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Loss of HMS Trinidad
13th -15th May 1942
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refuelling a destroyer in the Arctic, late 1941
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While covering PQ13 Trinidad had engaged German destroyers, hitting Z26, but had the very bad luck to be hit by one of her own torpedoes which had circled.
CPO John Govey was aboard HMS Matchless at the time as a survivor from the SS Botavon which was the convoy Commodore's ship which fell prey to a torpedo bomber on May 3 1942. This is his account of the voyage and his eventful voyage home aboard HMS Matchless which was involved in taking off survivors from HMS Trinidad.
Sailed - Oban to Reykjavik - 10 April 1942
Sailed - Reykjavik to Murmansk - 26 April 1942
Arriving at Liverpool Naval Central Office after leave from our last HX convoy we were told to prepare for a PQ. All was hustle and bustle, drawing arctic clothing, correcting confidential books, checking all signalling equipment, reporting to Commodore Anchor, "Ready to proceed".
By train to Oban where we joined our ship and settled in, it was our first American experience. A five-thousand tonner, a coal burner and for the life of me I cannot remember her name. Built during the first world war she was known in mercantile circles as a 'A Hog Island Ship', built by the Yanks in the hundreds to replace lost ships. The accommodation was good and we fed with the petty officers. What food! The only way to describe it was that the food they threw away was better than the war time ration of the civilian population. In addition there was a coffee percolator going 24 hours a day and a refrigerator with snacks available for anyone who felt the worms biting. Did we feed well!
After the usual Masters' Conference we sailed the convoy for Iceland where we were due to join the American ships bound for Russia. Another boon was cigarettes, three shillings and sixpence for a carton of 200 and it didn't take us long to pile up a good stock to flog to the Ruskies for a lovely fur coat; were we excited! A fur coat for the wife and unlimited vodka for ourselves.
I'm afraid the handling of the ship left much to be desired. The captain was a Latvian with a limited knowledge of English, the first officer was a Dane, the remainder American. They all carried out their duties in a slap-happy way that made us raise our eyebrows. To be brief, the Commodore said, "As soon as we get to Iceland I'm changing ships, I can't trust a convoy with their hopeless navigation".
On arrival at Reykjavik we duly changed ships and boarded SS Botavon(the old Blue Funnel liner, Eurypides) she was being run by Chas. Hill of Cardiff an old established cargo line. We quickly settled in, went ashore for the conference and sailed the next day, thirty-two ships bound for Murmansk. A mixed bag of ships, British, American, Danish, Canadian and a Russian icebreaker, Krassin; The latter was noticeable because of her anti-aircraft equipment, she fairly bristled with A/A guns.
We were kept busy keeping the convoy in formation, exercising turns, zig-zags and usual alterations of course, beside the routine signals from the escort, U-boat dispositions, weather reports, etc, etc. The weather was getting colder, we soon had a covering of ice on everything exposed to the weather and we were glad to have the comfort of really warm clothing. My problem was hands and feet; by constant stamping and change of thick woollen socks it was bearable. The only way to keep my hands in shape was lined civvy gloves with lambswool gauntlets over the top.
We couldn't hide our presence for very long (30 Apr 42) before we were shadowed by the Blohm & Voss plane that circled round constantly from dawn to dusk keeping a healthy distance from the guns of our escort. Then the fun began, air raid warning, and in they came, 50 plus, it seemed to go on for ever, as soon as the last one left another crowd could be seen on the horizon. Things quietened down as we began to go through some snow flurries and visibility was down.
Still at full action stations (3 May 42) we could hear aircraft circling round and after an hour and a half had got quite used to our air escort. Suddenly there was action; through a break in the snow came two Heinkel III's and all hell let loose, they came in abeam of us and dropped torpedoes and flew over our bow from starboard to port. Meanwhile as soon as I saw the torpedoes dropped I hoisted 'Emergency turn to Starboard'. By this time the air was full of flak and tracer bullets flying across the ship, I felt quite naked as the halliard I was holding fell l imply in my hand severed by the tracer bullets from the Russian 'Krassin'. I immediately dropped on my face but a glance in front of me made me realise that I had the shelter of canvas. I jumped up in time to see one Heinkel hit and plunge into the sea on our port bow, I looked to starboard and there were two tell-tale streaks of torpedoes coming towards us. Slowly! oh! so slowly we seemed to turn to comb the tracks, we had about 10 degrees to go. Then crash! the torpedo hit No.2 hold just forward of the bridge with a roar which was deafening, a huge wall of black shot up from the water and the ship shuddered with the explosion. We instantly heeled over to port, over we went, 30°, 40°. Christ! I thought we are going to turn over, 45° and then slowly back to an even keel. "Away to the boats lads", yelled the Chief Officer. I turned to the Commodore and said simply, "The books, Sir? ". He nodded and I placed all signal books and coding material in a weighted bag and carried them to the wing of the bridge and, at another nod from the Commodore, dropped them over the side. As they plopped into the water I thought, "There goes all the corrections painstakingly put in". It was then that I noticed the devastation, the bridge was a shambles, I know I saw loads of black stuff going up but I knew nothing of anything coming down. "Oh well," said the Commodore, "I think we had better get off to our boats". He shook hands and we parted for out respective boats. They were waiting for me and I slid effortlessly over the gunwale which had a generous layer of ice to help me on my way. As we cleared the sinking ship I saw the Jutland, leading ship of the sixth column going down by the stern. I hadn't realised that there were other ships that had been hit. There were three casualties altogether, the other ship was the Cape Corso, an American ship full of ammunition, Pouf! a dull noise, a dark purple flash and she was gone. A trawler, probably the Cape Palliser, came alongside and we quickly transferred from lifeboats to the security of the ship. No sooner were we picked up than we picked up three survivors of the ammunition ship who miraculously survived on a raft. They must have abandoned ship before she was struck. Down in the forward messdeck we took shelter round a red hot bogey. It was only then that I noticed that the white of my trousers on my right side was a sheet of ice. Once dried out I reported to the bridge and helped out the hard-pressed signalmen who were overjoyed to have a helping hand.
