The fate of HMT Shera: “Closed Until 1972″

Strolling ... Stewart Cruden and his mother with an unknown (to me) couple

Strolling … Stewart Cameron Cruden with his mother and an unknown couple.

Growing up, I often heard my mother talk about her great uncle “Sanky” who had died “in the war.” The bare bones of the story were that he drowned while serving on the Arctic Convoys, but like most family stories, it sat at the back of my mind, unexamined and half-forgotten.

When I first began researching my family history, mum sent me the photo above of her Uncle Sanky – whose real name was Stewart Cameron Cruden.  My mum doesn’t know when or where the photo was taken, or who the other people were, but that image of a confident young man walking nonchalantly towards the photographer somehow made him real to me and it became important to understand more about his life and death.

Life …

Constructing the skeleton of Stewart Cruden’s life was relatively easy. Scotland’s People searches told me he was born on November 8th 1903 at East End, Coaltown of Wemyss, Fife, Scotland. He was the youngest child, and second son of Isabella Simpson Wallace and another Stewart Cameron Cruden. By the 1911 census, the family was living at 1 Locheil Crescent, West Wemyss, where Stewart attended the local school.

I know nothing about Stewart’s schooling or early employment – although since his father and elder brother Alexander (my great grandfather) were both coal miners, I think it’s safe to assume that Stewart also went to work as a miner.

In 1924, Stewart and Isabella immigrated to the United States, following two of their daughters – Elizabeth and Isabella – who had already moved there. In 1925, twenty one year old Stewart joined them.

According to the 1930 census, the family lived at 34/1 West Third Street, Bayonne City, Hudson, New Jersey. Both Stewarts were factory workers, and the family also had two lodgers.

I can find no passenger records for Stewart’s return to Scotland, but I know he did, because during World War II he enlisted in the Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS). This appears on the record of his death.

… and death

Stewart Cameron Cruden died on 9th March 1942 when his ship, HMT Shera capsized and sank in the Barents Sea.

Sailors aboard one of more than 1400 ships comprising the 78 Arctic Convoys between 1941-1945. Photo credit: http://gingerliberal.blogspot.co.nz/2012/12/finally-recognition-for-arctic-convoy.html

I haven’t yet been able to find his service record, but Google searches told me a little bit about the ship and the circumstances of her sinking. The most widely reported account is that the boat capsized because of excessive ice and heavy seas. However, I have subsequently found – from the official enquiry into the sinking held by the British Admiralty – that this was not quite true.

The National Archives at Kew contains the report of the official inquiry. It has not been digitised, but I was fortunate enough to be able to go to there a few weeks ago and read the original documents.

What I now know

HMT Shera was a Norwegian trawler, probably used for whaling. It was requisitioned by the British Navy and brought into commission as a minesweeper on the Arctic Convoys on 12 January 1942. These convoys, which operated from August 1941 to May 1945, were made up of merchant ships and escorts from the Royal Navy, US Navy and Royal Canadian Navy . A total of seventy eight convoys transported vital supplies to the USSR during a time when the Nazis controlled much of the territory around that vast country. The Shera was en-route to Murmansk to be loaned to the Soviet government when it sank.

Prior to the departure of the convoy, stability testing had been carried out to determine whether the whalers would be at risk of capsizing in the icy waters of the Arctic. Without understanding the engineering, it seems that the additional fuel loads required to make the long voyage to Murmansk meant that the boats – and in particular the Shera – were susceptible to capsize in heavy seas. As the extra fuel was burned, the load balance was shifted, increasingly instability.

The official inquiry focused almost exclusively on the possible causes of the Shera’s capsize, and barely mentions the crew. I wasn’t even able to find out exactly how many men were aboard. The RNPS Memorial at Lowestoft lists 17 names, while another RNPS source says 20 men lost their lives. An article published in the RNPS newsletter for Spring 2013 recounts a survivor’s experiences of the Shera; he estimated the boat had a crew of around 30.

