Arctic graveyard

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Black and white photo of a man in naval uniform

Cpt Henry Saalmans OBE. Image courtesy Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

I prefer the cold to the heat – at least you can usually escape into the warmth when temperatures plunge. It is more difficult to get away from excessive heat. However, those who were on the Arctic convoys in the Second World War endured the dual hardships of battling both the enemy and the cold.

More than 100 Allied merchant ships on Arctic Ocean convoys were sent to the bottom by the Germans during a four-year period. Between June 1941 and May 1945 one in every 20 Allied ships (a total of 104) sailing to and from north Russia was sunk.

These figures are comparable with the worst annual sinking rates for 1942 for the much more numerous North Atlantic convoys during the war. The cost of the Russian convoys to the Royal Navy was also high. Among the 22 ships it lost were the cruisers Edinburgh and Trinidad. The German navy lost four surface warships and 31 U-boat submarines.

On both sides casualty rates among crews were often even higher than in the Atlantic due to the bitterly cold Arctic weather. In mid-September 1942 the strongly-protected convoy PQ18 lost one third of its merchant ships (13 out of 39) to German aircraft and U-boats.

Just two months earlier the disastrous PQ17 had lost two-thirds (24 out of 35). The main damage to both convoys had been caused by aircraft. The switching of many of these aircraft to other theatres of war led to much lower losses on later Arctic convoys.

On display in the Battle of the Atlantic gallery in Merseyside Maritime Museum is a picture showing a convoy PQ18 ammunition ship exploding after being attacked by aircraft.

There are wartime mementos of Liverpool-born Captain Henry Saalmans OBE (pictured). He was master of the 3,000-ton Empire Bard which sailed in convoy to Russia in March 1942.

After surviving heavy air attacks, Empire Bard arrived at Murmansk on 6 May. For the next 10 months, in the absence of cargo-handling equipment on shore, she used her own deck cranes to help Allied merchant ships to unload their cargoes.

By the end of her stay in Murmansk, despite being damaged several times by air attacks, she had handled a mammoth 27,000 tons of war supplies for Russia. Captain Saalmans was awarded the Order of the British Empire and the Lloyd’s War medal for his efforts.

Exhibits include these medals along with his sheepskin coat lining worn on Arctic convoys.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).