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World: Voyage to the U. S. S. R.

5 minute read
TIME

Seaman Herman remembered it precisely. It was 11:30 in the morning, Sunday, Sept. 13, when the Germans opened their attack. The convoy was off Spitsbergen, in the Arctic Ocean.

Because he was fed up with coastwise tankers after two years, Seaman Federick Herman of Fayetteville, N.Y. had signed on for the Atlantic run. His thought that Sunday morning, when the alarm bell rang, was: “Here I am on a Liberty ship jammed to the gunwales with Russian supplies in the biggest convoy the British have tried to punch through. So the Germans will put on their biggest show.” He ran on deck.

There was a low overcast. On the steel-grey ocean. Allied merchantmen were scattered from horizon to horizon. But some of the escort ships, tossing white water in their haste, had swerved from their courses to concentrate in one area. A Russian freighter, near enough for Seaman Herman to see the sailors on her deck, had already been torpedoed and was sinking. Astern of her another merchantman began to founder in the icy sea. Herman’s ship could not wait. Rescue work, what there was time for, was up to the warships.

Out of the sky over the northern coast of Norway came torpedo bombers that swooped like gulls, now only mast high, now level with the decks. Invisible in the overcast, high-altitude bombers began to drop their loads. Great cabbages of grey and blackening smoke sprouted out of the sea where unlucky vessels blew up. Ack-ack fire chattered. The engine room of Herman’s ship noisily disintegrated as a torpedo pierced her belly, noisily exploded.

Herman managed to stuff into the rubber suit which he was wearing a 200,000-word manuscript about his life at sea, three cartons of cigarets and a box of 5¢ cigars. A small British vessel which picked up Herman and his mates was already crowded with U.S., Dutch, Norwegian and Russian survivors. Some of the Russian sailors were women; they valiantly tried to cheer the men up.

Next morning the overburdened little ship ran alongside a larger British vessel. There was no slackening of speed. While both ships pitched on through the seas, the survivors clambered over the sides. Their new refuge was a cruiser. In her seamen’s mess forward, the 200 survivors flopped down, drew their first easy breath.

It was a short surcease. Over the cruiser’s public-address system came the clipped voice of a British officer: “We are now in the first degree of readiness.” And in a moment: “The attacking force is 40 miles away.”

A petty officer gave advice. When the cruiser’s guns started firing the mess hall would probably be dusty and the lights might go out, but the survivors had better stay below. Over the amplifiers came the same clipped voice (it was a lieutenant standing on the bridge). “You chaps in the mess hall,” came his cheerful voice, “in case of a hit lie prone on the deck. . . . Here they come, sir—5—17— 22—30—44 torpedo bombers coming in.”

Seaman Herman heard the explosions, felt the ship quake from a series of near hits. High-altitude bombers were also at work again. The ship’s guns were in action. Paint peeled from the mess hall’s vibrating bulkheads. A man opposite Herman beat his fist on a table to the rhythm of the thunder. A veteran Liverpool seaman read a book with an expression of elaborate unconcern. A Negro cook yelled profanity. The lights went out.

Over the amplifier came the lieutenant’s voice inquiring: “What have we got here?” It was a shattered Heinkel plane floating in the water, he explained, and as the ship passed it the German pilot was waving wildly and shouting in English: “Wait a minute!”

All that night, though the air attack subsided, Seaman Herman heard through the cruiser’s steel skin the thunder of underwater explosions. The British were sowing depth charges. U-boats were giving the convoy no rest.

In the morning Herman went on deck. The lieutenant had announced that torpedoes were coming. He explained: “The ship is moving ahead now.” Herman saw the tracks of the torpedoes and watched, fascinated, one track that had crossed the vessel’s wake not ten feet from her stern.

During that day and the next, he made frequent excursions to the deck. Hour after grey hour, south of Spitsbergen, across the Barents Sea, the convoy plowed on. U-boats and planes harassed and chivied it. Torpedo bombers flew so low that Herman could see the pilots grinning in the cockpits.

Of the great fleet of high-sided, broad-beamed cargo carriers that had started the voyage, many had been lost, their cargoes of war materials sunk. Russian naval vessels took over when the convoy steamed at last into Soviet waters. For the British warships the voyage was only half over. They had to fight their way back.

Days later, in Scotland, Seaman Herman saw a British newsreel of the expedition. As he watched it he began to shake. “It wasn’t very Hemingwaylike, but nevertheless I shook.” Last week Herman was back in the U.S., waiting for another berth.

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