Men and Ice – The Last Call of HMS Edinburgh

Men and Ice – The Last Call of HMS Edinburgh

The Arctic conflict during World War 2 was an episode that Winston Churchill billed as ‘the most dangerous of the entire war’. This is the story of Able Seaman, George Crowder, who served on 2 submarines and several ships including HMS Edinburgh. He was rescued from the sea twice following torpedo attacks and returned from the war a quiet and serious man who, like many, would never speak of his experiences.  

George was only 23 years old when HMS Edinburgh set off on 29 April 1942 from Murmansk, Russia, with its extraordinary cargo in a bomb room deep in the hull of the ship: Gold bullion, worth £5million pounds at that time, was Stalin’s payment for war supplies to Russia.

Frank Pearce ‘s book,” The Last Call for HMS Edinburgh”, gives a vivid account of this most brutal episode fought in the most terrible conditions and conveys a feeling of how relentless and incessant their ordeal was. It is a ‘must-read’ for anyone who had family members involved in the Russian Convoys and wishes to have a better understanding of their predecessors. It is quite poignant that the author was a crew member of the ship that attempted to get George home safely, HMS Trinidad, only to be torpedoed and suffer the same fate as HMS Edinburgh.

Frank tells of the terrible conditions that the men encountered as soon as they hit open water even before the enemy struck: In temperatures of -10 degrees, the men wore any clothes available to them and never got undressed. Heaving seas meant that everything was quickly saturated either by sea water or by sea sickness – everywhere! Cooking was impossible so the men lived on tea and corned beef sandwiches all the time. From the moment they were spotted by a Junkers 88 – a German reconnaissance plane – their fate was sealed. Because of the ice barrier, it was easy for the German admiralty to simply estimate the route the convoy would take and wait… Even though HMS Edinburgh took initial action to try to avoid attack, U-boat 456 was lying in wait. Although a young operator heard echoes, this was disregarded and a sense of momentary relaxation on the messdecks is logged in the book:

“It was in this unguarded moment that no-one, not even the bridge look-outs, saw the tell-tale silver wakes of the deadly steel fish streaking through the Arctic waters towards the ship”.

Of the 2 torpedoes fired, both were on target leaving HMS Edinburgh “a grotesque coffin of steel and smashed bodies”. Despite all efforts to save the ship, the British decided that they were left no choice other than to sink the stricken ship themselves to the bottom of the ocean so that the Nazis could not get their hands on the riches inside. At 09.00 on 02 May 1942, just 9 days before George’s 24th birthday, HMS Edinburgh came to rest on the ocean floor with 57 men still in the hull.

The crew of the Edinburgh had been together for 3 long years and now companionship was crucial to their survival.

George found himself swimming in oil and icy cold water and was only minutes away from sure death when he was pulled from the water onto a nearby destroyer. 1,000 men survived from the Edinburgh and other ships in the convoy, but their ordeal had only just begun… Back on land in Russia, conditions were stark. They were now in Russian hands and the Russians themselves were living in sub-human conditions. Weary, filthy, oil-soaked, unshaven, and shivering in sub-zero temperatures, they were marched 2 miles through snow. At the end? A wooden camp and a meal of gruel. The crew of the Edinburgh had been together for 3 long years and now companionship was crucial for survival. Although George eventually made it home, many of them subsequently died in the attempts to get them back home. In 1942, the Germans were building 5 U-boats per week so that there were as many as 100 subs lying in wait along the convoy route. Together with their force of dive-bombing aircraft, the German attack was relentless:

“…First would come the Condor reconnaissance planes casually circling the convoy like great vultures, then the U-boats, threading across the convoy route with their deadly torpedoes, waiting for the kill. And inevitably, there would be the dive-bombers screaming out of a sky of persistent daylight. No matter how far north the ships sought protection the bombers would find them, choosing the time and place to kill, and kill, and kill again”.

HMS Edinburgh laid on the seabed for 39 years before being located in August 1981. In September of that year the gold was recovered. The ship and her human sacrifice still lay at the bottom of the great ocean.

It wasn’t until 2013 that the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy sailors received long-awaited Arctic Convoy Medals honouring their heroism – too late for Able Seaman George Crowder who died in the milder climate of Melbourne, Australia in 1987.