Newsletter No. 489
Our first speaker at the October 2016 meeting was Mr Clyde Foster, whose topic was entitled The WW2 Arctic Convoys of Radio Officer William Foster (his father). In view of the personal nature of the account, the scribe has decided to use Clyde's account as he delivered it - personally.
"William (Bill) Foster, my father, was born in Hartwood, a small village between Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1925, and as you will see, joined the WW2 war effort at a young age.
William (Bill) Foster
After the war, he married my mom, Cathie, in 1950, with my brother, myself and my sister arriving in due course.
My dad worked for Marconi Marine for most of his working life, with appointments in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Manchester.
This eventually resulted in an offer to take on the role of Durban Depot Manager in 1970, which he accepted, and the family emigrated to South Africa, settling in Hillcrest and more recently in Bothas Hill. With a change in ownership, he left Marconi Marine just before his retirement and opened up his own company, Foster Marine, which he ran successfully for a number of years.
My mom passed away in 2010, but my dad has recently celebrated his 91st birthday.
The Arctic convoys of World War 2 were Reportedly called the "Worst journey in the world" by Sir Winston Churchill.
This journey began approximately 3.5 years ago when I received an email from family in London informing me that the British Ministry of Defence was issuing the Arctic Star Medal to those that had served on the convoys of WW2.
I do recall my Mom mentioning that my dad had served on the Russian convoys but he never said much about the war, and I didn't have a lot to work on.
When I did broach the subject with him, he mentioned two ships:
The convoys were ocean going convoys sailing primarily from Great Britain and Iceland and were instituted to support the Soviet Union with vital supplies, including ammunition, tanks and aircraft. This did cause quite a diversion for the German forces and tied up at least a part of Germany's Navy and Air Force.
There was a total of 78 convoys over the period from 1941 to the end of the war, during which there were two series of convoys.
For the first series, the Outbound convoys were numbered PQ and the homebound convoys QP. These convoys typically ran twice monthly, but were interrupted at certain stages, most notably after the disaster of the PQ17 convoy in the summer of 1942 and after the final convoy of the first series, the PQ18 and the preparations for Operation Torch.
There were two main routes taken, the selection of which was based on weather and seasonal conditions.
Two main routes
Most importantly by the expansion of the polar ice cap in winter, which forced the convoys to take a more southerly route.
The route was around occupied Norway to the Soviet ports and was particularly dangerous due to the proximity of German air, submarine and surface forces and because of the likelihood of severe weather and the frequency of fog.
On leaving port the convoys were protected by a "light" close escort. This would mainly consist of armed trawlers and minesweepers but within a day or two of departure, the convoys were normally joined by heavy surface units comprising destroyers and cruisers that would accompany the convoy to a crossover point and then return with the homebound convoy.
The German battleship Tirpitz was operational in the area, and as will be seen later a pack of 3 German destroyers.
The SS Dan-y-Bryn
Given the time allocated for the presentation, my attention will focus on the first of my dad's convoys I have mentioned previously the two ships that my dad referred to and I had done quite a bit of searching of various spellings before I eventually came across this spelling, and from there, everything started falling into place.
It is incredible the detail that is available on line on these convoys and for those that are in a similar situation that I faced, I can only encourage you to do the research.
It is fascinating, and obviously more so given any personal family connection.
One of the little gems of information I came across was the radio call sign of the Dan-y-Bryn(GKLZ), which my dad, as one of the radio officers, would have been familiar with and most likely used on the convoys.
Built in 1939 shortly after the start of the war, she was used extensively in the war effort. After the war, she changed hands several times before finally being broken up in Hong Kong in 1967.
I was able to pick up the full record of the movements of the Dan-Y-Bryn over her lifetime, including an excerpt from March 1942, indicating that she was being used up and down the east coast of Britain during this period and (from my perspective, importantly) departed from Middlesbrough on 16 March 1942.
Prelude to the PQ14 convoy - The assignment of William Foster to the SS Dan-Y-Bryn.
One of requirements of the British MOD application for the Arctic Star Medal was to provide the "Certificate of Discharge" number of my dad.
