RFA’s on Russian Convoys

RFA’s on Russian Convoys


In 1947 the Admiralty’s Naval Stores Department commenced to issue quarterly, the Department’s “Naval Stores Journal”. Members of the Departmental staff were encouraged to submit stories about their work and in 1948 Chief Officer Leslie Rowling DSC RFA wrote about the three RFA’s which had sailed on the Arctic Convoys PQ18 and QP14 in September 1942 – RFA Black Ranger, RFA Gray Ranger and RFA Oligarch. Although not part of the originally published article photographs have been added below to illustrate the story together with a list of the Merchant ships which sailed in Convoy PQ18).


Black Ranger 1942 at Scapa Flow

RFA Black Ranger at Scapa Flow in 1942

Looking back some six year since oil fuel was passing through the 5” Rubber hose trailing astern of the Black Ranger, many things are vivid in my memory, some humorous, some sad, and in this my first (and possibly last) literary effort I will try to recapture the picture as seen through my eyes.

The scene leaving Scapa for Loch Ewe was quite ordinary, for the Heavens as usual were grey and as we passed through the Hoxa Gate I don’t think anyone quite expected the happenings which were to come.

The sky was still grey and foreboding as the convoy left the Loch and the line of ships presented a picturesque and memorable scene. There were ships of all types laden with supplies for Russia and the sight of the Destroyers and Escort vessels was enough to cheer the faintest heart.

Before reaching Iceland we ran into bad weather and at the same time a U Boat was reported ahead of the convoy. I remember remarking to my Captain that had we been at anchor in the Flow with this wind blowing, we should be having an anxious time in case the ship dragged. My humour was not very well received and you will no doubt guess the reply I received.

As we rounded Iceland on its west side we were joined by more ships the convoy now comprised HMS Scylla, HMS Avenger (the Carrier), three A.A. ships, approximately

 HMS Scylla

HMS Scylla

thirty destroyers and Escort vessels, two Corvettes, three submarines, three Motor Minesweepers, fifty or so Merchant Ships and two Rangers. We had not processed very far before a Circumnavigating Framelin appeared and the Black Flag was hoisted on the RN ships’ halyards although we were quite well aware that the ‘gal wasn’t a bit friendly’.

The Rangers started oiling shortly before reaching Bear Island and our improved Blondin wire worked well except that one of the men had to be perched on top of a support to give a helping hand to the stirrups by hitting them with a piece of wood. The poor chap looked rather like a monkey on a stick, but it was friendly.

Our first alarm came shortly after lunch on 16th September, and I’m sure I stopped breathing when I caught sight of about 50 Heinkel 115’s appearing just like a line of flies about 45° on the starboard bow.

Heinkel He 115C

Heinkel He115C

The Carrier went into action by turning into the wind at full speed and her fighter planes took off whilst her two attendant Hunts steamed on either bow making her look like an old hen with her chicks being guarded by two angry Bulldogs. No praise of mine can be too great for the Avenger and all who manned her (I felt a deep sense of personal loss when I heard of her tragic end after the North African landings). The Heinkels came straight for the convoy dropping their fish, and about 7 ships were sunk, one of which I remember most vividly was a Fort. One moment she was there, then a blinding flash and nothing except a pall of smoke.

Not many of those planes returned to their base in Norway after our Fighter Pilots had “mixed it” with them and after they had sampled the convoy’s the convoy’s tremendous Ack-Ack fire. One of the Fighter Pilots was picked up by Scylla who then hoisted H Flag (International Code) which means “I have Pilot on board” and this Pilot was not returned to the Carrier until she (the Avenger) had paid Pilotage dues in some shape or form.

It soon became apparent that the Avenger would be the main target for enemy places and a further unsuccessful attack was made on her at dusk that day. If she could have been sunk, a large part of the convoy’s fighting power would have been removed; consequently she took up a different position at dusk each evening in order to fox the German observer plane. The two attendant Hunts apparently had no previous knowledge of her intended night position but clung to her like a couple of Leeches. One evening after she flitted in and out of the convoy, she steadied up at dusk and the following signal was reputed to have been sent by one of the Hunts to the other “I wonder where the old B—er is going to to-night.” There must have been a very zealous “bunts” aboard the Avenger, for shortly afterwards the Avenger sent the following signal to the sender of the previous message “the old B—er is quite comfortable here – thank you”.

U-Boats were numerous and the Destroyers did grand work keeping them down and bagged one occasionally, although one or two of the Merchant ships were sunk.

Oiling was more or less continuous at this stage of the passage and I must pay tribute to the excellence of the handling of the ships by the Commanders of the vessels oiled and also to the lads who did the “126” in getting the hose on board and connected in such quick time. In passing I might mention that although we people on the oilers may not seem to appreciate the difficulty of hauling a hose on board whilst steaming at 10 knots, we realise that it is no sinecure. On only one occasion did we have a mix –up and it was just one of those things that happen, for the hose decided to marry the 5” Tow wire and it took us five hours to haul in the mess, bend new gear and prepare for the next job.

