Friday, January 21, 2011

Fullbore Friday

A war is winding down - but more work needs to be done.
The Henry Bacon was one of the thirty-eight merchant ships in convoy RA-64, which departed Kola Inlet, Murmansk, North Russia bound for Loch Ewe, Gourock, Scotland on Friday, 17 February 1945. The crew complement under Captain Alfred Carini was forty-one merchant seamen and twenty-six US Navy Armed Guard. The Henry Bacon was in ballast and carrying nineteen Norwegian civilian refugees, including women and children, as passengers.

Before the convoy set sail, news had been received of a German attack on Norwegian patriots living on the island of Sørøya, in the approaches to the former German naval anchorage at Altafjord. The British Royal Navy had sent four destroyers to the scene and had rescued 500 men, women and children. These refugees were distributed among the ships of the convoy for passage to England.

On the afternoon of the Saturday, 18 February, the weather deteriorated to force 8 on the Beaufort scale, and the escort carriers were unable to operate aircraft. That night the storm intensified with winds gusting up to sixty knots (110 km/h) with a heavy sea and swell. The convoy split up and began to disperse. The storm continued through Sunday, 19 February.

On 20 February, the storm abated and the escort vessels started to round up the scattered ships. At 4 am the convoy had been detected by aircraft, and by 9 am twenty-nine of the ships were back on station with four still straggling.

Then, on 22 February, the convoy ran into one of the worst storms ever recorded in the Barents Sea. Once again the convoy began to split up and was blown apart. The weather deteriorated to Beaufort scale force 12 with winds at 70 to 90 knots and temperatures 40 below zero. During this storm, one of the main springs on the Henry Bacon's steering gear was broken, and the retaining pin was sheared. This damage caused the Henry Bacon to drop out of the convoy to effect repairs.
Like the wounded Wildebeest - you can almost see this coming ...
Around 1500 GCT on 23 February 1945, the Henry Bacon was some 50 to 60 nautical miles astern of the main convoy when she was attacked by twenty-three Junkers Ju 88 and Ju 188's torpedo bombers of Luftwaffe Group KG26, out of Bardufoss, Norway, some 250 miles (400 km) away. The Germans were on their way to attack the main convoy, and thought they could finish the lone straggler easily.
One merch vs. 23 JU-88s .... so, who's taking bets?
The Henry Bacon was armed with eight 20 mm anti-aircraft guns, with a 5 inch (127 mm) gun aft and a 3 in (76 mm) gun forward. The ship’s Naval Armed Guard gunners fought the attacking planes for over an hour, shot down five planes, damaged at least four others and managed to defend against several torpedoes by causing their detonation before they reached the ship.
Over an hour under attack. An eternity ... and then;
At 1520 GCT, one torpedo struck the starboard side of the No.5 hold, and detonated the aft ammunition magazine. A large hole was torn in the hull. The rudder, propeller and steering engine were destroyed. The ship settled by the stern and sank within an hour. This action helped save the main convoy, as most of the German planes were forced to return to base owing to battle damage, low fuel, and low ammunition.
The Henry Bacon was abandoned at 1600 GCT at 67.38N 05.00W. Lifeboats #1 and #2 were launched safely. The #3 boat capsized while being lowered, and because the davits to the #4 boat had been damaged in the storm, this boat was also lost. Three of the four life rafts had been released prematurely and had drifted away. The two surviving lifeboats were filled to capacity with all of the Norwegian passengers and some members of the crew.

This left a number of crew members stranded aboard the Henry Bacon. When this situation became known to Chief Engineer Donald Haviland, he insisted that he would give his place in the lifeboat to a younger crew member and died with the ship. That crew member's name was Robert Tatosky. For his sacrifice, Chief Engineer Haviland was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award for the men of the Merchant Marine.

The Bosun, Holcomb Lammon, collected dunnage from the deck and lashed it into a makeshift life-raft. Six Armed Guard and five merchant crew owe their lives to this raft. Lammon also died with the ship, and he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.

The survivors were rescued by crew members from three British destroyers, HMS Zambesi, HMS Oppotune and HMS Zelast. By this time the men in the water were so cold they were unable to help themselves, so the British sailors had to jump into the freezing sea with ropes tied around their waists to help them. When it was over,
all of the Norwegian civilians had survived, nine Naval Armed Guard gunners, and two Navy signalmen were lost at sea. Captain Carini and fifteen fellow Merchant Marine crewmen were also lost.
The Liberty ship SS Henry Bacon was the last allied ship sunk by the Luftwaffe in World War II.
Lessons on how to arm a ship for war, how to fight, how to win, and how to live.


Hat tip E40.

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