A Murmansk Survivor

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Angus Mac Kinnon
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A Murmansk Survivor

Post by Angus Mac Kinnon » Sat Sep 18, 2010 9:25 pm

Just over two years ago I spent an enjoyable three hours in the company of a native son of the Hebridean island of Harris, namely Donald Mac Kinnon, then an extremely alert and articulate 87 year old, who was just 18 years of age when he joined the Merchant Navy and RNVR shortly before the outbreak of WWII.

Apart from our Hebridean, maritime, language and surname affiliations, I was particularly keen to make Donald’s acquaintance and learn more about his wartime experience when his ship, the modified Black Swan Class Sloop, HMS Lapwing, was torpedoed as she approached the Kola Inlet, off Murmansk, North Russia, part of the escort of what was to be the second-last Russian convoy of WWII.

Donald’s ship, HMS Lapwing, a product of the Greenock shipyard of Scotts’, had sailed from Greenock, as part of the Convoy JW65 escort, at 19:00 hours on Sunday 11th March 1945, bound for Archangel – her ninth, and final voyage to Russia. Nine days later she was torpedoed, just before Noon on 20th March 1945, by the Type VII C German submarine U-968, one of thirteen German submarines straddling the Kola Inlet awaiting Allied targets. Under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Otto Westphalen, U-968 torpedoed HMS Lapwing and the American Liberty ‘Thomas Donaldson’. The British Sloop was struck amidships, on her starboard side, by way of the Engine Room. Donald, already a veteran of the Normandy Landings and previous Russian Convoy escort duty, recalls that the action took place about two minutes before Noon as crewmen were making their way down for the ‘daily tot’ when the torpedo struck.

Listing badly to starboard, her back broken in the devastating explosion, her boats smashed to smithereens, the vessel broke in two with the fore half going down immediately, and the aft half following a few minutes later. Many men were cast into the sea, which was on fire, and could be heard screaming. Those down below in the Engine Room were trapped, and those still on board could not leave the stricken vessel until the order to abandon ship was given. The Captain, Commander John Alexander Binnie, had been knocked unconscious and the 1st Lieutenant had gone over the side, so it was left to the 2nd Lieutenant to give the order – “Abandon Ship – Everybody for himself”.

Petty Officer Donald Mac Kinnon was at the forward gun and, on hearing the order, he jumped into the freezing sea and swam towards a raft. Wearing his naval uniform, a heavy coat and sea-boots at the time, he found it difficult to swim as he could not get out of the sea-boots, so he was being forced to swim more or less with his hands only. He was the last man to be heaved on board the raft, making a total of 16 men on board, and quickly passed out. A few hours later, when the Destroyer HMS Savage came upon the raft and went to the rescues of these survivors, there were only six men left on board, all unconscious, the other ten having vanished without trace. The sailors from HMS Savage were unsure whether the men on the raft were dead or alive at first, all were gripping the lifelines with the death grip of a drowning man, and the sailors had to cut the ropes on either side of the survivors’ hands as they could not force their hands open. Their palms were a mass of red flesh and badly bleeding.

When they were laid out on the deck of HMS Savage, the ship’s doctor was sent for. He confirmed that the men were barely alive, another 20 minutes and they would all have been dead. He gave instructions for brandy to be administered and, when the men came round, they were to be taken down below into hot showers as quickly as possible and cleaned up. The men’s clothing was in such a state it had to be cut away with knives and scissors, then started the job of removing dirt, oil and grease from eyes, ears, mouths, etc. One of the men died on the deck of HMS Savage, too far gone for any recovery.

HMS Allington Castle also played a significant part in the rescues of survivors.

HMS Savage headed to Kola where the men were landed and hospitalised – one of their number dying before the vessel reached the port. After some days recovering, the men were repatriated on the Cruiser HMS Diadem and arrived at Greenock on 2nd April 1945. From there they were sent to Devonport Barracks where they were kitted out and sent home on 14-days Survivors’ Leave, from 6th – 20th April 1945.

Of her complement of 220 men, 158 lost their lives and 61 survived, one of which was PO Donald Mac Kinnon. As a Hebridean, Donald Mac Kinnon was no stranger to loss of life at sea. Sadly, his own Father, James Mac Kinnon, ship’s carpenter on board the MacAndrews & Coy’s fruit/cargo vessel M.V. Pizzaro (Beardmore product with Tosi oil engine) was lost at sea, just over four years earlier, at the age of 51 years on 31st January 1941 when his ship was sunk by the Italian submarine Dandolo (Commander Riccardo Boris) in the South West Approaches, some 700 miles West of Bishop Rock, Scilly Isles, whilst on a passage from London to Gibraltar.

On Saturday 5th of April 2008, the Friends of Lapwing Association, formed about five years ago, dedicated a commemorative memorial at The Close Gardens, High Street, Saffron Walden, Essex, the adopted town of the Sloop HMS Lapwing. (See photograph separately) The honour of formal Unveiling of Memorial and Laying of Wreaths was bestowed on Petty Officer Donald Mac Kinnon on behalf of the Survivors, assisted by A.B. Bob Phillips (England) and A.B. Tommy Jess (Ireland).

