More than once from the bridge of the Murmansk-bound freighter I had seen the big cruiser hover on our flank. But she possessed little of a real entity: she was wraith like, a kind of Flying Dutchman of the Arctic Circle.
"She knows her job," said the captain of the ship in which I was permitted passage. "Makes a man feel good eh?" The Edinburgh was flashing signals rapidly with her Aldis (lamp). "Calling the destroyers," said the captain. Then almost at once, by that curious "grapevine telegraph" that runs through any convoy, we knew that something hostile had been detected far to the north. The big cruiser flashed a few more crisp instructions, and the leading destroyers swung out of course and headed northwards. The other destroyers and minelayers and trawlers that formed our close escort seemed to crowd in towards us - the big, necessary merchantmen which were loaded scupper-deep with those vital munitions Stalin needed to purge Russia of its festering German plague.
During the rest of the eastward trip I did not see the Edinburgh again, though more than once dull thin reverberations rolled down towards us and experience diagnosed that muttering thunder as the quick fire of eight-inch guns.
My outward convoy was attacked shortly afterwards, both from the air and from under the sea, though no destroyers showed up. We learnt however - again by grapevine - that the big cruiser had been in action, aided by our F-Class destroyers and had driven off an intended assault: a lively action fought mostly in considerable fog, so that it was possible only to fire at enemy gun flashes and at occasional shadowy shapes that moved like ghostly lightening
Thanks to German attentions there was not so much time to speculate on what the Edinburgh was up to. One or two of our convoy were lost, by bomb and torpedo. My ship had a close call, as close as I wish to see, for a near-miss from a thousand pound bomb shook her rivets loose. Being well built she steamed on and the pumps kept the leads under. The F.W.s came out f the cloudy south at wave-top height and Arctic clouds hang low and break into baffling wisps, the aircraft that attacked us at that time was on us almost before the alarm was shrilled from the escort's sirens.
But the F.W. was shot down by Bofors fired from our next ship in line - the Astarte, I think she was. The destroyers, firing a terrific barrage, accounted for another; and one, diving to dodge a burst, plunged into the sea at full speed and never emerged. I couldn't see even a smear of oil to see where she went, just a flattening of the brisk waves. One munitions ship got a direct hit and blew up - the concussion seemed to lift us clean out of the water, just as the near-miss had done.
But the gallant convoys steamed steadily forward, every available gun - Bofors, Hotchkiss, Bren and even bigger stuff - lacing the dull sky with quick shell bursts. Shrapnel dropped on your bridge with regularity, and one man was killed by a huge fragment from the exploded munitions ship.
It is impossible to see a modern day convoy’s battle as a panorama. Everything starts and finished very quickly. Bombing aircraft do not swing in circles round the merchant ships like evil albatrosses; they dash in from nowhere in breathless haste, develop their attack out of range of guns, and then attack, occasionally from wave-top height, sometimes from the clouds. I did get an impression of a lack of systematic training on the part of the Hun - it was as if the pilots were anxious to get the job done and race back to safety.
It was, however, warming up that the U-boats came in. The whole thing had obviously been staged on the assumption that all attention would be focused on the sky; but the Royal Navy is expert in convoy protection after much grim practice, and the destroyers, though continuing a hot aerial fire, snaked away to the danger zone and dropped patterns of depth charges assiduously.
As a result of this promptness only one freighter was struck by a torpedo and that not fatally. An armed trawler stood down to her as she stopped dead and fell out of line, and later that same trawler reached port with the merchant ship in safe tow.
(This was not the outward convoy that underwent a five-day aerial attack by everything the Hun possessed).
Even so, life was precarious. I forgot to count the number of times the warning sirens screamed. I do know that my ship was rocked at least twenty times during four days by depth charges exploded somewhere not very far away. Occasionally a destroyer or cutter would vanish, there would later be concussions, then the warship would return to within visual signalling range to report: "Duty completed - U-boat seriously damaged".
When the flotilla leader ranged down alongside to report progress through his loud hailer he seemed in high spirits, and stated that at least two U-boats had definitely been destroyed, together with two probables. Prisoners had been collected from the two certainties. We saw some of them on the big destroyer’s deck and a hang-dog bunch they looked.
There was no real night at that time of year: just a dullish twilight between 11pm and 1am and so watchfulness had to be maintained through each twenty four hours. It was an uncanny feeling to know that any moment might jolt me out of my bed to abandon the sturdy ship of which I grew very fond. The prevailing mistiness - for even strong winds did not disperse it up there - and the spectral glimmer of occasional ice, all tended to give an impression of stark unreality.
Twice more the convoy was attacked from the air, on the second occasion, during that patch of so called night, when the enemy aircraft dropped parachute flares to locate us. But not a single bomb came near, although the detonations told us that a large number had been dropped. The barrage kept the raiders at a respectable distance.
On the daylight raid one merchant ship got a direct hit and took fire, but the damage was forward and the flames were quickly extinguished, enabling the ship to make port, a little astern of the main convoy and escorted by an armed trawler. Then the Russian air force took command of the skies and their protected umbrella warded off further assaults.
