Crest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationCrest of the V&W Destroyer AssociationHMS WALKER




Arctic Convoys JW.61 and return Convoy RA.62
 October - November 1944

by Laurence Downey, a teenage seaman on a Norwegian tanker

Later that month HMS Walker left as part of the escort for Arctic Convoy JW61 Liverpool (20th Oct) to the Kola Inlet (Oct 28th) and return convoy RA61 to Loch Ewe (Nov 2nd to Nov 19th). There is no first hand account of these two convoys to Arctic Russia by any of the officers or men in HMS Walker but there is a vivid description of JW61 by Laurence (Laurie) Downey, a 16 year old Australian from Perth, who  joined a Norwegian tanker Marathon.

Those Norwegian ships which were unable to return to their home ports after the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940 were always short of crews and even a teenager could find a job on one of them. Laurie Downey served on the Norwegian tanker Marathon for two years. She traded between the Caribbean Islands and the American oil refining ports of Houston, Galverston and Corpus Christie before joining Arctic Convoys JW.61 and RA.62 (RA.61 had left with HMS Walker as one of the escorts) from the Kola Inlet to Loch Ewe. This is an extract from Laurence Downey's unpublished autobiography.

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Laurie DowneyLaurie Downey"We left anchorage on the Clyde for a small inlet to the North of Glasgow called Loch Ewe. This was a convoy assembly area. There were about thirty ships in all that made up convoy number JW 61 and just as were making ready to sail, a small launch came alongside with the captain who was returning from the Commodore’s meeting with all the ship captains, a briefing on procedures to follow during the trip to Russia. As the captain climbed aboard, the two Scotsmen jumped onto the launch as it pulled away. Obviously the stories of the fate of many ships on the Russian run had scared them to the point of desertion.

Convoy JW 61 comprised thirty ships plus escorts and departed from Loch Ewe on October 20th. The escort ships included three carriers and several destroyers. The Russian Navy also provided six corvette type escorts.

Rounding the North of Scotland by Scapi Flow, where the North Sea meets the Irish Sea the weather became extremely bad, to the point where nearby everyone on board got sea sick, including the captain who had been at sea for some twenty five years. Once the first attack of sea sickness had passed the subsequent ones were easily shrugged off with but one visit to the side of the ship, and then carry on without interruption to one’s duties. They lasted only an hour or so. We were heading at an angle of about forty five degrees into the enormous waves, and Marathon, being a fully laden tanker was very low in the water, she would ride out two waves and plough through the third with a resounding thud that shook all the windows around the bridge. The decks were constantly awash and an occasional wave would throw spray over the funnel. It was the roughest weather I had thus far encountered. In the wheelhouse the floor was wash from spray and the helmsman’s wooden mat slithered from side to side of the room if no one was standing on it. I came on the night to do my stint at the wheel only to find the binnacle and the wheel all cover by vomit … I sloshed them down with water from the floor cupped in my hands. Such rough weather made it more difficult for the U-boats to get an accurate line on a potential target. This at least was encouraging. The weather relented after we had passed the Northern tip of the British Isles, and the convoy once again resumed the normal speed of ten knots.

With the strongest escort ever for a Russian convoy, we suffered no casualties, we saw and heard many depth charge explosions and spotted a Dornier reconnaissance plane circling the convoy giving our position to the land based torpedo bombers, but they never arrived. Our triple escort carriers must have been an effective deterrent.

The convoy was about four days out from Loch Ewe when our forwarded bunker tank ruptured, flooding he manila rope locker. Some of the ropes were saved but two had to be discarded and the Chief mate told the bosun to throw them overboard, naturally he assumed the bosun would throw them off the stern, but instead he threw them over the side thinking they would sink immediately. One of them was caught up in the propeller, but no one was aware of this. Suddenly the ship lost speed and slowed from ten knots to about six knots. Then an argument took place between the Chief Engineer and the captain who wanted more revs and was informed he couldn’t have them. So there we were looking disaster in the face as we dropped back from the convoy and became a “straggler” easy pickings for the trailing submarines. A British Navy destroyer was despatched to come alongside with a loud hailer telling the Captain to keep up with the rest of the convoy. It was getting towards evening, but visibility was still good enough to see the other ships in the distance. Suddenly, the destroyer that had now become our special escort despatched a salvo of depth charges as she raced across our bows no more then fifty meters away. The following explosion gave everyone on board a sense of security in that we were not being left at the mercy of the U-boats. The destroyer returned three times to loud hail the Captain to keep up. As luck would have it, the weather deteriorated and the sea became quite rough causing the convoy to slow down to seven knots. Thus we were able to keep up, also because the entangled rope was beginning to wear away from the propeller allowing us to gain a few more knots.

