Between 1941 and 1945 the Allies ran convoys through the Barents Sea to northern Russia with supplies for Russian forces. These convoy sailings to Russia were suspended after convoy PQ18, and the interim idea of sending single ships was born. It was suggested that the ships' lack of speed and protection would be compensated for by the Arctic winter darkness. Churchill advised that "all the crews would have to volunteer, the dangers being terrible, and their sole hope, if sunk far from help, being "Arctic clothing and such heating arrangements as can be placed in the lifeboats". This assumption was crass. One British shipowner, Jack Bilmeir, was moved to stump up a bonus of the then considerable sum of £100 per officer and £50 per rating, cash in advance.
'These individual sailings', the official historian afterwards commented, betraying a degree of misgiving, 'were more succesful than some people had expected.' What those expectations actually were is not clear, but in the light of events, with an attrition rate in the laden eastbound ships of 50%, they must have been dismal in the extreme. Of the thirteen laden vessels sent from Iceland, three had turned back and four had been sunk by the enemy. For the SS Chulmleigh was reserved the worst fate of all.
Built by Pickergill's of Sunderland in 1938 and owned by the self-made Lord Glanely of St Fagans, Cardiff, she was a traditional British tramp steamer of 5,445 tons. In addition to her ship's company she bore a mixed complement of eighteen gunners, part DEMS ratings, part MRA soldiers, to man the after 4 in, including Bofors, four Oerlikons and two Marlin machine guns, plus usual rockets. Loaded at Philadelphia she had joined a transatlantic convoy at Halifax, Nova Scotia, detached off Iceland and proceeded to Hvalfiordur in Iceland for the assembly anchorage of PQ19.
The Chulmleigh was 35-year-old Captain D.M. Williams's first command and she was routed north of Jan Mayen, then thirty miles south of Spitzbergen before swinging south towards the White Sea, a passage of 2,500 miles in darkness or crepuscular gloom. The naval officers briefing Williams and the other masters offered their sympathy at the coming ordeal and urged speed, not only as a defensive measure, but because ice was already forming in the Gourlo. In fact the weather proved difficult from the outset. Overcast skies, haze and snowstorms deprived Williams and his officers of astronomical fixes and the Chulmleigh was run on dead reckoning to her alter-course position off Jan Mayen Island, which it was estimated she had reached shortly after midnight on 3 November. An azimuth taken of a star during a brief break in the scud revealed the standard magnetic compass to be as much as 8 degrees in error, unsurprising in those high latitudes, but further compromising navigation and constantly compounding the errors in dead reckoning. That night the Radio Officer reported distress traffic which, Williams knew, came from other ships. At 01.00 on the 5th, the Chulmleigh received an Admiralty signal to head north until she reached the 77th parallel before turning east for Spitzbergen. This was an instruction which Williams could only obey in spirit. Uncertain of his position, it aggravated the danger he was already in and he delayed his compliance for four hours in the hope of obtaining a fix.
Six hours later, at 11.00, the cloud broke and instead of a star, a German BV138 aircraft loomed out of the murk. Although the cloud cover shut in again almost at once, the fear of aerial attack now added to Williams' worries and spread to the crew. This circumstance and the noon plot, which indicated the Chulmleigh's latitude as 77°N, persuaded Williams to alter to the south-westwards. The total darkness of mid-afternoon brought the additional cover of heavy snow. Now, however, a southerly wind sprang up, and with it a swell which presaged a gale. Williams was consumed by the growing anxiety that she would fail to clear Spitzbergen. However, at midnight, the Master considered his ship was clear of the South Cape and hauled the Chulmleigh's head to the east.
Remarkably the Chulmleigh was only twenty miles out in her reckoning, but it was twenty miles north, and half an hour after midnight she ran aground on a reef off Spitzbergen's South Cape, driving over the rocks so that when she stopped, her stern was fast,her bow wallowing in the deeper water beyond. It was the worst kind of misfortune; at any moment she might break her back and the strain of their ordeal now affected the crew when Williams ordered them into the boats as a precaution. The Third Mate's boat was carelessly lowered, a fall running away and throwing the two men of the lowering detail into the sea which now surged up and down the ship's side as the swell steepened and broke upon the reef. Fortunately the other three boats got away without damage,taking with them the redistributed crew of Third Mate Clark. Meanwhile Williams destroyed the confidential books, having given orders that the Mate, Mr Ernest Fenn, and Second Engineer, Mr. Middlemiss, were to remain aboard. It was at this juncture that the cries of the two ditched seamen reached Williams. He ran down to the main deck and located them in the beam of his torch. The nearest lifeboat's crew experienced difficulty returning alongside, but eventually Williams scrambled aboard himself and, with the help of the Boatswain and an apprentice hauled the first of the freezing men from the water. He was revived with difficulty. The boat had meanwhile closed the second man only to find him already dead.
