The Ghost Ships of Archangel: The Arctic Voyage That Defied the Nazis

The Ghost Ships of Archangel: The Arctic Voyage That Defied the Nazis

by William Geroux


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An extraordinary story of survival and alliance during World War II: the icy journey of four Allied ships crossing the Arctic to deliver much needed supplies to the Soviet war effort.

On the fourth of July, 1942, four Allied ships traversing the Arctic separated from their decimated convoy to head further north into the ice field of the North Pole, seeking safety from Nazi bombers and U-boats in the perilous white maze of ice floes, growlers, and giant bergs. Despite the risks, they had a better chance of survival than the rest of Convoy PQ-17, a fleet of thirty-five cargo ships carrying $1 billion worth of war supplies to the Soviet port of Archangel--the limited help Roosevelt and Churchill extended to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to maintain their fragile alliance, even as they avoided joining the fight in Europe while the Eastern Front raged.

The high-level politics that put Convoy PQ-17 in the path of the Nazis were far from the minds of the diverse crews aboard their ships. U.S. Navy Ensign Howard Carraway, aboard the SS Troubadour, was a farm boy from South Carolina and one of the many Americans for whom the convoy was to be a first taste of war; aboard the SS Ironclad, Ensign William Carter of the U.S. Navy Reserve had passed up a chance at Harvard Business School to join the Navy Armed Guard; from the Royal Navy Reserve, Lt. Leo Gradwell was given command of the HMT Ayrshire, a fishing trawler that had been converted into an antisubmarine vessel. All the while, The Ghost Ships of Archangel turns its focus on Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, playing diplomatic games that put their ships in peril.

The twenty-four-hour Arctic daylight in midsummer gave no respite from bombers, and the Germans wielded the terrifying battleship Tirpitz, nicknamed The Big Bad Wolf. Icebergs were as dangerous as Nazis. As a newly forged alliance was close to dissolving and the remnants of Convoy PQ-17 tried to slip through the Arctic in one piece, the fate of the world hung in the balance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525557463
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/14/2019
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 74,090
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

William Geroux wrote for the Richmond Times-Dispatch for twenty-five years. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Associated Press, and various regional magazines. His previous book is The Mathews Men. A native of Washington, DC, and a graduate of the College of William and Mary, he lives in Virginia Beach, VA.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Enemy of My Enemy

The stark beauty of Iceland was mostly lost on the men who took part in convoy PQ-17. By the middle of May 1942-six weeks before the convoy sailed to Arctic Russia-most of them had already spent weeks on their ships in a bleak anchorage on the coast of Iceland. The place was named Hvalfjord, which was Icelandic for "Whale Fjord," reflecting the waterway's long history as a whaling center. But to some of the Allied mariners, Hvalfjord felt more like an accursed realm out of Norse mythology.

U.S. Navy ensign Howard Carraway gazed up from the chill waters to see "high, barren, almost terraced mountains on either side . . . hovering over us like great black ghosts." A massive crag named Botnsulur loomed above the other mountains, its peaks wreathed perpetually in clouds. The constant sun broke through the gloom occasionally out of sheer persistence.

A cold wind blew relentlessly through the fjord, keening and moaning in the ships' rigging and often rising into a scream. "For 24 hours, the wind has blown steadily from the north at unbelievable velocity, a steady rising and fading howl, vicious and cold," Carraway wrote. At times, it blew hard enough to yank anchors out of the muddy bottom and send ships careening through the harbor. A storm in January with 100-mile-per-hour wind gusts had blown the 13,000-ton American heavy cruiser USS Wichita into two other vessels before the warship finally ran aground. At times the wind abruptly ceased, leaving a silence so profound that ducks could be heard plopping down onto the water's surface a half mile away. Sea lions cavorted among the ships, performing twists and rolls. But the mariners had grown to resent the animals' carefree play. Nothing else about Hvalfjord was carefree.