The next day the story emanating from the radio room was that during our escapade as a “straggler”  the destroyer’s asdic had picked up sixteen torpedo firings during the night. The rough weather no doubt made it extremely difficult for the U-boats to get accurate bearings on prospective targets. Thanks be to God.

So far so good, but the worst was yet to come. As we approached the Northern most part of Russia the sea narrowed into a bottle neck type entry into the White Sea, this was called the Kola inlet and the German submarines would lie in wait just outside this narrow section and attack the ships as they moved in single file towards Murmansk. JW 61 was extremely lucky not to lose any ships at this point, due to the strong escort and the adequate air-cover at that time.

The majority of the ships steamed into the harbour at Murmansk whilst the tankers sailed further south to the port of Archangel in the White Sea where the oil dock was located at Molotovsk (Severodvinsk). By this time the harbour entrance had frozen over so we were obliged to follow the ice breaker Stalin into port.

The oil terminal at Molotovsk (Severodvinsk)

Molotovsk (Severodvinsk) is located 35 kilometers west of Arkhangelsk on the coast of the White Sea and was built in the 1930s to support Stalin's naval ship-building programme and renamed Severodvinsk in 1957. It is the second largest city in the Archangelsk region, with a population of 240,000 people. Construction of the city by thousands of prisoners began in June 1936 on the deserted banks of the Severnaya Dvina (North Dvina) River. The new city was named Molotovsk on 11 August 1938. By the start of "the Great Patriotic War" the city housed 40,000 people. A sea port opened in December 1941 and more than half the cargo received at Archangelsk through lend-lease from England and the US was actually unloaded in Molotovsk.

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The icebreaker Stalin tied up alongside and we had a good look over her and were amazed to discover that one single family ran the whole ship. The Captain was the head of the family, his wife in charge of the domestic side of running the ship, supplies, galley etc., while all the sons and daughters, with their respective wives and husbands filled all the other positions. It was also a great opportunity for them to look over Marathon and I wondered afterwards, if the decision to tie up alongside was not influenced by shortage of food and provisions ashore.

The shore crew or longshoremen were mostly female, as their menfolk were away at the front fighting the Germans; they clambered all over the ship coupling the valves and the pipes for the unloading process. A female worker was found dead one morning down between the two ships where she fallen in a drunken frenzy after having sampled the power alcohol from one of he tanks. She had managed to extract the lethal liquid by lowering a bucket down into the tank and then drinking from it.

The fuel dock where we were unloading was at the entrance to Archangel and was called by the name of Molotovsk. About one kilometre’s walk through the snow took us to the centre of the village where the authorities had established an entertainment facility for the visiting foreign seamen. The locals were nor permitted to fraternize with us except within confines of the centre, which they called the Interclub. There was music and dancing, a small sparsely equipped kiosk where we could buy a biscuit and a cup of coffee or a glass of vodka. Thee was also a small cinema adjacent to the man hall. I became friendly with the projectionist and she invited me up into her tiny little projection room above the maddening crowd below.

I began to feel sorry for the Russian people for the way they had to live in order to survive and the rigors of winter made things even more difficult. Another example of fund raising I experienced a day or two later when a few of us were taken to a house by one of the hostesses from the Interclub, she was obviously a “pimp” working on commission. I was curious to go along and was surprised to find on entering a large room four girls, one in each corner of the room in bed. My mates made their selection and as the lights were extinguished. I excused myself with the “pimp” who quickly disappeared down the road n far that I might have selected her. These girls were not prostitutes in the strict sense of the word, they were, probably, married women trying to earn a living for their hungry families.

It was while we were still in Molotovsk that  I had a little accident on deck, the Captain had asked the bosun to fill a drum of petrol from one of he tanks by using a small hand pump and he asked me to help him to lift the drum onto two parallel pipes that ran along the deck, a short lift of about twelve inches. We were both wearing heavy leather fleece lined gloves and as we lifted the dum it sipped on the ice and the rim came down hard on my had amputating the tip of my middle left hand finger. Seeing my blood on the snow made me feel a little squeamish in the stomach. Whereupon the third mate who witnessed the whole thing told me to follow him up to the first aid room on the bridge here he poured me a small glass of brandy. Mindful of my pledge not to touch alcohol until I was twenty five years of age, I pretended to drink t, but on turning to one side I put my hand over my mouth and spat the brandy down the front of my shirt and no one was any the wiser, because the smell alone revived me immediately. At least that was what I thought, but deep down I felt it was rather miraculous.

One of the female workforce took me to the village hospital to the out patients reception area where there were some thirty or forty people lined up in a queue. An old lady stepped forward and took me by the hand to the head of the line. I think she felt sorry for this baby face kid from the foreign ships. She referred to me as “malinki” small child. In response to this act of kindness I took out a few packs of American cigarettes from my pockets, we always carried them as bargaining currency, and dished them all out down the line. It made me feel great to see the looks of appreciation on their faces.