Wiilliams reboarded his ship, but was in an exhausted condition. It was some time before he was able to recover himself. However, at 2.30 he ordered the boats back alongside and persuaded some firemen to reboard and assist Middlemiss in raising steam. The attempt to drive the Chulmleigh off the reef failed and, despite the obvious advantages of shelter conferred by the ship herself, he knew it was futile to try and get the crew aboard again. At 04.00 a message was transmitted on the Admiralty frequency report that the Chulmleigh was being abandoned, then Williams left his ship. The boats remained close to the wreck until a little daylight reached into the interminable darkness and enabled them to find an exit from the encircling reef. As they passed into the rougher waters of the open sea beyond, five Junkers Ju88s flew in and bombed the helpless vessel, ignoring the escaping boats. As these pulled away, a twist of black smoke rose from the Chulmleigh.
The inhospitable cliffs of southern Spitzbergen were interrupted 150 miles to the northwards by the inlet of Icefiord where lay the mining settlement of Barentsburg and it was for this that sail was hoisted. The smallest of the three boats began to drop astern almost immediately, so her crew were transferred into the other two. Twenty-eight men were now in Williams's boat, twenty-nine in Fenn's, and darkness soon separated them. Williams's boat made good northing until the wind failed and becalmed it throughout most of the 7th. Then, on the 8th, the gale arrived, forcing them to stream their sea-anchor and heave to. The steep seas occasionally broke into the boat and Williams had to bully his men to fight the overwhelming euphoria that preceded death and usually an irresistible symptom of hypothermia. Frozen and demoralized they awaited the grey dawn. When it came they discovered to their horror that they had lost sight of the coast. Williams ordered the engine started and headed east. Fortunately he had nursed the small stock of fuel for such an emergency and after two hours sighted both Spitzbergen and the other lifeboat.
The two boats ran alongside and the meeting immediately put new heart into everyone. Fenn and Williams decided the Master's boat should go on ahead, using sails and power, to raise the alarm. During the hours of darkness, however, the wind rose again and the temperature dropped. Spray froze on the sails and the gunwales of the boat while the bilge-water was only kept liquid and baleable by the dwindling heat of human bodies. It was bitterly cold and in the early hours of the 10th Chief Steward Islwun Davies, aged 30, died. They slid the cold body overboard.
Estimating his proximity to Icefiord in the twilit day, Williams restarted his engine and brought the boat within sight of Prince Charles Foreland beyond which lay the fiord and Barentsburg. Minutes later the engine died, taking with it the hopes of his crew, now badly affected by the death of Davies and all suffering from frostbite. Williams himself was by now in a state of collapse and the donkeyman had begun to rave. As the Master slid into unconsciousness, the mantle of command fell upon 20-year-old Third Mate David Clark whose hands and feet were frostbitten.
Shortly before noon on the 11th, Clark ordered sail rehoisted, hoping to regain sight of the Foreland which had been lost overnight. The order took an age to carry out, so badly affected were the men by cold, hunger and thirst. The agility of their minds was dulled, absorbed only by the desire either to drink or to sleep, their muscles were uncoordinated and weakened by lack of food and the extreme cold, and their breath froze in their beards. Their chilled blood flowed ever slower in feet and fingers and the very act of trying to grasp halliards produced either total ineptitude or excruciating agony, but in the end it was done, and Clark headed east.
When they sighted land, Clark resolved to get his men ashore and a fire lit as soon as possible, for he knew their endurance was almost at an end. However, attempts to run inshore were frustrated by outlying reefs and then the wind freshened again as pitiless darkness descended. An air of desperation now prevailed. Clark was determined to cheat death and with all the confidence he could muster he ordered the sails down and the oars shipped in an attempt to find a way through the rocks. His resolve was rewarded by the distant glitter of the lights of Barentsburg.