HMS Avenger2

HMS Avenger

Twelve Heinkels attacked the Avenger at about 1000 the following day but it was rather abortive, for the first six were shot out of the sky by Avenger and the two Hunts, just like “shelling peas”. Six Heinkels attacked the convoy shortly after lunch the same day and hit two ships, one of which went up similarly to the Fort; poor devils, they didn’t suffer.

By this time I think Herman decided that Heinkels were getting a bit short so he sent about 80 Junkers 88’s but they didn’t fare so well, for, after approximately five hours continuous trying all they managed to do was to make the water rough and quite a few of them decided that discretion was the better part of valour and dropped their bombs where we had been 15 minutes previously.

I cannot remember the exact date when we arrived off Novaya Zemlys, but at this point Alynbank (one of the AA ships), Gray Ranger and ourselves broke away from the convoy and turned north to join a homeward bound convoy, escorted by three Destroyers and the submarines.


HMS Aylnbank

Next day at about noon, an old “string bag” appeared and directed us to the convoy which we joined at about 1600. The passage to a position about 200 miles North of Jan Mayen Island was uneventful except that we had been joined just south of Spitsbergen Island by RFA Oligarch who took over oiling duties.

RFA Oligarch

RFA Oligarch

Both the Gray and ourselves were getting short of oil fuel and any we issued was done sparingly in lots of 50 tons.

At dawn on the day previous to reaching Jan Mayen three of the Merchant ships were sunk by U Boats and during the course of the day both Somali Leader were hit and left astern. Next day at dawn, the ship ahead of use was torpedoed and also RFA Gray Ranger also got her exit. The Gray only had (I think) about 500 tons of oil fuel left and had done a grand job and it was with sad hearts we saw her being shelled by own Destroyers to hasten her end.

On the afternoon of this day a Catalina floated down the centre of the Convoy, having been shot down by U Boats. The crew were picked up by a destroyer and I heard that the pilot had been killed by Oerlikon fire before she ditched.

Single line ahead was the order passing to the eastward of Iceland on our way to the Flow and apart from a real dusting in a fierce snow storm nothing untoward happened. On passing through Hoxa Gate a destroyer signalled “Well done Black Ranger” and this was much appreciated by all on board. The Admiral paid us a visit the next day conveying his thanks for a job well done which gave us satisfaction knowing that we had achieved something worthwhile.

I must mention that the sight of the Scylla steaming along with her stern waddling like a duck and all guns blazing makes one realise how much we owe to the RN but in fairness to all concerned everyone played his part well, thereby making the whole venture a success.

Leslie G Rowling

Chief Officer

RFA Black Ranger

Notes: –


The merchant ships which sailed in Convoy PQ 18 were –


  • · SS   Africander – Panamanian (Sunk in air attack)
  • · SS    Andre Marti – Soviet
  • · SS   Atheltemplar – British (Sunk by German submarine U-408 after being damaged by German submarine U-457)
  • · RFA Black Ranger – British
  • · SS    Campfire – American
  • · SS    Charles R. McCormick – American
  • · SS    Copeland – British (Convoy rescue ship)
  • · SS    Dan-Y-Bryn – British
  • · SS    Empire Baffin – British
  • · SS    Empire Beaumont – British (Sunk in air attack)
  • · SS    Empire Morn – British
  • · SS    Empire Snow – British
  • · SS    Empire Stevenson – British (Sunk in air attack)
  • · SS    Empire Tristram – British
  • · SS    Esek Hopkins – American
  • · SS    Exford – American
  • · SS    Goolistan – British
  • · RFA  Gray Ranger – British (Sunk during the return convoy QP14)
  • · SS    Hollywood – American
  • · SS    John Penn – American (Sunk in air attack)
  • · SS    Kentucky – American (Sunk in air attack)
  • · SS    Komiles – Soviet
  • · SS    Lafayette – American
  • · SS    Macbeth – Panamanian (Sunk in air attack)
  • · SS    Mary Luckenbach – American (Sunk in air attack)
  • · SS    Meanticut – American
  • · SS    Nathanael Greene – American
  • · SS    Ocean Faith – British
  • · RFA  Oligarch – British
  • · SS    Oliver Ellsworth – American (Sunk by German submarine U-408)
  • · SS    Oregonian – American (Sunk in air attack)
  • · SS    Patrick Henry – American
  • · SS    Petrovski – Soviet
  •   SS    Sahale – American
  •   SS    Schoharie – American
  •   SS    St. Olaf – American
  •   SS    Stalingrad – Soviet (Sunk by German submarine U-408 )
  •   SS    Sukahona – Soviet (Sunk in air attack)
  •   SS    Tibilisi – Soviet
  •   SS    Temple Arch – British
  •   SS    Virginia Dare – American
  •   SS    Wacosta – American (Sunk in air attack)
  •   SS    White Clover – Panamanian
  •   SS    William Moultrie – American