We were given a warm welcome in Murmansk, and all haste was shown in unloading our freight of tanks and guns, vitally needed in the war theatre. The Edinburgh did not come into the harbour at all, but laid off in open sea to refuel, the oiler going out to her. But the destroyers did come into anchor, and it was interesting to hear their crews' stories of their part in the battle.
I was offered the choice of returning home in a British ship that had completed loading, but I preferred to wait and return in my outward-ship. Some time had elapsed before we were fully laden with valuable timber and such cargo, almost a necessary to Britain as were our cargoes to Russia. Before we were ready to leave, the next convoy arrived after its eight day ordeal. More than one of the destroyers looked knocked about. It had been a grim business - and the Edinburgh had distinguished herself greatly in warding off attack by a big surface raider - possibly the Von Scheer.
The Edinburgh planned to accompany our homeward convoy. As a rule the homeward bounders are not so hotly attacked as those outward but on this occasion a determined attempt was made to destroy us all. My ship was chosen as commodore ship, and the old commodore was an one-time friend. I could not sufficiently admire his gallantry in leaving well-earned retirement to play a worthwhile part on the most dangerous sea rout in the world, but he said, with twinkling eyes: "Far better to die with your boots on than in a bath chair at Cheltenham!" I agreed with him. He was very wise and very brave and I certain that it was his almost uncanny foresight that enabled so many of the convoy to make safe port.
We were attacked from the air as soon as we left the Russians protective orbit. On this occasion our cook shot down a Focke-Wulf with a direct hit. It was amusing, as I had been chaffing him on his inability to make pea soup in the old fashioned windjammer way, and he had sworn to satisfy me.
The attack developed while he was in the galley. He ran out to man his Oerlikon, finished off the Hun aircraft as neatly as a clay pigeon shot, wiped his hands on his apron and ran back to the galley, to curse like hell because the jolt of a bomb had capsized the soup-pot and splashed all his masterpiece over the red hot stove top.
It was during this homeward trip that the Edinburgh came to her unfortunate end. We were surface attacked by a strong force of very big enemy destroyers, most of them armed with 5.5 inch guns. Our escort destroyers although more lightly armed raced in to attack, the big cruiser steaming in at full speed to intercept. One of our destroyers was crippled by a direct hit; the others stood in to draw enemy fire while an attempt was mad to tow the damaged warship, but she afterwards sank. We were able to witness some part of this gallant action.
The destroyers object was to compel the attack to keep out of gun range of the convoy. They did that. Then the gallant Edinburgh arrived to join battle. She had been far out on the flank, suspicious that the big destroyers were simply a screen for a battleship - possibly the Tirpitz, whose giant size in no ways daunted her. It was as she was hurrying to deal with the destroyers that she received more than one hit from torpedoes. Hurt as she was, she went on firing until the enemy withdrew. She covered our destroyer with her long range fire, while she limped along half helplessly.
The full details of her gallant action have already been published and all I can add to the official statements is a curt description of her final moments. It was possible to see occasional details of the tragedy, enough to complete a picture of what exactly happened. Once the enemy were driven off, our destroyers stood down to the listed cruiser in readiness to save life.
She was desperately hit, and with smoke ascending from her hull, badly on fire. But though her position seemed desperate, her gallant captain resolved to attempt to save her. He ordered a proportion of her crew into the destroyer, but retained a skeleton staff and signalled to be taken in tow.
But the Edinburgh was too badly hit. The damage done to her aide her too unwieldy - she failed to steer. Even under helm a ten thousand ton cruiser swings wildly in tow o ordinary tugs, astern of destroyers she was helpless.
It is a saddening thing to see a brave ship die. The Commodore, reading the signals made and recoded on our own signal pads, said dismally: "They're going to sink her!" Rather than allow the wrecked ship to fall a prize into enemy hands, the Edinburgh's captain resolved to sink her by friendly torpedoes. Imagine how the Germans would have exulted over such a trophy.
Watching through binoculars I saw the destroyers range alongside and remove the skeleton crew. The cruiser's ensign flew staunchly at the masthead, undaunted. The destroyers hauled off; and then, from comparatively close range, let fly several tin fish. I saw giant water spouts. She seemed clean over on her side. When they subsided, the Edinburgh was hard over other side.
"Half-mast that ensign!" ordered the Commodore, and hardy as he was, his voice shook. Our dingy red ensign came half-way down from the gaff. I turned from looking at this poignant emblem, and saw the Edinburgh emerge from the waterspouts. She seemed clean over on her side; but with a last effort, she staggered upright.
"habet!" said the Commodore, hand at the salute. The Edinburgh dipped her lean bow, and tilted her stern. Then, smoothly, and decently, her work done, she slid down under the ragged waves, which curdled all about her. The White Ensign was the last thing to go - and to my mind it snapped defiance at the worst the enemy could do.