This is the second part of the reminiscences of John Hirst who was born in Ossett in 1921. It covers his time serving in the Merchant Navy and his time in the Russian Convoy. John is 96 yearso old and very active. His earlier memories are recorded in Part 1.
It is a while since John wrote his memories and since he did it I have managed to find out more about the ships he was on and the people who sailed on them. I have added this information at the end of John's work. Otherwise the story is in his words.
John and I had a “recorded chat” in Ossett Library about his memories on 26th September, 2017. An extract that covers his time in WW2, evacuations of children during the war and some tale about his 30 years as a gamekeeper at Upper Hopton are included.
Before the chat began John had handed me a letter that he had received in 1996 from H. S. Stansfield, one of his fellow seamen who, with him, had survived the sinking of SS Empire Cowper. This person had been evacuated from Hull to Wakefield but then at a young age joined the Merchant Navy as an apprentice. He had stayed on in the Merchant Navy after the war becoming a ship’s Captain and then lived in Vancouver, Canada.
My Wartime Service.
I had to register for National Service which meant I had to go to Lady Lane, Leeds for the medical examination. I passed A1 Royal Navy fit and then volunteered for service with the Merchant Navy.
I was waiting for further instructions when on 29th July 1941 Crigglestone Colliery had a gas explosion, killing 22 men, including three brothers from Middlestown, Arthur, Bernard and Lloyd Fox. Bernard Fox was my father's boyhood pal and dart throwing partner.
I had my medical examination on the Friday and the funeral for the three brothers, which I went to, was on the following Monday or Tuesday. May Fox, Bernard's widow, had a daughter, Joan, nine years old. So May had to find work to live and bring up Joan. My sister, Mabel, worked at Scarr's Mill in Horbury Bridge and was able to get May a job there. Joan stayed at our house Mondays to Fridays and slept in my bed while May worked. May, my sister Mabel and my mother would go out together at weekends and we kept up the friendship through the war years and are still close to this day. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.
On the 15th October, 1941 I was called up for National Service. I still have the document that came:-
John Hirst, Wickentree Hall, Old Road, Middlestown, Wakefield.
Registration No. HSD1637
Signed - Geo. S. Hammond
I travelled from Wakefield Westgate Station to Kings Cross, London, across London to Southern Railway Station on the underground. What an experience for anyone who hadn't done a lot of travel on their own.
That was only for starters for quite a number of lads 20 years of age who had been thrown in at the deep end. I travelled down with a lad from Harrogate called Stanley Robinson who had worked for the local Council in the Cleansing Department. We were kitted out with square rig uniform to train for Merchant Navy deckhands. After about ten days at Chatham we were transferred to HMS Gordon Sea School at Gravesend (see photos). This is where I passed out as a Senior Ordinary Seaman.
Whilst training at the sea school in Gravesend I was taught by Petty Officer Wallace, from Hull, who was a survivor from HMS Jervis Bay. The Jervis Bay was the sole escort to that took on Admiral Scheer, the German raider battleship.
I then had to report to South Shields and along with Stanley Robinson, stayed at the Seaman's Mission for Sailors. We both signed on the SS Empire Cowper on the 20th January, 1942 which was bound for Archangel, Russia.
SS Empire Cowper
Off No. 169003
20. 01. 1942
We went to Liverpool for final loading of cargo then to Glasgow to be kitted out for the Arctic weather. From here we sailed to the assembly point at Loch Ewe to join PQ13 convoy to Russia.
SS Empire Cowper was chosen as the commodore ship to start the journey, to control the PQ13 convoy. However,, owing to our ship being badly loaded and rolling so much, the Naval Signals crew left our ship at Reykjavik, Iceland and joined SS River Afton which then took the position of commodore ship for the convoy.