It seemed so strange to be in a ship in the rear of the convoy and watch the convoy and escort putting up a barrage against non-stop air attacks. On one occasion a Junkers 88 picked us out as easy meat and dived on us from port to starboard. I saw the bomb coming down and the rear gunner gave us a dose of diarrhoea as he sped away. The bomb fell right in our wake and I felt as though a sledge hammer had hit the deck under my feet. What a splash! The nearest escort thought we had bought it and signalled, "Are you alright?" The skipper unperturbed made a reply, "Yes, still in the tramlines". From that moment on I felt that I was in good hands and carried on without a care in the world.
The few days in the trawler were an eye-opener. Ice everywhere, even the guns were iced up, the heads were unusable so we peed over the side and when I wanted to evacuate I was told to go down to the boiler room and have a fisherman's. Do it on the shovel and throw it on the fire.
Arriving at last in VAENGA BAY we disembarked and marched through the snow, what a motley crowd we must have looked. A shout from a crowd of obvious matelots drew our attention and as soon as we found out they were from Edinburgh I said to my pal, "Come on Tom we are going to join the Royal Navy". We deserted the merchant seamen and joined the boys of the Andrew. We were interviewed by the first lieutenant who explained that they were survivors and had pooled their resources. We had nothing to contribute, not even a fag so they generously gave us a tin of tobacco and cigarette papers. Then came the Russian handout, one blanket, one mattress, one pillow and one wooden spoon. The mattress and pillow were stuffed with wood shavings. The huts in which we lived were in the style of POW camps, wooden, double-skinned, cleverly constructed so that they could be pulled down and moved in a matter of hours.
We had three meals a day, breakfast 0700, lunch 1200, supper 1800. These consisted of a bowl of thin yak soup and a crust of black bread. At lunchtime a green film of oil covered the soup sprinkled with what looked like bird seed. That gave you your fat and roughage. This was followed by a cup of raisin tea, it tasted sweet and this was your daily sugar. So you see we were well fed, we had exactly the same as the Russian soldiers who incidentally we were forbidden to mix with. They managed to sneak up to us now and again with wads and wads of money to exchange for cigarette papers. They had to make do with newspapers. They all appeared to have lots of money, they had nothing they could spend it on. To keep warm we stayed in our clothes day and night just easing out of our sea boots, just to wriggle our toes. We were always hungry and you can imagine that we were overjoyed when at the end of ten days we went to the jetty and joined the cruiser TRINIDAD. We sailed on the evening of 13/5/42, convoy QP11.
We were back in civilisation with food, glorious food. After a couple of hours we were transferred to the destroyer Matchless which was crammed full of survivors. I found myself a cosy billet under the table in the stokers messdeck. There wasn't a spare inch. Come to think about it we had no gear, not even a toothbrush, and of course by this time we had nearly three weeks growth of beard. The last time we bathed was at VAENGA for after a week we were allowed a shower, only a brief period under a fine warm spray, and then an old woman came and cleared us out. It was understandable, all water was melted ice and there was little fuel available to produce it. We were given one cup of warm water for ablutions daily. The soldiers knew how to use it, first they cleaned their teeth then they washed and shaved.
However we sailed from Vaenga Bay in the Matchless and formed a screen on the Trinidad which flew the flag of Rear Admiral Bonham-Carter. We hadn't been under way very long before the fun began (16/5/42) and we were banging away at Junker 88s, it seemed for ages and ages. The skipper of Matchless was another cool sort, he had four signalmen covering the ship, spotting bombs in the air. As soon as a cluster looked as though they were coming in our direction we altered course. That's where I proved the theory, "YOU DON'T HEAR THE ONE WHICH HITS YOU". You see the bombs falling; when they are near, you lose sight of them, they hit the water, you hear the whine of their descent, followed by the noise of the explosion. It's a most peculiar feeling and not very good for the morale. At one time when we were bomb-dodging I spotted torpedo bombers dropping torpedos a couple of miles away. I kept a good eye in that direction and duly reported "TORPEDO TRACKS". Leaving the torpedoes to look after themselves, the skipper calmly assessed the situation, turned to port and the menaces passed us on either side. Then disaster struck. At the end of a heavy bombing raid the Trinidad was hit with a bomb which penetrated to the recreation area where a crowd of survivors were sheltering and exploded with devastating effect. The explosion started the temporary patch which had been put in at Murmansk, together with a fire which they were unable to contain so the Admiral ordered the destroyers to take off the wounded and survivors. Each destroyer went alongside in turn and took their allotted numbers on board. Then we were ordered to sink her with torpedoes. We fired two fish into her and she sank, slowly and gracefully, bow first.
Then on with the action, west of Bear Island we were joined by the covering forces of heavy cruisers, Nigeria, Kent, Norfolk and Liverpool. Were we glad to see them. The barrage they put up when attacked was terrific and they even fired their 8-inch guns to join the barrage. Gerry lost heart after a day of it and the journey to Glasgow thereafter was a piece of cake.