In September 1939, as Britain and her allies stood square in the face of Nazi Germany – Austin Byrne, a 17-year-old Warp Twister at Drummonds Mill in Bradford, received some advice from his father: “Don’t you go. Don’t you go!” Austin was anxious to join the Royal Navy and ‘do his bit’, but to save his family from worry – he waited.
Instead, he joined a Bradford Sea Cadet Detachment – and under the leadership of old sailors from the RN, he spent much of his time learning seamanship skills that would later save his life. At Chellow Dean Reservoir, on the outskirts of the city, the cadets were taught to row and handle a boat. Austin quickly mastered what was being taught and at every opportunity would be at Chellow Dean.
In October 1941, as news began to leak of Nazi atrocities on their ‘Second Front’ in the east – and with Japan secretly preparing to attack America and join the war, Austin boarded a train to begin his Royal Navy Basic Training at HMS Glendower, Pwllheli. Glendower had previously been a Butlins Holiday Camp in North Wales but was requisitioned by the Admiralty following the start of hostilities. Six weeks initial training followed, before Austin was sent to HMS Wellesley in Liverpool, for Gunnery training. On arrival, the Commanding Officer advised all those assembled, that they were to be trained to be gunners on merchant ships. “We got an extra 6p per day for serving alongside the Merchant Navy. We also got paid by the Shipping Company for any other work we carried out, while on board”.
After training, Austin joined the 5000 tonnes S.M. ‘Induna’, anchored in Loch Ewe in the north-west Highlands on March 3rd 1942. A week later, on March 10th they sailed to join Convoy PQ13, that was en route from New York to Murmansk. Three days in, as the convoy approached Iceland, a terrific storm blew-up, scattering the ships. “It was the worst storm of my career” recalls Austin. “I was on watch on the bridge – and was amazed to see another ship close by, climbing on the waves – and then disappearing in the troughs. ‘Look at that Mr Mate’, I said”. Austin was astonished to be told that the ‘Induna’ was doing the very same thing. The convoy was eventually ordered to seek shelter in an Icelandic fjord, before finally arriving in Reykjavik.
On March 18th, PQ-13 sailed from Reykjavik, but was signalled to return to port while in the Denmark Strait, because of intelligence the German Battleship ‘Tirpitz’ had put to sea. On March 20th, the convoy sailed again, all the time their progress being followed by a U-Boat ‘Wolfpack’. More bad weather scattered the group and a smaller convoy formed up around ‘Induna’, who had the Vice-Commodore on board.
“Some time after that, we were spotted by German bombers and I took my position in the Gun Pit on top of the bridge. I watched him [the aircraft] coming down and you hold your breath, before firing – I could see the tracer rounds going in to him. He was coming for us and changed his mind and went instead for the ‘Ballot’ (a Panamanian vessel) and dropped his bombs”. The Captain congratulated 20-year-old Austin on his shooting, which had obviously convinced the German aircrew to seek another target. To evade further air attack, the convoy sailed north-east – and for a period was trapped in pack ice. The Escort, HMS Silja ran out of fuel and was taken in tow by ‘Induna’ on March 29th, but after the tow parted because of bad weather, ‘Induna’ was alone and “Running for her life”, remembers Austin.
A day later, the ‘Induna’ Captain instructed Austin to: “Keep your eyes open Boy”. Austin recalls: “It was a beautiful calm day and all of a sudden the ship shuddered – and you knew we’d been hit”. Austin, (or ‘Titch’, as he was known on board), points out that he never saw anyone salute senior officers in the Merchant Navy, as was normal practice in the Royal Navy, but on this fateful morning the First Mate was sent aft to inspect the torpedo damage – and on his return to the bridge, he saluted Captain William Norman Collins, before delivering his damage report: “Ship torpedoed in No.5 Hold Sir. Cargo on fire. Petrol drums on fire – and sinking by the stern”.
The reply was swift and final: “Very good Mr Mate. Abandon Ship”. Austin was told to remain at his station and assisted the Captain in packing up the convoy orders in weighted envelopes, before throwing them over the side, to prevent them falling in to enemy hands. “Right Boy – go to your lifeboat station – and good luck to you” Austin was ordered. Captain Collins went down with the ‘Induna’ and as Austin returned to the bridge a final time to collect his Exposure Suit, he found Collins calmly smoking, something that was never previously allowed on the bridge.
‘Induna’ had two lifeboats and there was an urgency to get these boats away from the ship, as the weather was breaking. With 9 survivors in Austin’s boat, they rowed around the stern, avoiding burning oil on the sea surface. They were about to close with the ship again to rescue more personnel, when “Bang. He put another one in her”. ‘Induna’ had been torpedoed again, this time sinking her in seconds.
The other lifeboat had also managed to get away, but they were separated immediately. “The priority now was to leave the area. There were bubbles as big as motor cars surfacing from the ‘Induna’ as she headed to the sea floor. These could turn over the boat, so we rowed as quick as we could”.
Without realising it, the skills he’d been taught on Chellow Dean Reservoir, now proved invaluable – and as some of the men and boys in Austin’s boat gave up any hope of rescue, there was never any doubt in his mind that he wouldn’t survive. Although uncertain where in the Barents Sea they were, it was agreed to place the boats stern to the oncoming waves and by steering a south-easterly course, hopefully the tail-end of the Gulf Stream would push them towards land.
Although only 20-years-old and finding himself in a position of command, there were two younger sailors in Austin’s boat. James Burnett-Anderson was 16 and was the ‘Stewards Boy’. Only 15 was Jim Campbell, the Cabin Boy. Because of exposure to the elements, Jim lost fingers from one hand and had a foot amputated. Despite his ordeal, he was back home in Scotland before his sixteenth birthday.
