The 'burnt man' adrift on the frozen sea
3rd April 1942: The story of one American merchant seaman and the terrible conditions endured serving on the Arctic Convoys
The Arctic Convoys were a desperate attempt by Britain and America to keep Soviet Russia supplied with munitions. Convoys formed up in Iceland and then took a northerly route, skirting the pack ice to keep away from the coast of Norway, into the Barents Sea to the Russian port of Murmansk. Aside from terrible weather they faced attacks by German ships, U-boats and aircraft.
Convoy PQ131 from Iceland to Murmansk consisted of a combination of American and British merchant shipping. They were about 120 miles north of Russia when they came under air attack and the Panamanian registered steam merchant SS Ballot badly damaged - and a number of men took to the lifeboats.
‘The seas were tremendous, with tons of water coming over the bow on top of us… Then there was the cold. You couldn’t put your scarf over your mouth as your breath would freeze – even the inside of your nose would freeze. It was agony.’
The men were transferred to the British SS Induna. Then on the 30th March the Induna was torpedoed and sunk. One of the survivors, Austin Byrne, was subsequently to describe2 the conditions on board his lifeboat:
The next morning at about 7.30 am the “Induna” was torpedoed in the number five hold right under a load of aviation spirit and the explosion turned the deck into a burning mess. We were sent to boat stations and a few people started to run through the fire, whilst some on the stern jumped into the sea and away from the flames.
The last man was one of those rescued from the “Ballot” and he had no shoes on so his feet were ripped open by the cargo of barbed wire which we were also carrying, and he was leaving bloody footprints as he made his way to the lifeboat station, the Mate then lowered the boat to deck level and myself with some others were ordered into the boat, this was when we saw this man coming towards us, his hair was burnt off and his face and hands were badly burnt, as his jacket and trousers were also burning we rolled him into the boat and beat out the flames.
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