has to keep a weather eye open for the heavy ones and be prepared to jump for the engine room casing and safety. But they stood by their task very willingly, knowing that the presence of the surgeon was sorely needed onboard for the treatment of the badly wounded men. With the Obdurate going slowly ahead into the wind, with just enough way on her to keep her as steady as possible in the turbulent seas, the Northern Gem, with Skipper Aisthorpe at the wheel, crept up to the port quarter of the destroyer, Gem's starboard bow coming within heaving line distance of her and creeping closer every second.

We could pick out in the grey watery daylight on her deck a small group of men standing on the quarterdeck. Amongst these was the surgeon, Maurice Hood, who had a line around his waist, waiting to risk his life. A reception committee of two of our officers and several men waited to catch him as he jumped, and to release the line quickly so that the two ships did not stay too close for too long. As our starboard fore-deck came abreast of the Obdurate's quarterdeck Skipper Aisthorpe slowly edged the Gem in towards her, waiting for the correct moment to bring her alongside as close as possible, without too much risk of a hard collision which might damage both vessels, and of course to give Surgeon Hood a closer and steadier platform form to leap on to.

Suddenly, as he thought the moment had arrived, a quiet moment between the heavy squalls, we watched with apprehension as our bow swung in towards the destroyer.

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Then with only a few feet separating the two vessels, Skipper Aisthorpe put the wheel over to port to straighten her up; her previous course and momentum, added to the helm being put hard aport, with the engines full ahead, caused her to keep sliding steadily to starboard, just enough to close the last few feet of the gap.

The two ships touched momentarily. As they did so, Surgeon Hood bravely jumped some seven or eight feet on to the deck of the Northern Gem, and into the arms of the reception committee. The hearts of everyone watching were in their mouths for the few seconds that he was airborne, in case the Gem swung away from under him. This was the most dangerous part of the operation as far as he was concerned, and we were happy to see him land safely.

The damage caused by the touching of the two ships was only very slight. It was a satisfactory operation, successfully completed by all concerned, and we now had a surgeon aboard. Surgeon Hood was taken below with his bag of instruments, to prepare himself for the job of work he had come to do. And this was to prove no mean feat on his part due to the conditions in which he was to work in.

The forward mess-deck became the operating theatre, and the mess-deck table the operating table; this had to be held firmly in place by several other members of their crew, so that it would not be thrown on to the deck by the crazy gyrating movements of the ship.

Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942 Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942
Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942 Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942
Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942 Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942
Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942 Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942
Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942 Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942
Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942 Red Sky in the Morning: The Battle of the Barants Sea 1942

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