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In Memory of

 

RUSSIAN CONVOY PQ.17  .....

and the story of CHIEF STEWARD HORACE CARSWELL, DSM, MM, BEM

 

awarded Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea on this occasion

 

 

I know nothing about Chief Steward Carswell other than what I have read here. Preparing for a 2003 lecture cruise on the Russian Convoys, I wanted to give the audience a flavour of what the Russia run must have been like for some of the individuals involved.

The following article from an old World War 2 volume seemed to fit the bill and this was borne out. I read extracts in my best seamanlike manner, and much to my surprise, the audience applauded there and then. Not, I am sure for my acting abilities, but simply for such an amazing story so well-told. Chief Steward Carswell is a real hero, whose story should not be lost.

Gordon Smith

 

 
 

OUR FIGHT THROUGH ARCTIC SEAS TO RUSSIA

 

 

Extracts from The Second World War: An Illustrated History of WWII

Volume X, page 27

 

 

As Chief Steward of the Empire Tide (one of the few ships to survive - see table at end) of the Royal Mail Line, in convoy for Archangel in 1942 (PQ.17), Horace Carswell mixed other excitements with the suddenly assumed role of surgeon - and gained the Lloyds War Medal for Bravery at Sea to add to his D.S.M., M.M. and B.E.M.

 

joined the S.S.Empire Tide of the Royal Mail Line as Chief Steward, and learnt that the ship was due to leave for America to load a general cargo for Russia.

 

We sailed on May 10, 1942 ….. cargo was taken aboard at an American port, and the ship then proceeded to Reykjavik in Iceland. From the Icelandic port we set out to Archangel …with thirty‑seven merchant ships accompanied by an escort of twelve cruisers, destroyers and corvettes.

 

The season was midsummer by the time we were over the Arctic Circle steaming on a nor'‑easterly course for the Barents Sea and daylight had lengthened to about twenty hours. Three days out from Reykjavik the first German air‑scout came nosing along…. almost un­interrupted daylight and clear weather made reconnaissance easy for the Hun.

Bells Ringing "Action Stations"

….. the threat from the Jerries did not prevent some of us, in Arctic seas for the first time, from being initiated in the Order of the Bluenose. The initiation was a bit different from the ceremony of greeting King Neptune when crossing the Equator: a feature was that each new " Blue­nose" was presented with a coloured certificate duly signed by " Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main" and his consort "Aurora Borealis, Queen of His Majesty's North­ern Provinces."

 

Our convoy altered course and steamed due east through a sea a‑glitter with floe‑ice. Not long afterwards we reached a position near Bear Island… the zone of greatest danger, lying within easy range of the German air‑bases and…. the alarm bells were soon ringing for “Action Stations."

 

Between forty and fifty Jerries came racing in from all directions …. that filled the Arctic sky with the thunder of high‑powered engines. It was the Fourth of July. A ship on the Empire Tide's port quarter erupted like a volcano and disappeared …. . Two or three others began to lose way, then listed and settled deeply from the impacts of bombs and the deadly "fish."

 

Fragments of ice from the shattered floes spattered our decks. Warships and merchant­men combined to fill the sky with the fury of high‑explosives, and the rain of steel made you thankful for a tin "battle bowler," inadequate protection though it was.

 

For handling and fighting his ship that day, Captain Frank Willis Harvey, master of the Empire Tide, was awarded the D.S.O. ….. Chief Engineer Hughes and Second Engineer Griffith re­mained in the engine‑room, ensuring the utmost possible speed under conditions of great stress. They, too, earned decorations ….

 

A Shout in the Din of Gunfire

…. thought to myself. "This is about as hot as the party we had on the Malta convoy." Then I heard an agonized shout …. from the gun position on the ship's "monkey island," and was just in time to see a lad sag limply across the bullet‑proof screen.

…. Everyone seemed to have a job on his hand just then except me. So….I managed to bounce up …to the isolated platform to look after him. The victim …. one of the few R.N. ratings borne in the Empire Tide for gunnery duties…. had caught "a proper fourpenny­one" in the thigh.

 

…. I managed to hoist this matelot across my back… and carry him down the ladders …. and …. got him below…

 

Our ship had no doctor ….. I decided something else must be done smartly, or he would soon be slipping his cables. ….. I summoned the pantryman and a few others of the First Aid party, and made ready to do a spot of surgery ….. I was happily unaware from my amateurish examination of what the emergency operation entailed. What knowledge I had of surgery and medicine was of the elementary order, but I had confidence in myself ‑ although unwarranted ‑ and, was not lacking in the "bedside manner."