The ships were gathered at the end of a long, deep fjord north of the capital of Reykjavik. Hvalfjord was empty except for a few scattered farms and the rudimentary British and American naval bases. The bases consisted of fuel tanks, docks, and Nissen huts-prefabricated shelters of corrugated metal-offering supplies and cheap beer. The anchorage was crowded with more than a hundred cargo ships, flying the flags of a dozen Allied nations. They had been rushed to Hvalfjord to sail to the Soviet Union. The vessels ranged from brand-new Liberty ships, freshly launched from American shipyards, to rusting old tubs from the previous world war. Each ship had a crew of civilian volunteers to sail it and a military gun crew to defend it.

The two-thousand-mile voyage from the United States to the North Russia ports of Murmansk and Archangel, which mariners dubbed "the Murmansk Run," was notorious for the severity and variety of its dangers. Those included not only German bombers and U-boats but the extreme Arctic weather. Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the Murmansk Run "the worst voyage in the world." Seafaring men usually avoided it unless they knew no better or had no choice. Ensign Carraway fit into both those categories.

Carraway was one of the many Americans at Hvalfjord for whom convoy PQ-17 was to be a first taste of war. He jokingly referred to himself as the Great American Chicken, although events would prove otherwise. Carraway stood five foot nine, with blue eyes and sandy-brown hair. He spoke softly in a South Carolina drawl that stopped short of a twang. Carraway had grown up on a tiny farm in rural Olanta, South Carolina, near Florence, where his parents eked out a living growing tobacco and cotton. Money was so tight that Carraway, one of seven children, spent two years living with relatives to spare his parents the cost of feeding him. Carraway hated farm work but loved books. He worked his way through Furman University, graduating with a degree in English in the spring of 1941. A few months later, with America on the brink of war, he and his three brothers agreed they all should enlist before they got drafted. Each brother chose a different branch of the armed forces. They may actually have drawn straws, since Carraway, whose nautical experience consisted of rowing a skiff around a farm pond, ended up joining the U.S. Naval Reserve.

Carraway was assigned to the Navy Armed Guard, a branch of the sea service created to man the guns installed on merchant ships to protect them from enemy submarines and planes. Though he probably did not know it, the Armed Guard was widely regarded in the Navy as an undesirable and hazardous posting. No matter how capable the Armed Guard crew was, guns on freighters and tankers provided scant protection, particularly against U-boats, which often struck without warning. Merchant ships were the primary targets of U-boats, whose main mission was to cut the Allied supply line. The Navy Armed Guard's official motto was "We aim to deliver!" but its unofficial motto was "Sighted sub, glub, glub."

If Carraway was disappointed at being posted to the Armed Guard, he did not express it-at least not until he was assigned to the Troubadour.

The Troubadour was floating evidence of America's desperate need for cargo vessels early in the war. The ship was an old, coal-burning freighter, 415 feet long, with space for 6,000 tons of cargo in six holds, and a dubious past. Built in England in 1920, the ship had changed names and owners three times by 1940, when as the Confidenza she hauled scrap iron for an Italian company. The vessel happened to be docked in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1940 when Italy, following Germany's lead, declared war on Britain and France. Although America was still a neutral nation, U.S. authorities held the ship in port to prevent it from serving Italy or Germany. The Confidenza sat rusting at the pier for almost a year before her Italian crew received a coded message to sabotage it so the Allies could not use it either. The Italians dry-fired the ship's boilers-heating them without water in order to melt and warp the turbines and steam pipes-until the U.S. Coast Guard saw what was happening and seized the ship. The damage was severe, but the crippled Confidenza was turned over to the U.S. War Shipping Administration, the federal agency in charge of wartime shipping. The boilers were repaired and the vessel was fitted out with guns. The agency decided to sail the Troubadour under the flag of Panama rather than the U.S. flag, which exempted the vessel from stringent Coast Guard inspections and allowed the hiring of foreign mariners at low pay.