Whatever the actual number of men aboard; it is clear that only three survived the sinking. In total, five men were pulled from the water into a small boat lowered by another trawler, the HMT Svega, but two died soon afterwards. The survivors were:

- Lieutenant Nils Olaves Hansen (Norwegian)

- Ship’s Steward Douglas Robert Phillips (British)

- Ordinary Seaman Charles Alfred Harris (British)

Causes of the disaster

The official inquiry included testimony from all three men; each of whom was asked about the stability of the boat. All three expressed concern about the boat’s sea-worthiness under the circumstances. Lieutenant Hansen had worked on trawlers like the Shera for 10 years and testified that he had talked to the Captain about the boat being top-heavy. Seaman Harris was also an experienced fisherman and in his testimony he said “there had been much talk in the mess about her (Shera) being top-heavy.” The final survivor, Douglas Phillips said:

There had been a big roll to port the morning of the 8th. The crew complained of her heavy roll. One stoker complained that ‘she wasn’t a sea-going ship’. She had a list to port at Milford Haven and carried it ever since. … All the crew said she was top-heavy. I was on-board at Greenock when the gun platform was fitted. The crew continually complained of her being top-heavy.

The three survivors also testified that the day before the sinking, crew had chipped off large amounts of ice and that at the time of the sinking, the seas were not exceptionally heavy.

The official inquiry noted that:

There is evidence that considerable doubt existed in the minds of officers and ratings of both HMT Shera and Svega of the stability of these vessels as fitted for passage from the United Kingdom to North Russia, and that there was free discussion onboard HMT Shera on the result of the stability test carried out at Greenock during 1942 …

And … “hearsay evidence … indicates that there is reason to believe that the stability test on HMS Shera was unsatisfactory.”

The report concluded

After a full and careful enquiry, with all the witnesses available, into the circumstances attending the loss of HM Trawler Shera … the opinion of the Board is that the loss is attributable to the instability of the vessel, aggravated by a heavy formation of ice … which resulted in the vessel becoming unstable and capsizing.

Sixteen days after the sinking of HMT Shera, an almost identical boat, HMT Sulla disappeared in the Barents Sea whilst part of the same convoy. No trace of the ship was ever found, so it is impossible to know for sure if it sank for the same reasons as the Shera, but an official inquiry concluded that it was likely the Sulla capsized due to excessive ice and high seas with the loss of all onboard.

Both inquiries concluded that no-one could be held accountable for either sinking, and in a final note said:

‘In view of the urgency of the service requirements, the sailing of these ships had to be accepted as justifiable in wartime.

As was normal for war casualties; news of Stewart Cruden’s death reached his family in the form of a telegram. My mother remembers this event; she said her parents were in the cinema and the film was interrupted so that they could be called out and sent home to comfort Stewart’s mother, Isabella; my great, great grandmother.

Hankerchief embroidered with Royal Navy crest. A gift to my mother from her uncle Stewart Cruden.

Hankerchief embroidered with Royal Navy crest. A gift to my mother from her uncle Stewart Cruden.

Isabella Wallace died in June 1944, her husband having pre-deceased her by about 10 years. Stewart’s big brother Alexander, my great-grandfather died in 1970 and I’m unsure what happened to their sisters. The reason I mention this is that the report into the sinking of the Shera was classified until 1972; too late for most of Stewart Cruden’s family to know that their son and brother’s death wasn’t due to freak weather conditions, but was – at least in part – a consequence of human actions that could have been prevented. Indeed, my mother is one of the few people left who remembers this much-loved uncle and still mourns his loss.

I understand that wars – and in fact all major human endeavors –  involve decision-making that risks some lives to save others. It’s just harder to take when the lives lost are those of people we know, or are part of our whanau.

30 thoughts on “The fate of HMT Shera: “Closed Until 1972″

  1. Fascinating story and thank you for sharing. How lucky to have been able to read the reports.
    I have visions of the ships from the show Deadliest Catch. They all seem so top heavy at times with all their lobster pots. They also get covered with ice.

  2. This is a good one Su, I don’t think anyone in this Family History family of ours has ever had a member of the Arctic convoys! Just look at how frigid the weather is in the picture and nowadays it’s melting.

    • Thanks so much. The Arctic Convoys seem to be (another) largely forgotten chapter. It’s only in the last year the few surviving servicemen have received medals from the British government – and Cameron had to be shamed into it! The Scottish National War Museum has an exhibition on at the moment about the convoys – and you’re right; these days the Arctic is melting.

      As always, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I so appreciate my family history whanau.

    • Thanks Judy. I’ve really enjoyed the research. It makes me realise that I want to work with/in archives more. I had a similar experience at the Fife Archives in Markinch; I just love actually touching objects that connect me to my ancestors. In the Fife Archive, I was reading Minute Books that were actually written in by a great grand uncle, who was the Clerk of the Dysart School Board in the 1890s. Ah, small pleasures!