The routine of ‘row and bail’ went on for three days and nights. On the fourth day, with ice building up on the lifeboat’s lifeline’s, the battle to stay afloat became critical. With a shipmate sitting on him, Austin was leaning over the side, chipping off the ice when the Third Mate shouted: “Hey Titch – I can see a ship. And another. And another!” Aware of what being adrift in a boat can do – Austin thought he was losing his mind, but once stood up, he too could see three patrol boats heading towards them.
“We were all scared to death. I said: ‘Shout English’. We all had our hands up and were shouting as one of the vessels came alongside the lifeboat. I spotted the Russian flag – and I knew we were alright”, said Austin. Utterly exhausted and suffering from varying degrees of frostbite and exposure, they were pulled aboard the Russian vessel. Austin was held down on deck, before it was established that the survivors were allies – and not Germans. With the inevitable language barrier, Austin was able to communicate they had been adrift for four days – and been sunk by a U Boat. “We were taken below. I was given three huge vodkas then slept for I don’t know how long”.
Eventually the patrol boats rendezvoused with a larger Russian vessel and Austin and his shipmates were transferred. The survivors from the other ‘Induna’ lifeboat had already been rescued and were onboard. “We headed in to Murmansk and were taken to a hospital that had been converted from a school. There were bombs dropping everywhere”. After being cleaned up and dressed in a bed gown, Austin recalls that he slept heavily for some time. On eventually waking, he was told that Burnett-Anderson, the Stewards Boy, had died.
Austin spent 16 days in hospital, before a visiting Royal Navy officer arranged his passage back home on-board HMS Liverpool. After an epic journey taking him via Iceland, Scapa Flow, Thurso and London, Austin – still dressed in a donated Russian uniform, reported to Barracks in Portsmouth. After being kitted out, he was sent on leave the same day, travelling back to London to catch the night train to Bradford.
Austin’s Mum and Dad had initially been told he was in hospital in Glasgow and travelled to Scotland to find him. However, after a frantic search, the Navy advised that he had in fact been sunk in the Arctic – and his chances of survival were almost nil. Two weeks later, Austin called out “It’s me, I’m home!”, as he unlocked the door of the family home. It’s difficult today to imagine the relief that his family must have experienced on seeing him again. After initial greetings, he was despatched to ‘Crofts’, the engineering firm were his dad worked – to let him know all was well.
After a period of leave, Austin joined the Liverpool to Belfast Passenger Boat and he spent the next year ploughing back and forth across the Irish Sea. For most of us, our thirst for adventure would have been well and truly quashed, while adrift in the Arctic, but Austin – growing restless, informed his mum he was going to volunteer for another ‘Deep Water’ ship. “Oh, you can’t do that!” she said. Austin’s dad was no less alarmed when he learned that the ship in question was headed to Russia: “You shouldn’t go. Your mother can’t stand it. You’re not thinking of your mother”. Not deterred, Austin joined the ‘Fort McMurray’ in Salford, before she joined a convoy and sailed for Bakaritsa. Ironically, Austin left Bakaritsa to return to the UK, two years to the day after he’d been sunk on the ‘Induna’.
It was now 1944 and following the Russian trip, the ‘Fort McMurray’ steamed up and down the east coast of Britain, putting repeatedly into Scottish Lochs. Although it was never confirmed, the belief was, that this action was to lead Germany into thinking an invasion of Norway was imminent. In the spring of that year, Austin found himself headed into the Thames, as other vessels were leaving to join the D Day invasion armada. After D Day, ‘Fort McMurray’ sailed back and forth to supply the Beachhead in Normandy, on occasions being grounded to allow cargo to be offloaded. This work continued until August 1944, when the ship was ordered to Cardiff for emergency repairs.
A spell in Cardiff equipped Austin and his ship for a passage across the Atlantic, to New York. Here ‘Fort McMurray’ underwent a thorough refit – and Austin was able to visit a fellow survivor from the ‘Induna’ lifeboat. Charlie Ahlberg was a 48-year-old American Seaman who cited ‘Titch’ as having saved his life. Charlie’s family were overjoyed to finally meet the young English sailor they had heard so much about.
Following refit and with the Allies driving Axis forces back towards Berlin, ‘Fort McMurray’ sailed for Sicily and spent the following months moving cargo around the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas. On one occasion she headed to Split in Yugoslavia. “At night you could still here machine gun fire, as the Partisans fought with retreating German troops”. On March 30th, 1945 – and exactly three years since his sinking, Austin left Split for North Africa, then Gibraltar, before joining a convoy back to the UK. “When we got home, the war was finished” remembers Austin.
Austin spent the final months of his Royal Naval service at HMS Raven, which is now Southampton Airport. When demobbed, it was straight back to Bradford – and like so many of his generation, he put his experiences behind him and got on with life. “I went straight back to Drummonds as a Warp Twister. I did 51 years at the Mill and ended up as a Foreman Warp Twister”.
Since retiring and becoming aware that his experiences in World War 2 were of national importance, Austin has had the opportunity to visit Russia again on several occasions and became an active member of the North Russia Club (for veterans of the Arctic convoys). He has talked about his time at sea with both Russian and British students and been decorated by the Russian government for his efforts. Austin is clear that it was ordinary people who saved his life – they just happened to be Russian – and for that he is eternally grateful.
Now 96 and a veteran of what Winston Churchill called ‘The world’s worst journey’, Austin ‘Titch’ Byrne is not only an exceptional man, but also a ‘Beacon of Hope’ for the generations that have followed him, in showing us all what can be achieved in times of real adversity.
Down Your Way Magazine – November 2018