As a result, the Troubadour was manned by a polyglot crew. Its thirty-four-year-old captain, George J. Salvesen, and all its officers were Norwegian. They had been at sea on other ships when the Nazis seized Norway in 1940, and had been forced to live at sea or in temporary lodgings in Allied or neutral nations. They were stateless men, and angry ones. The third mate, Sigurd Olsen, choked up when he talked about his wife and children, living under the Germans' thumb in the coastal city of Bergen. Olsen longed for them and the fjords and the shimmering aurora borealis. He vowed to take revenge on the Germans. If necessary, he would wait until after the war. When German tourists returned to Bergen's cobblestoned streets, he told Carraway, he would make them suffer for his years of exile at sea.

The Troubadour's crew consisted of forty-six merchant mariners, all of them civilians who had joined the ship only for this one voyage to Russia. They came from seventeen different countries, including the United States, England, Norway, South Africa, Uruguay, Latvia, Estonia, Honduras, Holland, Sweden, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and Grand Cayman Island. Some had been recruited from immigration camps in the United States, where they were given a choice of sailing with the Troubadour or being deported. Their level of experience varied widely. So did their dedication to the Allied cause.

One of the ten Americans on the Troubadour was James Baker North III of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. North had quit high school soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He was "red hot" at the Japanese and feared nothing except that the war would end too soon for him to fight in it. At age twenty, North was five foot ten and 125 pounds with "bad tonsils and a loud mouth," as he put it. He wanted to be a pilot, but his inflamed tonsils caused both the Navy and Army air forces to reject him. A friend advised North that the U.S. Merchant Marine would not care about his tonsils and would offer him "easy money" while he served his country. Like Carraway, North knew nothing about ships. He concocted a tale about having worked on a shrimp boat, and one of the maritime unions-which were as desperate for mariners as the government was for ships-accepted North as an ordinary seaman, the lowest rank of deckhand. At the union hall in Philadelphia, North heard that a ship named the Troubadour needed crew for a voyage to Russia with a five-hundred-dollar bonus. North had never heard of the Murmansk Run, and five hundred dollars was more money than he had ever seen. He could not think of any reason not to hurry down to the docks and sign on with the Troubadour.

North's hope of easy money was quickly dashed. Soon after he joined the ship, a tough character in the crew grabbed him and started pounding his head on the deck out of pure meanness. Another tough shipmate watched the pounding for a while and then slugged North's tormentor. The two brawlers exchanged a flurry of wild punches. Then they shook hands with each other and with North. North had made his first "friends" on the Troubadour. He would make others over the course of the voyage, but he gave some of his shipmates a wide berth. North was especially wary of two big redheaded brothers from Liverpool who worked as firemen, shoveling coal into the Troubadour's flaming boilers to keep up the steam. The brothers apparently had been staring into fires too long and something was wrong with their eyes. They got right up in a person's face when they talked. That was too close for North, who always expected them to assault him.

The only men on the ship North actively disliked, however, were Carraway and his eight Navy Armed Guard men. North regarded them as self-important fools. Carraway in turn considered North and the other civilian mariners lazy, unreliable, and very likely disloyal. "They're Trotskyite Reds and rowdy as all hell," Carraway wrote. When a valve on the ship was left open, allowing the sea to flood the Armed Guard's ammunition, Carraway was convinced the crew had done it on purpose. North thought that was absurd: What mariner would disarm his own ship before a hazardous voyage?

On her way to Hvalfjord, the Troubadour had stopped in New York and Glasgow, Scotland, to take aboard weaponry, munitions, and supplies for the Soviets. The ship's main deck was crowded with crates, trucks, and three M-3 General Lee tanks, lashed by steel wire to ringbolts in the deck to keep them from being washed overboard. Originally, the deck cargo had included hundreds of metal drums of ethylene gas. But the drums had started breaking free and bouncing around the deck during a storm off New England, and the captain had ordered all of them thrown overboard to prevent a disaster. Even without the drums, the Troubadour's deck was so congested that the crew had to build a wooden catwalk above the cargo so the Navy Armed Guard men could reach their guns quickly.

