Churchill's Arctic Convoys
An account of the loss of the American ship Mary Luckenbach and her entire crew from a new study of the supply convoys to Russia
I recently covered the attacks made on Convoy PQ18 but have just received a new account in the just published Churchill's Arctic Convoys: Strength Triumphs Over Adversity.
Following the invasion of Russia in 1941 Churchill and Roosevelt undertook to provide Soviet Russia with a continuous supply of munitions. The principal means of supply was by means of convoys to the northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel. This route from Iceland ( where most of the convoys formed up) around the North Cape of Norway and into the Barents Sea, sometimes skirting the Arctic ice, was hazardous at the best of times. With added threat from Germans U-boats, torpedo bombers and surface raiders it became a forbidding proposition.
This is a new study covering every one of those convoys. This is a very deeply researched account drawing on a multitude of sources to paint a picture of every convoy. There are many personal accounts from participants - plus a detailed appendix listing every ship involved in each convoy and their fate.
The following excerpt deals with the sudden demise of the Mary Luckenbach in September 1942:
The Avenger was steaming off the convoy’s starboard quarter with four Hurricanes up when the third attack developed around 14.05. Twenty-two He.111s from I./KG 26 supported by 18 Ju.88s from III./KG 30. The ‘firing arcs’ on the Ulster Queen were masked by the superstructures of the ships in the port wing column as she steamed out to the flank of the convoy to engage the aircraft.
Still flying low, the majority retained their torpedoes for use against Avenger but were unable to find a suitable release point. Some of the torpedoes dropped ran into the tracks of the merchant ships in the convoy. No ‘emergency turn’ was ordered, as the merchant ships were not the direct target. Many torpedoes were seen to pass harmlessly down through the convoy, but at 14.15, the Mary Luckenbach was hit as she crossed the track of a torpedo running in from the starboard side.
Commodore Boddam-Whetham later recalled in his official report:
She completely detonated. A huge column of blue and grey smoke went up to the cloud base and there mushroomed out.
A number of ships were hit and damaged and casualties were sustained from this explosion. Nathanael Greene thought she had been torpedoed and is much damaged but managed to complete the voyage with the help of her pumps.
The Mary Luckenbach was carrying a cargo of munitions including 1,000 tons of TNT. When the torpedo struck she disintegrated in a huge explosion. Little was left when rescue craft arrived to look for survivors.
‘One second the ship was there and the next there is a blinding flash followed by a terrific crash. Smoke towers into the sky and when it clears away not even a piece of wood can be seen.’
A number of merchant ships sailing close to the Mary Luckenbach suffered varying degrees of collateral damage. The explosion shook the nearby Scoharie as though she had been torpedoed, throwing men flat on the deck. Fragments of hot steel crashed down on them from bow to stern.
The Nathanael Greene sailing on the port side of the Mary Luckenbach had just changed course to avoid the track of one of several aerial torpedoes. The commander first thought his ship had been hit and ordered the crew to lifeboat stations, but countermanded the order when it became apparent there was no immediate danger.
All the same, the Nathanael Greene did suffer significant damage. The shockwave from the explosion threw the gunners from their stations, damaged most of the deck cargo, blew hatches from their fittings, broke porthole windows, damaged bulkhead doors, the ship’s hospital, crockery, and other fittings and knocked the ship’s compasses out of adjustment. Several of the crew and armed guards were injured and one crewman was reported missing, blown overboard. Despite all this the Nathanael Greene’s main engine remained functional and she continued on to Archangel.
The force of the explosion, terrific noise and vibration also made some of those on the Ocean Faith think their ship had been hit. Shrapnel from the Mary Luckenbach rained down lifeboats, while the shockwave flattened ventilators, sprang radiators from the bulkheads, smashed crockery and threw compasses out of true.
Various eyewitness accounts survive of the moments before and after the Mary Luckenbach was hit:
The plane came in to about 300 yards before dropping its torpedoes and then swept on. As it passed, the ship’s gunner raked it fore and aft and bright tongues of flame flickered from its starboard engine. It dipped, recovered, dipped again and seemed just about to crash, when its torpedoes reached their mark and the ship simply vanished into thin air. It took the plane with it.
A stupendous column of smoke was rocketing to heaven, and as we looked an immense glow lit the column, and great cerise, orange-and- yellow fragments arched outwards towards us ... [later] the great smoke column was still thousands of feet high and mushrooming out where it met the clouds. At its base flames still flickered and the following ship was altering course to avoid them. One second the ship was there and the next there is a blinding flash followed by a terrific crash. Smoke towers into the sky and when it clears away not even a piece of wood can be seen.
There was a tremendous explosion and debris showered down on us on Daneman like hail. Nothing and no one was left when the smoke cleared.
Captain Richard Hockey of the William Moultrie, steaming in the same column immediately astern of the Luckenbach, said when his ship passed over the spot:
There was nothing left of her at all - not even a raft - no wreckage, not even a matchbox; hardly a ripple on the surface of the sea.
Nothing remained of the ship except a pillar of smoke when rescue craft arrived to look for survivors.
This excerpt from Churchill's Arctic Convoys: Strength Triumphs Over Adversity appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.