At about 03.00 on the 12th, in a confusion of tumbling seas and clumsy rowing, Clark's boat rode over a reef upon the back of a swell and wallowed briefly before it was tossed ashore. Men and gear tumbled in helpless confusion, unaware of the damage being done to their nerveless extremities. The conscious disentangled themselves and dragged the unconscious over the shingle. Three dead were left in the shallows. Incredibly, twenty yards from the survivors loomed a row of wooden huts, temporary summer dwellings of itinerant seal-hunters. The living collapsed inside and, free of the wind, instantly fell asleep.
Next morning Clark made the discovery that one of the huts contained a stove and a supply of tinned food and coffee. Within an hour morale had begun to lift as more stores were found and were added to what remained of their lifeboat rations. Warmth from a plentiful supply of driftwood revived hopes but caused agonies in thawing flesh, and the onset of gangrene produced a foul stench in the hut. Frostbite and immersion foot affected them all, Clark particularly badly, though Williams began to recover and reassert his authority. Nevertheless, during the succeeding four days, thirteen men died of gangrenous septicaemia. The burial party was made up of the fittest men, four MRA gunners who also undertook foraging. It was one of these men, Richard Peyer, who, with Third Mate Clark, set out to reach Barentsburg. Twice these two men made the attempt, and twice they were forced to return due to the awful terrain and the extreme weather. It was now December, blizzards raged outside almost continuously, giving way periodically to calm, frozen silence accompanied by the brilliant exhibition of the aurora. Only a brief dull greyness betrayed the passing of another noon, and a diet of biscuit, corned beef and Horlicks tablets could not stem inevitable lassitude and decline. Captain Williams did his best to maintain spirits, aware that lack of hope was by now a greater danger than lack of food. He encouraged exercise and modest local exploration which produced a small quantity of whale blubber. The discovery of a lighthouse turned to disappointment when it was found it was disused and empty. A third attempt to reach Barentsburg by Peyer and Gunner Burnett also failed, but on their return another hut was found containing corned beef and cocoa. Towards Christmas however, almost all had run out and only hot water remained to sustain the survivors.
It was now Williams who was to be moved by desperation. With the toughest gunner, a small former Liverpool docker named Reginald Whiteside, he set off himself to get help. Within hours they had been beaten back: the terrain was impassable without skis, the conditions unendurable without proper Arctic clothing. The men of the Chulmleigh were reduced to eating the oil in which the whale blubber had been preserved. It was a stinking unappetizing mess which men with no hope of surviving now declined to eat and which only added to the foul stench of decaying flesh.
Another man died on Christmas Eve. Williams knew he had strength only for one final attempt to get help. His obligations to his men and to Fenn's boat, whose fate, unbeknown to the captain was already sealed, weighed heavily upon him. Peyer and Whiteside remained the fittest men and with them Williams set out again for the settlement, only to fail.
On 2 January 1943, Whiteside left the hut to get fuel. Only nine men remained alive, their stinking limbs discharging pus. All were very near the end. There was no food and they were now burning the wood of the neighbouring huts. A few moments later Whiteside reentered the hut, flinging the door wide and babbling dementedly. Williams thought he had lost his mind or that the marauding polar bears seen in the vicinity were drawn towards the stench of the encampment. Peering into the twilight, Williams saw two white-clothed figures skiing towards them; they were Norwegian soldiers on routine patrol who emptied their packs to resupply the Britons and, taking with them Whiteside and Burnett, went to get help.
Early on the 3rd two sledges arrived and immediately took off Clark and Boatswain Hardy, a doctor remaining with the others until more sledges arrived on the 4th. The entire party arrived at Barentsburg and were hospitalized that evening. The settlement was only twelve miles from their camp, but their ordeal of fifty-three days was over.
Clark did not live, but the survivors remained at Barentsburg for four months until the British cruisers HMS Bermuda and HMS Cumberland entered Icefiord to replenish the Norwegian garrison and embarked them. Captain Williams and his eight surviving landed at Thurso on 15 June.
As for the Chulmleigh, she was bombed a second time by the Luftwaffe and torpedoed by Benker in U625. Blown apart, her rusting ribs and plates remain off Spitzbergen's South Cape. Most of her crew had perished in the foolhardy attempt to run single ships through to Russia and their bones, like those of their ship, lie still upon that bleak and terrible coast. The bonus put up by Mr Bilmeir had proved of little use to them, nor had they discovered any heating arrangements in their lifeboats, but all had done their duty.
Information from "Arctic convoys 1941-1945" by Richard Woodman; pictures from wikimapia, uboat.net and Google maps.
Confederation Marine Modellers