Owing to Archangel being frozen up the ship headed for Murmansk in Convoy PQ13, one nightmare after another.(See books "PQ13 Unlucky For Some" book by Morris O. Mills on the Merchant Navy Fourth Service). About six polish army officers joined us to go through to Murmansk. We ran into some very rough weather to say the least. We had cargo adrift in the ship's hold and had to open the hatches to see what was happening. Large packing cases containing aircraft parts, etc. were on the move and had to be made fast. The convoy was attacked by enemy aircraft. (Read the book "PQ13, Unlucky for Some" Chapter 8 page 87 onwards and you will find out more about it).
HMS Trinidad was a naval cruiser escorting PQ13. During the battle they fired a torpedo but it wasn't realised that its rudder was frozen and therefore locked in the wrong position which made it arc round in a circle causing heavy damage to the Trinidad.
We made it to Murmansk but there was no letting up. We eventually left Murmansk on Friday the 10th April, 1942 at evening time to join the PQ10 Convoy bound for the U.K. but we ran into big trouble as we were being shadowed by a Junkers 88S. We lost steam and fell astern of the convoy. The Junkers 88S got us with a bomb on the port-side of the ship, one into the bunk hatch, bursting the ship's boiler and a third into the starboard side. Orders were given to abandon ship.
As the order was given I was on deck and had just been to the galley and made a big kettle full of tea. I just managed to put the kettle down when we were struck. All the lights went out and on reaching the deck I couldn't see anything for steam from the burst boiler.
I lost sight of Bosun Frazer who was from the Orkneys but lived in South Shields. I never saw him again. My lifeboat station was a portside and I was helping to get her launched when the third mate came wanting someone to help launch the jolly boat which was forward by the bridge on starboard side. There were too many men to get in the jolly boat so I went back to the portside of the ship to find that the life raft had been launched with two survivors sat on it. I slipped down a life line rope onto the raft to join the men who were a fireman and second engineer.
The second engineer asked me if I had a knife and ordered me to cut the rope so that we could get away. I knew there were still five men aboard but again he ordered me to do as I was told and cut the rope. The rope painter had been spliced into the raft and could only be released by cutting. I did as ordered and we were adrift alongside the ship. We had to lay down on our backs to push us away from the stern of the ship. All that we could see of the convoy was away over the horizon. The two trawlers that were acting as rescue ships were darting about picking up men out of the water. HMT Paynter came to pick us up. Empire Cowper was still afloat and I reported to the crew that there were five men still aboard her. They already knew this as they had received signalled messages by Aldis Lamp. The five men were eventually taken off the Empire Cowper by HMT Paynter. We were very cold but dry. Other poor souls who had been in the water and were wet through and frozen had to be thawed out. I never found out how many were lost and how many were picked up by the other trawler HMT Blackfly. A leading seaman aboard Paynter said "Are you a Yorkie?" I answered "Yes, from Wakefield" He said that he was from Middlesborough and showed me where his bunk was. He was going on duty so he told me to get in his bunk and thaw out.
The second mate from our ship, who had escaped in one of the lifeboats that I had helped to launch asked me what I was doing in the bunk. He told me to get out as someone else should be in there, not me, because I was only cold. So the leading seaman told him, "I gave him permission to go in there."
I had a pair of ship's binoculars round my neck, the second mate ordered me to take them off as they were ship's property. The leading seaman said, "Let him take them if he wants." I couldn't care less at the time but he hadn't any more right to them as me and there wasn't any ship left.
We arrived at Seydisfjord, Iceland on 19th April, 1942 and transferred onto HMS Liverpool which took us to Scapa Flow. On board was Albert Brook from Mortimer Row, Horbury who was a serving crew member. From Scapa Flow we went to Thurso by ferryboat carrying gold from Russia. We had to stay aboard the ferry until the gold had been discharged and sent away under heavy armed guard. On the 22nd April we started a long train journey from Thurso to Inverness, Edinburgh and Leeds. I finally travelled home by bus from Leeds to Middlestown and got home at 17.00 hrs Friday teatime.
This is the end of John's reminiscences but since we started work on the Yarn we have found more information on some aspects of his story. These are given on the next page.
We have found two more stories by men who were on SS Empire Cowper on the fatal day. Also we have found details of those who lost their lives and the Merchant Seaman's Memorial for the ship at Tower Hill, London.