The Russian Convoy Club; The Arctic Lookout.
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1941-1945 The Arctic Lookout; Story printed in the Winter 1998 - Number 33.
HMS MAHRATTA- Dr Peter McRae.
Noel Simon, MID (1933) WRITES;-
Convoy JW57, consisting of about 60 merchant ships laden with tanks, aircraft and other hardware for Russia, sailed from Loch Ewe on February 20th 1944. As well as destroyers and corvettes, all escort included the aircraft carrier Chaser (in which I was serving) As the prime target for the U-boats, Chaser was stationed in the centre of the convoy.
After crossing the Arctic Circle the convoy was intercepted by two wolf packs, totalling 14 U-boats. Under the cover of darkness, they mounted a concerted attack during the course of which a torpedo, presumably intended for the carrier, sunk the destroyer HMS Mahratta, which was stationed on Chaser’s port beam, with the loss of all but sixteen of her crew.
On arrival in Murmansk, the survivors were transferred to Chaser for the passage home. I talked to a group of Mahratta rating- none of the officers had survive - who told me of the heroism of their doctor. Having managed to climb onto one of the few Carley floats to have come through the sinking, he set about hauling the others aboard. The float soon became overcrowded.
Remarking almost casually; “ There’s not enough room for us all ” the doctor slipped over the side into the sea and was never seen again.
The straightforward manner in which the survivors recounted this event, and the admiration and affection with which they spoke of their doctor- whose name (oddly enough) none of them knew - made a deep impression upon me.
Not until months later, and then quite by chance, did I discover that Mahratta’s doctor was none other than Peter McRae, a contemporary of mine at school. As a boy he had been one of the most delightful and gifted of people. A good all-rounder, successful in all he undertook, yet completely unassuming. I remember him as an exceptionally fine rugger player - certainly the most outstanding fly-half in the school during my time there. Several years after the war, a proposal was made that his self-sacrifice should be recognised by a suitable award but, sadly, the Admiralty did not concur.1941-1945 The Arctic Lookout; Story printed in the Summer 1999 - Number 35.
By Gordon McIntosh Robertson, Msc
HMS Mahratta was a Fleet ‘M’ Class Destroyer, under the command of Lieut, Cdr E. A. F. Drought, RN. Built at scotts of Greenock, all Milne class destroyers were laid down 1938-40 and completed in 1941-42 except Mahratta which had to be rebuilt on another berth when Scotts was bombed in 1941 and did not complete until April 1943. As a result of the continuous bombing of Scotts shipyard, HMS Mahratta was known by local employees as ‘the blitz boat’. The ‘M’ class ships were commissioned with the names; Marksman, Marne, Martin, Matchless, Meteor, Milne, Musketeer, and Myrmidon. Originally named Marksman, she was renamed Mahratta as a tribute to the Mahratta Brigade of the Indian Army. All the group had a single funnel, a tall tripod foremast and a short pole mainmast with a gaff from which the ensign was flown. All had Type 285 gunnery control radar (aerial array mounted on top ot the director immediately forward of the foremast) and Type 286 warning radar (aerial at foremast head). All the group when first commissioned had a large searchlight on the ‘bandstand’ just forward of the pole mainmast. She went to Scapa Flow for working up and during May, she escorted Queen Mary, with Churchill on board, part of the way across the Atlantic. After a month on local escort duties she arrived at Seidisfjord (Iceland) on 4th June 1943, to take part in FH, the relief of the Garrison at Spitzbergen Island (Norway). In July Mahratta and Musketeer waited in Iceland for the ice to clear, then made her first high speed run to Murnansk, carrying all sorts of important things, such as a bath tub for the Admiral.
This was followed closely by other operations in Northern waters; Operation Camera and Operation Governor; movements designed to simulate a large scale landing on the Norwegian coast, with the object of pinning down enemy forces on the eve of the opening of the Sicilian campaign.
In August 1943 HMS Mahratta sailed with the 10th Cruiser Squadron for Operation Lorry, covering the passage of destroyers with personnel and stores to Kola, North Russia. Among the items carried were crew and parts that were used to service the photographic spitfires which were monitoring Altenfjord before the midget submarine attack. Tirpitz along with several destroyers came out of Altenfjord to attack the convoy but missed by a few hours. Tirpitz went on to shell Spitzergen.
