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A Journey Through the Gates of Hell

A Journey through the Gates of Hell by Maurice Irvin, M.B.E. (Hartlepool ‘Mail’ 12th May 1992).

             s.s. EMPIRE ELGAR, a heavy lift vessel, was a new building from William. Gray’s, West Hartlepool. She was 2,846grt, 1,695 net with a deadweight of 2,500 tons and a lifting capacity of 50 tons forward and 75 tons aft. Her armament consisted of a 4in. surface anti-submarine low angle gun and a 12 pounder anti-aircraft gun, both fitted on a special platform aft; four smaller A.A. machine guns were erected on the bridge and boat deck. Most of the crew had been through gunnery school and we were supplemented with D.E.M.S. ratings, including a chief petty officer who was not pleased at being relegated to the ‘junior service’.

In the early hours of May 4th 1942, when sensible people slept, she steamed down the darkened River Tees towards her rendezvous with a north-bound convoy. Her holds were laden with Matilda tanks, cased aircraft parts and military stores and on the top of each hatch were bodies of Hurricane fighters. We passed South Gare lighthouse without a farewell greeting and even our home-town beacon on the Heugh Battery remained silent. After brief stops at Methil and Loch Ewe, we sailed in convoy for Iceland and as the coast disappeared, it seemed incredible that, on such a peaceful evening, each vessel was loaded with death and destruction. At Hvalfjord. Reykjavik, we anchored to await the American contingent and during the following eight days made many visits to another Hartlepool-built vessel, the s.s. EMPIRE PURCELL. 

No time was lost when the Yanks arrived and at 1900 hours on May 20th, 1942, P.Q.16, a convoy of 35 ships, sailed for North Russia. By the morning of May 25th the gale had blown itself out, the fog had lifted and the commodore lost no time in shepherding his flock into line abreast formation of eight columns. This then was our battle formation and by no means too soon for a scout plane spotted us and began circling … We were like sitting ducks. The first raid by about 20 Junker 88’s came at eight o’clock that night, there now being little difference between day and night.

So this was it! Training was over and the crew performed like veterans, each vessel putting up an impassible barrage. An hour later eight torpedo-carrying planes approached from the starboard quarter and opted to fly between the columns. The Hurricane on the C.A.M. ship EMPIRE LAWRENCE went into action, shot down one, damaged a second and was then shot down, the pilot being picked up wounded … such gallantry is beyond praise. The planes were some 350 miles from base near the North Cape of Norway, a distance getting less all the time as, with ice to the north, the convoy had no room to turn. Raids intensified the nearer we got and Wednesday the 27th was later referred to as ‘Bloody Wednesday’. We were attacked every hour on the hour with such regularity it became routine. A lull came during the brief twilight and when we realised the worst was over some cried for during that hellish day we had lost four ships. 

We had seen EMPIRE PURCELL bombed, watched her lifeboat trying to clear the still turning propeller and finally disappear in an almighty flash … could anyone survive such hell? In the late afternoon of Friday 29th, the convoy separated, EMPIRE ELGAR being nominated to lead the Archangel section of seven vessels. A raid was in progress so leaving the chief petty officer in charge, I raced to the bridge. During the day I had got a pinpoint fix and felt certain our route was in the secret envelope, so holding my breath, I ripped it open … thank God it was there.

The anti-aircraft vessel ALYNBANK was still with us and as we took up line ahead formation, we altered course towards the White Sea. We were almost two days going through ice and finally reached Bakaritsa, Archangel on the first of June … the glorious first, but our thoughts were with those pool souls in the EMPIRE PURCELL’s lifeboat.

The voyage from Middlesbrough had taken 27 days. We had been attacked by an unknown number of submarines, 208 bombers and 34 torpedo-carrying planes. Seven vessels had been lost, but 27 (some damaged) delivered their cargo. It was reported 160 seamen lost their lives, many frozen to death. ELGAR remained at Bakaritsa discharging tanks and heavy-lifts from incoming convoys until ice compelled her to move to Murmansk. Stores were scarce, fresh vegetables unobtainable and, being classed as civilians, we were not entitled to NAAFI stores. We arrived at Murmansk at the end of November. Raids at Archangel had been spasmodic, but now with enemy bases only 10 minutes flying time away, our respite was over.

After our first raid we were ordered not to fire owing to the danger to Russian fighters so once again we were sitting ducks, nervously waiting to see if the next stick of bombs had our name on it. Only bad weather stopped incessant raids, planes having the cover of darkness as the continuous daylight of our outward passage had been replaced by night which was to last for more than two weeks. Ice was a foot thick on deck, an un-gloved hand stuck to any metal, we lived on Yak when available and were professional scroungers on every vessel we discharged. Conditions in hell could not be much worse. That hell continued until reliefs were sent at the end of January 1943, but my luck ran out … replacements for the second engineer and first mate ‘failed to arrive’ so we waved our shipmates goodbye. It paid off on March 1943 – the ordeal was over … or was it?

Incredibly that was years ago, yet it seems like yesterday, but my association with EMPIRE ELGAR was far from over. She returned home in September 1944, was repaired and refitted in the Tyne as a normal cargo carrier and by coincidence, the Pool asked me to join her in August, 1946. We made trips to Canada for timber and West Africa for iron ore and bauxite and in June 1947 she was sold to Norway and renamed SEA MINSTREL. She had at least five changes of name before finally going behind the Iron Curtain in the Black Sea. In 1951 ownership changed to Drayton S.S. Co., and was renamed MARANDELLAS. In 1956 her owners became I. Jansen who renamed her EDWARD JANSEN. In 1960 E. Paulsen became her owners and she was renamed SLITAN. In 1961 her ownership passed to the Bulgarian Government who renamed her PIRIN. She was broken up at Slit from 1st October 1965.  

Over the years the ELGAR and Convoy P.Q.16 have continued to haunt me as recent as December 1991, a newspaper article referred to survivors from the EMPIRE PURCELL. I wrote for information and received what, to me, was a miracle for it was as if her crew had been brought back from the grave. Often since ‘Bloody Wednesday’ I had seen that crew in the lifeboat frantically fighting for survival … thank God they made it for out of a  total of 56 only eight were lost. Through the Russian Convoy Club, I traced two members who were sent by destroyers to relieve ELGAR’s crew, one being my room-mate in 1935 when we served as apprentices with Common Bros. They will also celebrate this anniversary, but let us never forget the 829 officers and men who made the journey through the ‘Gates of Hell’ never to return. A new Russia is now in the making; let us pray for another Land of Hope and Glory.

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