A six-day battle against attacking planes recently fought by one of the largest convoys to reach Russia with war supplies was described by British seamen on their return to this country.
For nearly a week our convoy was shadowed by a German plane (said a Merchant Navy officer). Then the "fun" started.
Heavy bombers came through the clouds, and the most terrific barrage I have ever seen opened up. The sky was black with the smoke of bursting shells. The Germans scattered and were clearly put off their course by the fire. They reformed and swooped in again. As the planes passed over little more than mast-high we opened up with everything we had. Hits were scored.
But out of the clouds came more German planes. The roar of gunfire and the noise of crashing bombs went on almost non-stop for days. We got no sleep; no one appeared to want sleep. The German planes kept up the attack. There was barely a break of half an hour between the raids. I saw more than a dozen of Jerry's planes crash in flames.
Then we got the signal to scatter. German naval forces had been sighted. Hardly had the convoy scattered than shells came crashing into the sea. Escorting warships sailed to meet the enemy, while we moved on, keeping our guns going at the midgets in the sky, who now did not appear to relish low-level bombing. In the distance we could hear the noise of heavy gunfire. That went on for hours.
Soon after we were again in action with the Jerry planes, this time torpedo bombers. Those pilots seemed to have charmed lives, until the Russian fighters came on the scene, charging head on, their guns blazing at the Huns. Most gallant of all was a Russian pilot in a single seater fighter. He had been making Circles round a bunch of Huns, blazing away all the time. I saw pieces of the German planes falling. Then his guns were silent. He started to climb rapidly, swung round and dived at three torpedo planes in a bunch 1,000 feet above the sea. The Russian plane crashed right in among them and all three Germans hit the sea together with the Russian plane on top of them. That Russian pilot sacrificed his life to save our ships.
One Russian ship, hit at 5 a 'clock in the morning of the third day, was set ablaze. For more than twelve hours the crew, including six girls, fought the fire. They put it out. All day long the ship never swerved from its course, maintained its speed and its correct place in the convoy. When the Russian skipper signalled "Fire under control," he received an immediate, reply from the commodore: "Well done!"
We had six days of almost constant bombing raids (said Seaman Williams, of Anglesey). Our escort ship put up a magnificent barrage, but the Nazi pilots, came right through it and gave us all they had.
We had a catapult plane on our ship and it was shot off to meet the attackers. The pilot was a young South African, and he went right up to break up the Nazi formations. We saw him bring down a large bomber and set off to chase another. I believe he got it, too, but a signal reached the bridge of our ship stating that the pilot was wounded and had had to bale out. He jumped clear of the machine and made a perfect parachute drop into the sea. A destroyer went to his rescue and took him safely aboard.
On the following day a direct hit was scored on our ship, and she began to sink immediately. Two boats were launched and one of them was only an oar's length from the ship's side when a bomb fell and the lifeboat was blown to pieces. Five of the men in if were killed.
In the other boat, where I was, we had to lie down on our faces to dodge bullets during machine-gun attacks by a Nazi plane. Luckily, none of us was injured, but our boat was shattered, and we found ourselves in the water clinging to driftwood. Because of the grand work of our naval escort none of us was in the water for long. The rescue ships ignored all risks in order that lives should not be lost.
There was never any darkness to give us protection from attack, and every man in that convoy was on duty throughout six days and nights without thought of rest or sleep. The convoy contained a number of American ships, and it was a miracle that, in spite of incessant bombing, so few ships were lost.
The Russians gave us a grand reception on our arrival, and when we saw how eagerly they tackled the job of discharging our cargoes we felt that our job in transporting them was well worth doing.