In September 1943 Mahratta sailed southward with Matchless to meet HMS Valiant and three aircraft carriers. Two of these returned to Gibraltar with four destroyers. Matchless broke down on her way back from the Mediterranean, with a leak to her condensers, and had to be towed by Mahratta for several hours, until the chain parted. Later that day Mahratta spotted and picked up the survivors of a Coastal Command Hampton Bomber, which had been shot down by a German submarine off Gironde-Bordeaux. Group Captain Meade was one of the survivors who had been in the dinghy for eleven days. Mahratta arrived at Plymouth for repairs on the 10th October.
Later in the month she left Plymouth for Scapa Flow, then on to Seidisfjord to join the forces assembled for the escort of convoy JW54A to North Russia.
The convoy sailed from Loch Ewe on 15th November, and the passage out was uneventful, as was the return passage with convoy RA54B.
Mahratta made two more passages with the Arctic convoys, before her last one, with convoy JW57. The JW57 convoy left Loch Ewe on 20th February 1944. The operation for its protection was commanded by Vice Admiral Glennie in the Cruiser Black Prince. With him were the cruisers Berwick and Jamaica and the Polish ship Dragon; the escort carrier Chaser and a destroyer escort, among them Mahratta.
The convoy consisted of 43 merchant ships, and two tankers which doubled as oilers and the rescue ship Copeland, all under the command of Commodore Binks aboard Fort Romaine. In addition there were three Russian manned coastal minesweepers and three patrol craft being delivered to their new owners.
The close escort was provided by the corvettes Bluebell, Camellia, Lotus and Rhododendron, together with a local escort of two corvettes Burdock and Dianella. Also joining were two Western Approaches support groups, one under Commander Tyson in Keppel with Beagle, Boadicea and Walker, which arrived at Lock Ewe; the second, under Commander Majendie, with two frigates, the American built Captain Class Byron, the River class Strule and the LREs Wanderer and Watchman made a rendezvous after refuelling in the Faeroe Islands. The minesweepers Hydra, Orestes and Rattlesnake accompanied the convoy North for two days, when the ocean escorts arrived.
Next day 23rd February, a Condor reappeared. HMS Chaser flew off her Wildcat aircraft and it was thought they had driven the condor off in fact it maintained distant contact with the convoy. Accurate reports from these aircraft indicated that several U-boats were in the area. They were almost immediately detected by a Swordfish patrol, whereupon Commander Tyson’s Keppel attacked and despatched U-boat U713 with depth charges.
On the 25th February, a long range Catalina from 210 Squadron RAF flew above the convoy and attacked the trailing U-boat U601, diving on and sinking the boat. But the Germans continued to probe the convoy, keeping submerged to trimmed down using their schnorkels during the brief hours of daylight when Chaser’s Swordfish were aloft, then surfacing and drawing ahead, constantly trying to induce the destroyers to work up to full speed in endless quest and pursuit, to create the underwater ‘noise’ that favoured the use of the German T-5 torpedoes.
On HMS Wanderer’s bridge there was a certain amount of criticism from Lt Commander Whinney of the night screen positions of the convoy ships signalled from Vice-Admiral Glennie, on the Black Prince. In the prevailing rough seas, the convoy was thought to be even more vulnerable than usual to a stern attack, for only two Home Fleet destroyers covered this sector. (One being Mahratta) and they had been allocated arcs to sweep with their radars.
Lt Commander Whinney’s misgivings were proved to be justified.
Later that evening, Whinney heard a message from one of the destroyers calling up the flagship on radio telephone and announce ’ have been hit by a torpedo, aft, and am stopped’ followed shortly afterwards, in an increasingly anguished tone which was harrowing to hear, by ’have been hit amidships by a second torpedo’. U-boat U990 had fired at Mahratta and all but sixteen of his men died in the freezing water, despite the fact that HMS Impulsive and another destroyer were quickly on the scene to pick up the survivors. In the extreme cold, HMS Wanderer’s antique guns were the only guns in the escorts available to illuminate the scene with star shell and search for survivors. HMS Mahratta sunk 200 miles from Nordkapp (Norway) on the night of the 25th February 1944, on a bearing of N;71, 17E at 13.30hrs.
Despite the sinking of Mahratta, much was made of the success of this convoy. It was described as the biggest ever sent to Russia. War correspondents who accompanied the convoy paid tribute to the young men who died ’blasting their way through the ice to Russia’. The article which described the convoy had no need to employ journalistic licence to describe the conditions. They were awful and the brunt of them had been taken by the brave Naval seamen of HMS Mahratta. The sinking of Mahratta was not officially announced until the 18th March.
HMS Mahratta was awarded the Battle Honour Arctic 1943-44.