Back on board with my finger stitched and bandaged there was not a lot I could do in regards to work around the deck. So I decided to pass the time by reading and trying to learn the Norwegian language. The Third mate, who was in charge of the first aid room, was responsible for changing my bandages. He offered to help me learn the language. At least it was his excuse for having me visit his cabin on daily basis. I was still very na´ve and rather slow to wake up to the fact that his intentions were to develop a much more intimate relationships with me. Finally I got the message when he offered me money. That was the end of my Norwegian studies in his cabin and  my hand didn’t really need to be attended to every other day

The tanks emptied we set sail behind he ice breaker Stalin for the days trip back to the docks at Murmansk to wait for the next convoy back to the United Kingdom. Being a tanker, Marathon unloaded quickly, the cargo ships took much longer. Shore leave in Murmansk was not much different than Molotovsk, all the buildings seemed to be of wood and many still bore  scars of German bombing raids. Earlier in the war the place was virtually levelled. Here they also had an Interclub for the visiting foreign seamen. It was somewhat larger on account of the majority of ships unloaded here, only the tankers went down to Molotovsk.

During the stopover in Murmansk there was a rumour going around the Interclub that two Merchant seamen had been arrested for fighting with a Communist official and one of his deputies. Apparently this official had passed a rude remark about the British being reluctant to open a second front in Europe and this led to fistcuffs which resulted in these two Russians coming off second best. It was forty years later that I read an account of this incident in Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War. When Churchill heard these two seamen had been gaoled for seven years for striking a Communist official, he made immediate contact with Stalin and told him in no uncertain terms that unless these two sailors were released immediately and put on board a British cruiser and sent back to the United Kingdom, he would suspend the Russian convoys. Rather strong language for the Russians who depended desperately on these convoys. The story ended happily and the two sailors were released and returned to England, thanks to Mr Churchill.

 Return Convoy RA 62

The return voyage was in convoy number RA62 which left Murmansk on December 10th 1944 with 29 merchant ships, two escort carriers, a cruiser and several destroyers. The escort left ahead of the convoy to clear the assembled U-boats waiting at the mouth of the Kola Inlet for the ships to file out before forming into the convoy sailing pattern. The second day out U-365 torpedoed HMS Cassandra and blew her bows off with great loss of life, but she was able to make it back to Murmansk for repairs by sailing stern first. Then on December 12th the Norwegian ship Tunsberg Castle was sunk by a mine. That same evening the Luftwaffe entered the fray with a attack by nine torpedo bombers, to no avail with the loss of two planes, one of which came down only hundred meters from Marathon’s Port bow. This particular raid was my first experience of surface action, up until now everything had happened was below surface. During the attack the sky was lit up from horizon to horizon with bursting shells and tracer bullets from every ship in the convoy. It was very frightening to say the least because some of the tracers were to close to comfort. My action station was on the bow as ammunition passer to the Bofors gun crew, who claimed to have shared the honour of having shot down one of the two torpedo bombers. I remember standing on the deck that night trembling something terrible, my knees shaking and there was nothing I could do to stop them. I have never been so scared in all my life. When I arrived at my post I was temporarily distracted from my fear when I witnessed the final plunge of the German plane so close to our port bow. It as also the fist time I had witnessed someone getting killed. This incident was to have a lasting effect on me and would on day be instrumental in teaching me a great lesson. During this battle one of the carrier escort planes sank U-365. The U-boat sunk during the passage of convoy RA 62 was U-387 by depth charge attack  from HMS Bramborough Castle. With the loss of only one ship the convoy had accounted for to submarines and two planes.

 The remainder of the voyage was uneventful and we arrived back at Loch Ewe on December 19th 1944."

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Laurie Downey's decision to join a monastery after the war was influenced by what he experienced on these two convoys: "I decided to become a monk and to take  vow of silence in a European monastery as there were no such monasteries in Australia back then. I was expelled from the monastery five years later due to my quarrel with one of my superiors.

After life as a Trappist monk at a monastery in Rome in the 1950s  he became a tour guide at the Portuguese shrine to Fatima where his obsession with the story of the third secret disclosed to the three children by an apparition of the Virgin Mary led  to his life taking a most extraordinary turn which attracted world wide media attention in 1981. Until his death in 2006 Downey "still maintained his beliefs which he explained in his book Russia 2000: the white communist manifesto (Fremantle: Ploughshares International, 1999).

If you want to find out more about the wartime service of a member of your family who served on HMS Walker you should first obtain a copy of their service record
To find out how follow this link: http://www.holywellhousepublishing.co.uk/servicerecords.html


If you have stories or photographs of HMS Walker you would like to contribute to the web site please contact Bill Forster



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