A special service was held the following day, Sunday 6th April 2008, at St Mary’s Church, with five Standards on display, in remembrance of the 158 men who gave their lives.

HMS Lapwing carried the town’s coat-of-arms on her bridge and, reflecting the remarkable relationship between ship and township, the ship’s crest is on display in the town hall of Saffron Walden. This relationship evolved from 1941 when the people of the town were asked to raise money to build a convoy escort vessel to protect vital supply routes. Astonishingly, the township raised the princely sum of £253,507 – more than double the target they had been set – and this at a time of war when the average wage was of the order of £3 per week.

HMS Lapwing Details :

Ship Type : Sloop (Modified Black Swan Class)
Pennant No. : U 62
Builder : Scotts’ S.B. & E Limited of Greenock
Yard No. : 605
Propulsion : Steam Turbines
SHP : 4,300
Speed : 20 knots
Tonnage : 1,250 (Displ)
Length : 229.5 feet
Breadth : 38 feet
Draught : 8.8 feet
Ordered : 27 March 1941
Laid Down : 17 December 1941
Launched : 16 July 1943
Commissioned : 21 March 1944
Lost in Action : 20 March 1945

U-968 Details :

Builder : Blohm & Voss of Hamburg
Type : VII C
Keel Laid Down : 14th May 1942
Launched : 28th January 1943
Commissioned : 18th March 1943
Number of War Patrols : 8

Successes :

14-02-1945 : Torpedoed and damaged Norwegian tanker S.S. Norfjell
17-02-1945 : Torpedoed and damaged the British Sloop HMS Lark
17-02-1945 : Torpedoed and damaged American Liberty S.S. Thomas Scott
20-03-1945 : Torpedoed and sank the British Sloop HMS Lapwing
20-03-1945 : Torpedoed and sank the American Liberty S.S. Thomas Donaldson
29-03-1945 : Torpedoed and damaged the British Frigate HMS Goodall

On 4th May 1945, Doenitz announced the end of the U-Boat war, when U-968 still at sea
On 6th May 1945, U-968 put in to Harstad
On 7th May 1945, U-968 sailed from Harstad and went to Skjomenfjord then Narvik
Along with other U-Boats, she sailed for Trondheim, meeting up at sea with the 9th Escort Group, who escorted them to Loch Eribol and captivity.
Surrendered on 16th May 1945 at Loch Eriboll on the North-West coast of Scotland.
One of about 116 U-boats scuttled by the Allies in ‘Operation Deadlight’.

Whilst under tow from Loch Ryan, through the North Channel, by the tug HMS Prosperous, bound for the deep water ‘scuttling grounds’ approximately 100 miles off the North-West coast of Ireland, the U-968 foundered in a position North-West of Rathlin Island, 55’ 24” North, 06’ 22” West, on 29th November 1945.

After demobilisation, Donald Mac Kinnon gave up the sea in deference to his Mother's wishes, having lost her husband and almost lost her son to the sea. He became a policeman in civilian life and followed his great interest in swimming and life-saving becoming an instructor and President of the National School of Swimming. From 1988 to 1990 he held the world record for Life-Saving and Swimming, having been awarded 175 swimming certificates, medals and bars. In 1965, in recognition of his swimming services with the Royal Life Saving Society, he received from Grand President, Lord Mountbatten, the Certificate of Thanks of the Royal Life-Saving Society. In 1968 he was presented by Glasgow's Lord Provost - Sir Peter Meldrum - with a special medal for the promotion of swimming among young people then again, in 1971, he received the RLSS Recognition Medal from Lord Mountbatten, and in 1976 a Bar to this Medal from HRH Princess Alexandria. A remarkable and modest man.
Angus Mac Kinnon

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Angus Mac Kinnon
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Re: A Murmansk Survivor

Post by Angus Mac Kinnon » Sat Sep 18, 2010 11:34 pm

The memorial erected at Saffron Walden (Essex) to commemorate the loss of HMS LAPWING and those of her complement who lost their lives off Murmansk on 20th March 1945
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HMS Lapwing Memorial.jpg
Angus Mac Kinnon

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Angus Mac Kinnon
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Joined: Tue Jul 20, 2010 8:08 pm

A Murmansk Survivor

Post by Angus Mac Kinnon » Tue Mar 19, 2013 7:48 pm

With the news today that at long last their country is paying homage to those brave men who sacrificed so much for their King and country, under the most horrendous conditions, I recall the experiences of my old friend, Donald Mac Kinnon, as told in my original post in September 2010. Donald will be 92 years of age now and I'm sure he had a few tears in his eyes today as he recalled the many shipmates he was never to see again, victims of that terrible time.

Bless them all, they gave that we should have.
Angus Mac Kinnon

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