A memorial to all those who died on the Russian Convoys was unveiled in Murmansk in 1991, on the 50th Anniversary of the first convoy (Dervish).
AB Bill Macdonald was one of the 16 survivors of HMS Mahratta, who attended the ceremony. Sadly Bill died a few years age.
Tony Inderwick also attended the ceremony. Tony served on HMS Mahratta from commissioning and ‘fortunately’ developed TB and was hospitalised in December 1943, just before her last fateful run.
He was a Sub Lt on the ship but, unfortunately, his replacement was not a survivor.
HMS Mahratta was originally ‘adopted’ by the people of Walsall. During the week 7th - 14th February 1942 Walsall had a ‘Warship Week’, with the aim of raising £700,000, the cost of a complete destroyer, provided by the people of Walsall. Warship Week began with processions including Allied Forces, The Band of the Royal Pioneer Corps, the Home Guard. Fire Service, Police, Boy Scouts and Navy Cadets. Spitfires from the RAF flew overhead doing ‘victory rolls’, Shops were asked to do window displays, the best window receiving ten savings certificates.
The Mayor, Councillor C. S Moore, said “ The people of Walsall have never been lacking in their patriotism and I feel that, despite the numerous appeals and sacrifices since the commencement of the war we shall achieve our objective in obtaining during Warship Week the cost of a complete destroyer”.
The scholars of the Butts school, built a 36ft model of HMS Mahratta and later, under the direction of the Headmistress, Miss Millingham, scholars painted the replica.
The ship’s crest for HMS Marksman (the original name) and Mahratta were mounted above the entrance to the Royal Naval Association Club at Bloxwich, Walsall.
(These crest's are now held at The Walsall Museum, they have be very kind to photograph them for me to add to the web site, they can be found on the HMS MARKSMAN and HMS MARATTA CREST page.)
1941-1945 The Arctic Lookout; Story printed in the Winter 1999 - Number 36.
S/M C. Armstrong, HMS Wanderer.
I have been interested in the account of HMS Mahratta. At the time she was sunk I was serving in HMS Wanderer. The convoy one of the biggest, had a large escort.
HMS Wanderer and her sister ship, HMS Watchman, were built just after the first world war and equipped with ‘antique ‘ guns which, nevertheless, did the job and fired the starshells.
The C.O. of HMS Wanderer, Lt Cdr Whinney, wrote a book, ‘The U-boat Peril’, in which he gave an account of the sinking of HMS Mahratta. (Sadly he died a few years ago).
His account is as follows;-
HMS Keppel and aircraft had sunk a U-boat and the same afternoon, the Admiral made a long signal, giving the dispositions of the ships in the escorts, which they were to keep during hours of darkness. A U-boat was still in touch and I asked the Officer of the watch which direction he thought an attack would come from. “ In this weather”, he replied, “ the stern of the convoy would seem to be the most vulnerable”,.
There was a short sea astern, with a stiff following breeze and the radar operator warned that the spray from the wave tops could cause ‘clutter’ interference on radar. A trimmed down U-boat would not need to use his ‘Snort’ and could get in undetected.
From the plotting sheet it appeared that the Admiral expected the attack to come from ahead. There were only two destroyers covering the whole back end of the convoy and all the escorts had been allotted arcs of sweep for their radars.
I assumed that the two destroyers at the rear of the convoy would be using their radars, to catch any surfaced U-boats that may try to overtake and attack from astern. It had been promulgated that U-boatshad been making successful attacks down wind and sea. Mahratta, one of the two ships astern of the convoy, called up the Admiral on R/T. Up on the bridge I heard the educated and entirely calm voice of Cdr Drought, who had been at Prep Schol and later, Dartmouth with me, "Have been hit by torpedo aft and am stopped", This was, obviously a Gnat, which had homed in onto the two destroyers propeller noises.
After a short pause, the next message,- "have been hit amidships by a second torpedo". Another pause -probably Drought was trying to get all watertight doors shut and summing up the destroyers situation. "Life saving equipment is being cleared away," Still the same unemotional tones. Then probably due to a fault in the R/T- "We are abandoning ship - we are sinking - we cannot last much longer!" and that was it. It appeared that the Admiral sent two destroyers to rescue survivors; there were very few. I believe that some of the life-saving gear was frozen up. So far as Wanderer could make out, no ship was sent after the U-boat.
Personally, from sheer impotence and rasping anguish,the Mahratta incident compared with the terrible moments when the strafing of the Laconia's survivors was taking place near Ascension Island, and the staggering news of the sinking of HMS Hood.