 

"There's nothing to worry about, son," I assured the patient. "I'll soon fix you up all right….. His lurid remarks betokened pain and resentment when I probed the gaping wound in his thigh and the ship lurched to the concussion of a bursting bomb …... I remarked: ‑You've picked up a bit of metal in this leg of yours, that's all. I’ll winkle it out in two shakes of a cod's tail.

 

….. It …. shook me to find a srnall‑calibre unexploded shell from an Oerlikon gun embedded in the chap's thigh! The thing had to be extracted and the wound properly dressed …. there were no anaesthetics in the medicine chest and our surgical instruments were the sort of things you might expect to find in a carpenter's tool‑box…..having dug the live shell out, I put sixteen stitches in the wound while the luckless victim alternately gritted his teeth and bellowed pungent opinions of the pro­ceedings. I gave a sigh of relief.

 

“Like taking a tooth out," I murmured.

 

“Here, son ‑ put this tot of rum down the hatch. You're the best patient I've had on his voyage.” It did not seem necessary to add that he was also the first! And he was not the last.

 

That aerial attack on July 4, 1942, began at 4.30 p.m., and continued for some time with unabated fury. ….A heavy price was paid with the lives of British, American and Norwegian seamen for the delivery of a large proportion of the vital cargoes. The sacrifice in our own convoy can be judged by the fact that only nine merchant ships out of thirty‑seven made the round trip unscathed.

 

 

With Toes and Fingers Gangrenous

 

…. Things were bad enough in the Med when your ship was scuppered, but if you took to the boats or went overboard in these icy seas your ordeal was a sight worse and chance of survival considerably less.

 

…. our captain decided to make for temporary haven at Novava Zemlya…. which, if you look at a map, rears up like a disturbed caterpillar from the north Russian coast. On the way, we picked up 148 survivors from lifeboats adrift ‑ men suffering from exposure and frost‑bitten hands and feet. This rescue work provided me with plenty to do …. a job occupying twenty‑four hours a day looking after these “orphans of the storm.”

 

Once we had gained shelter, radio signals were made. These brought a plane … from the mainland, and a Russian lady doctor took charge of the casualties, and a few of the severely wounded were flown to Archangel for hospital treatment. Among these was my patient, the naval gunner….

 

Many of the others were in bad shape, but had to be left in my care…. some had landed on another island before being rescued, and had built fires and toasted their toes. The safe method in a below ­zero climate is to rub snow on partly frozen extremities, and the result of their mistake was that toes and fingers became gangrenous and needed drastic treatment

 

In making Moller Bay, the Empire Tide struck an uncharted rock…. But the ship was repaired and refloated, and we set off unescorted …. to Archangel …. when the look‑out in the crow's‑nest reported to the bridge :

 

“Object on the starboard bow, sir!” ….. On closer inspection they proved to be the foremast and stern of a sinking ship and three life­boats manned by survivors.

 

Another "object" …. drew near the boats ….. a U‑boat. Our captain altered course and ordered “Full ahead” on the engines, … No one would have taken a crack at that U‑boat with more zest than Captain Harvey, but all our ammo had been expended …..

 

…. the wreck sank slowly, and the U‑boat made off. “We're going to pick those blokes up!" I heard someone remark. …. no attack was made. The crew of the torpedoed ship were got aboard, some of them suffering from frost­bite due to immersion in the icy water before being hauled into the boats. So I received more patients for my shipboard "hospital."

 

….our captain decided to make a wide sweep of the area in case other hapless crews were adrift, and the search resulted in the rescue of survivors from two other torpedoed vessels. From this and other warnings, there appeared to be small hope of the Empire Tide making a lone voyage to Archangel in safety. So we ran back to Moller Bay where… we found four corvettes and an equal number of merchant ships that had arrived after various misadventures. A small convoy formed, and without further interference we reached Archangel to deliver our cargoes.

 

At the time, some 2,000 British and Allied seamen ‑ survivors from aircraft and U‑boat attack ‑ were housed in the Intourist Club, a huge logwood building surmounted by the Union Jack and Soviet flag. Our arrival with munitions and supplies was greeted cordially by Russian officials, but there were no wild demonstrations of welcome by the people. After our ship had made a call at Molotov, a new port about forty miles from Archangel, a convoy of twelve ships was formed for the homeward voyage (QP.14). Again we had to run the gauntlet of the Polar route, and were frequently attacked by hostile aircraft and finally by a U‑boat pack. …..

 

 

Extract from Lloyd's List and Shipping Gazette, No. 40310

“CHIEF STEWARD CARSWELL behaved with out­standing courage in the face of great danger when a gunner was wounded during the action with enemy aircraft. He made his way to the gun position and carried the gunner down to the ship's hospital. There he inserted sixteen stitches in the man's leg while the attack on the vessel was proceeding. But for the prompt action and skill of Mr. Carswell the wounded man might have lost his life.”

 

 


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