I didn't know what this was, but assumed it was indeed a "certificate" and 70 years after the event, I didn't have a lot of hope that my dad would remember. I should not have underestimated him.
On one of my trips to visit, I asked him whether he knew anything about his certificate of discharge. To my amazement and delight he directed me his filing cabinet, second draw down and in the front!!!
There I found his COD book, with the full record of every ship he had served on during his commission in the merchant navy.
And the first entry was off course the SS Dan-Y-Bryn, where he was signed on on 14 March 1942 in Middlesbrough. He was 16 years 10 months and 14 days old.
Certificate of Discharge
Outward bound - The PQ14 convoy. Oban-Murmansk, 26 March-19 April
The Dan-Y-Bryn sailed from Middlesbrough to Methil on the north-east coast and then arrived at Oban on the west coast on 22 March, 1942 where she remained until 26th March.
The main body of the PQ14 convoy officially departed from Oban at 16.00 on 26 March, headed, after a short stop at Loch Ewe for Hvalfjord , Reykjavik, Iceland arriving on the 31 March, where the remaining ships joined the convoy.
Departing from Iceland on 8 April, the convoy consisting of 24 Merchant ships, 2 minesweepers and 4 armed trawlers was joined by its heavy escort of 4 destroyers and 4 corvettes the following day, but then almost immediately ran into severe weather, which threw the whole convoy into disarray.
In the region South West of Jan Mayen island, after 30hrs of dense fog, and 12 hrs in heavy polar ice, most the convoy was forced to turn back to Iceland. Only 8 of the merchant ships, including the Dan-Y-Bryn, could continue.
Z7 Hermann Schoeman
The following few days passed relatively undisturbed for the convoy. However, on the 15 Apr the convoy, which was at this stage east of Bear Island, was sighted by German aircraft and was attacked, although no serious damage was reported.
On Apr 16 as the convoy approached Russian territory it was exposed to both aircraft and U-boat attacks, with the loss of the SS Empire Howard with most of her men including the commodore. 5 torpedoes were fired by U-boat, 2 of which struck the Empire Howard.
One of the reports I came across records that the Dan-Y-Bryn avoided 2 of the other torpedoes due to "swift helm action". As I worked through these records I find it incredible to think that I am here likely as result of that specific action by the captain of the Dan-Y-Bryn that day.
A team of 3 German destroyers, the Z7 Herman Schoeman, Z24 and Z25, were operating in this area at the time and there were concerns that they would attack the convoy. Fortunately, a combination of poor weather and poor strategic handling by the Germans precluded this and the convoy safely arrived off Murmansk on 19th April
It is recorded that German high command was highly displeased with how this was handled, and the failure to attack the convoy.
The Dan-Y-Bryn remained at Murmansk for 9 days whilst preparations were completed for the return convoy.
The return -The QP11 convoy Murmansk-Iceland, 28 April-7 May 1942
The return convoy departed Murmansk on 28 April and consisted of 13 merchant ships with close and heavy units in support.
The convoy was however to be overshadowed by the events around the HMS Edinburgh, which joined the convey two days out from port. She had been loaded with $20 million in gold which was payment from the Russians to the Americans for their contribution to the Russian war effort.
The same day the Edinburgh joined the convoy, both the convoy and the Edinburgh, which had taken station ahead of the convoy, suffered U-boat attack.
The Edinburgh was struck twice.
One torpedo struck the forward boiler room and the 2nd struck the stern, destroying its rudder and 2 propellers.
Badly damaged, but afloat, the Edinburgh left the convoy to return to Murmansk, supported by 2 destroyers, the Foresight and Forester.
On the back of this apparent success, the German command ordered the pack of 3 destroyers Z7 Hermann Schoeman, Z24 and Z25 to attack the convoy and sink the Edinburgh.
The German destroyers initially attacked the convoy and successfully sank one of the Russian freighters. However, four British destroyers formed up between the German pack and the convoy and managed to defend the convoy from further losses. Late on in the afternoon the German destroyers broke off the attack and went after the Edinburgh.
The German destroyers found the Edinburgh at 6.17 the following morning, Sat 2nd May 250 miles east of the convoy and moving at only 2 knots.