The Troubadour's newly installed guns consisted of four .30-caliber Lewis machine guns, which Carraway suspected lacked the firepower to damage either planes or U-boats; and a single 4-inch, 50-caliber cannon, mounted on a platform on the ship's stern, with a barrel as long as a telephone pole. The "4-50" cannon was formidable but could not be elevated higher than 45 degrees, which severely limited its use against planes. None of the guns seemed to have enough ammunition. Carraway wondered what the people who had armed the Troubadour had been thinking. At least the Troubadour was better armed than another convoy PQ-17 vessel, the Liberty ship Christopher Newport, whose guns included an old cannon that had been plucked out of retirement in a public park in Baltimore.

Carraway, a romantic at heart with a wry, cynical side, felt his innocence quickly falling away. His transformation was obvious in a diary he kept of the voyage, in violation of naval regulations. He wrote the diary as an ongoing love letter to his new bride, Avis, a petite, green-eyed beauty he had married just before joining the ship. In every entry, he addressed Avis as "Angel" and chronicled the day's events in detail so he could share the experience with her when he got back home-if he got back home. Well before the Troubadour reached Hvalfjord, Carraway had begun referring to the ship in his diary as a "piece of refuse" and "this gawddamned old seagoing latrine." When a pigeon took up residence on the Troubadour, Carraway wrote, "He must have been badly mistreated in his former home to seek refuge on this scow."

Carraway was determined to overcome all obstacles and keep the Troubadour afloat long enough to deliver its cargo. He knew the Soviets needed help badly. Still, like most Americans in Iceland, he had grown up believing the Soviet Union was a malevolent threat to the free world. There was something strange about risking his life to help a secretive, totalitarian state run by the brutal Joseph Stalin. Carraway would have found it stranger still if he had known about the history and the high-level political maneuvers surrounding convoy PQ-17.

For most of America's history, its relations with Russia had been friendly if not close. The Russian empress Catherine the Great was the first world leader to recognize the United States after the American Revolution-although she did so mainly to weaken Britain, Russia's maritime rival. During the War of 1812, Russia offered to mediate between the United States and Britain. While the American Civil War was raging, Russia expressed support for the Union side while Britain and France leaned toward the Confederacy. After America was reunited, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for a negotiated price of $7.2 million. The United States and Russia maintained a steady level of trade, mostly through the port of Archangel on the White Sea, until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

The Bolsheviks fed on resentment among Russian soldiers over the demoralizing defeats they kept suffering at the hands of the Germans in World War I. Once the Bolsheviks seized power, they quickly made peace with Germany, ceding vast stretches of territory and pulling Russian troops from the battlefield. The Russians' withdrawal enabled the Germans to shift hundreds of thousands of troops to the western front to launch an offensive against the British and French. The result was a longer and bloodier war that eventually drew in the United States. As the fighting was finally ending in 1918, the British landed a small military force by sea at Archangel to try to stop the Bolsheviks from cementing their control of Russia. President Woodrow Wilson augmented the British forces with 5,500 American doughboys, most of them raw recruits from Michigan and Wisconsin who had expected to be defending French soil against Germany. Under British command in Archangel, the American troops fought an undeclared war against small bands of Bolsheviks in remote forests and mosquito-infested bogs south of the city. The Americans built log forts and held off raiding parties, like pioneers in America's Old West. The fighting continued for ten months, spanning the severe winter of 1918-19, when temperatures plunged so far below zero that blood from gaping wounds froze instantly, which actually saved lives in a few cases. Before the Americans left Russia in June 1919, they had lost 244 men to combat or illness. They had fought well against the nascent Red Army, but their small-scale intervention had failed to slow the Bolsheviks, who had begun calling themselves Communists. To this day, the doughboys of Archangel are the only American troops to have confronted Russian troops on the battlefield.

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