    • Thank you Catherine. I’m glad to have finally got the story pieced together – at least as much as I’ll ever be able to.

    • Thanks Tish. It is the only photo of him I’ve ever seen, and he looks so much like other men in my family, I just had to know what happened to him.

  3. Well researched and fascinating read! I first came across these Arctic Convoy servicemen several years ago at the annual Remembrance Day parade in Whitehall in London. I had to ask who were the men parading in white berets. You may also be aware that service records for WW2 personnel are not available to the general public, but are available to family. See http://www.veterans-uk.info/service_records/army.html Apologies if you were already aware of this. Thanks for a great and heartfelt piece!

    • Thank you. My mum says that her uncle bought hankerchiefs for all “the Ramsay girls” (his great nieces). Her’s is the only one that remains.

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  5. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful and poignant story. The hanky brought tears to my eyes, it’s such a lovely thing to have and pass down through generations, something tangible to the connection alive.

    • Thank you for your kind comments Gill; and for stopping by my blog. I recently learned that one of the three survivors of the Shera may still be alive, and I am trying to make contact with him. For me, that would be a final act of closure.

      • Brilliant! I’ve tried to find out if I could get in touch with him via the Secretary’s email address, but without luck. I’m in New Zealand and it’s a bit difficult to make contact. Thanks for this. Cheers, Su.

  6. Strangely, my grandpa was also called Stewart Cruden and also sailed on the Arctic convoys and was also in a naval disaster in 1942.

    • Hi Ed. Wow! That is strange. I assume your Stewart survived? I know that Stewart Cruden is a relatively common name combination. My family – being Scottish – adhered to quite a strict naming policy whereby eldest sons were named after paternal grandfathers, so I have a kind of leap-frogging family tree with Alexander and Stewart Cruden’s alternating for as many generations as I’ve been able to trace. It would be fascinating to find out if your Stewart was related in some way to mine. Do you know much about him and his background? Cheers, Su.

  7. Hi Su. He was from Edinburgh and was an archaeologist. He lived until 2002, bless him. One of my heroes. He was sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea and was held prisoner by the Japanese ’til 1945. No-one in my family knows much about his family, oddly. I think he had a brother who I never met. We’re all Edinburgh folk but a mate of mine did some family-tree stuff for me and reckoned it’s taken my family about 200 years to crawl down the coast from Dunfermline to Edinburgh! Ha! Proper picts.

    • Hi Edwin. Fascinating. He sounds like an amazing man – well worth hero status. Was he an academic? What were his research interests (did Physical Anthropology at Uni many years ago and am a complete sucker for archaelogy texts). Given the mobility of my family in the last generation or two, it always amazes me how little my historical family got around. I got very excited a couple of weeks ago when I found a marriage in Dunfermline and a birth in Dalgety Bay. It’s the farthest south any of my ancestors seemed to have come from. Great to hear from you!

    • Oops! Just read his obituary, and you’ve answered my questions above! He really does sound like someone it would be brilliant to know. My lot are mainly coal miners, carters and labourers – from Perthshire as far back as I’ve traced. Mobility seems to be a case of one person moving for work and settling in an area for several generations before someone else moves for work. The exception seems to be Stewart father (also Stewart), who managed addressed in Perthshire, Angus, Fife, New York and Fife again. In fact, I have wondered if they were into the “midnight flit” given that every child born had a different address on their birth record.

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  10. Great Work Su
    I am also very interested in “uncle Stewart’s” story and that of The Shera.
    I was briefly in touch by email with Charlie Harris one of the 3 survivors, a few years back. Charlie told me he new Stewart as another member of the crew.
    Charlie’s grandson was assisting him to find the other survivors, unsuccessfully if I remember correctly. I’m unsure if Charlie is still alive or not. I’ll. go back and try to find the original email address that Charlie and I were using, It was his grandsons.
    Regards.
    Alexander (Sandy )Cruden

    • Hi.
      Lovely to hear from you. There is a Charlie Harris who is alive and involved with the Royal Naval Patrol Service group in Lowestoft. I got an email from one of his grandsons who said that his grandfather hadn’t served on the Shera and must be a different Charlie Harris. It would be wonderful if you had an email address. From memory, Charlie Harris was the youngest of the survivors. I keep hoping that more records will become available as time goes by, and the likelihood of finding people to talk to diminishes. Cheers, Su.

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