She was defended by the Foresight and Forester as well as 4 minesweepers and a Russian destroyer that had been despatched from Murmansk.
The Z7 became separated from the other 2, and attacked alone. Incredibly, despite the condition she was in with her targeting systems out the Edinburgh was still able to hit and cripple the Z7. The Z24 and Z25 however continued the attack the Edinburgh was struck by a further torpedo. Rather inexplicably the German destroyers withdrew.
Due to the condition of the Edinburgh, the decision was taken, after taking off her remaining crew, to sink her with friendly fire, likely to prevent any risk of the gold falling into German hands.
Despite further U-Boat attacks over the next few days, the remainder of the ships in the convoy safely arrived at Rejykavik, Iceland and subsequently proceeded on to Loch Ewe on the Scottish west coast.
Within a week of arrival back in Scotland my dad was re-assigned to another vessel and he never returned to the Dan-Y-Bryn, and yet, despite the short period he served on her, she remains, understandably, one of, if not the most important ship he served on.
He went on to serve on further Arctic convoys in 1944.
One of the spin-offs of my investigations was that I discovered that my dad, following the war, served on two ships operating out of Durban from Jan 1947 to 1948. It was here that he bought my mom's engagement ring and his happy memories of Durban were a major factor in the decision to accept the Marconi Marine offer to emigrate to South Africa in 1970.
The Arctic Star Medal
The awarding of the Arctic Star medal, which triggered my research, was the result of a long campaign by ex-servicemen, as after the war, and with the breakdown of the relationship with Russia, these convoys were sadly not given the recognition they deserved.
The Arctic Star Medal
So in due course I was able to apply for the Arctic Star medal on behalf of my dad.
There were certainly a few glitches along the way and the medal ended up making two trips from the UK to SA before I finally received it a few weeks before my Dads 90th Birthday.
The BBC, a few years back now, estimated that that there were only about 400 remaining survivors of the Arctic Convoys still living.
We were very privileged to be able to incorporate the presentation of the Arctic Star Medal to my dad as part of his 90th birthday celebrations and to share the moment with many of his close friends and family."
Fellow member Donald Davies very kindly agreed to present the Main Talk when our advertised speaker, Major Peter Williams, was unable to return in time. His topic was entitled "Bray Hill Revisited: A Boer laager west of Mooi River". Regrettably, the write-up of Donald's talk was not available at the time of circulating this newsletter. An attempt will be made to distribute it in due course.
Fellow Member Don Porter thanked both speakers for their fascinating and well researched presentations.
Thursday 10th November 2016:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "General Patton in Sicily" by Maj Dr John Buchan
Main Talk: "The voyage of Admiral von Spee, Sept to Dec. 1914" by Robin Smith
Thursday 8th December 2016:
One lecture only, followed by the Branch's annual cocktail function: "Another Aeroplane Crash in the Scottish Highlands", by Ian Sutherland.
Thursday 19th January 2017 (NB THIS IS THE THIRD THURSDAY)
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "The Indo-Chinese Soldiers at Clairwood Camp", by Arthur Gammage.
Main Talk: "The Battle of Vaalkrans - defeat snatched from the jaws of victory", by Ken Gillings.
Thursday 9th February 2017 (NB - Reverting to the SECOND Thursday)
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: "South Africa's last Colonial Exploit", by Professor Philip Everitt.
Main Talk: "The Struggle for South Africa", by Donald Davies.
Meetings are held at the Murray Theatre, Department of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College Campus, Durban at 19h00 for 19h30.
End of Year Luncheon
Immediate Past Chairman Charles Whiteing is arranging the 2016 Branch annual luncheon at the Blue Waters Hotel, Durban, on SUNDAY 27TH NOVEMBER 2016.
This will be a special event, because it will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the South African Military History Society in Johannesburg in 1966.
Cost: R185 per person (R165 per person for pensioners).
Please contact Charles Whiteing on firstname.lastname@example.org or 0317647270 / 0825554689 if you'd like to attend.
A list is also being circulated at monthly meetings.
South African Military History Society / email@example.com