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Veteran of the Arctic Convoys, Captain 1st Rank Mr Anatoliy Lifshits (Soviet Navy)
St Petersburg, Russia
Veteran of the Allied Convoys Mr Taras Goncharenko (Soviet Merchant Fleet)
St Petersburg, Russia
Veteran of the Arctic Convoys Mr David Craig (British Merchant Navy)
Kilmarnock, Scotland, the United Kingdom
Radio Office David Craig in January 1944 David Craig
SS Dover Hill
In the supplement to the London Gazette of Oct. 8th 1943, there was a list of names of 19 Merchant Navy officers and men: five had been awarded the Order of the British Empire and 14 the King's Commendation for brave conduct. The citation read, very simply, "For dangerous work in hazardous circumstances".
I write the story as I remember it but I write on behalf of the 19 men, as we all worked together and none of us did anything different from anyone else.
On January 13th 1943, I joined the Dover Hill at anchor off Gourock in the Clyde. I had signed on as radio officer and going on board the ship I discovered that we were bound for North Russia. We were heavily loaded with fighter aircraft, tanks, guns, lorries and a large tonnage of shells and high explosives…Our deck cargo was made up of lorries in cases, Matilda tanks and drums of lubricating oil covered with a layer of sandbags, presumably to protect them from tracer bullets. Needless to say we were not very happy about the last item.
We left the Clyde on Jan. 23 and arrived in Loch Ewe on the 25th, where we lay at anchor until the rest of the merchant ships had gathered for our convoy. Loch Ewe is a very beautiful place in the summer but in January or February, with a north-westerly gale blowing and a few large, heavily laden merchant ships dragging their anchors, it can be very different.
On February 15th, 28 merchant ships set out in a gale for North Russia in the heavily defended convoy JW53. The escort was made up of three cruisers, an anti-aircraft cruiser, an escort carrier, 16 destroyers, two minesweepers, three corvettes and two trawlers. This was a very good escort and as daylight hours were getting longer, trouble was obviously expected. Due to having to maintain absolute wireless silence the radio officers stood watch on the bridge with the navigating officers.
As we sailed north the gale developed into a hurricane and ships began to get damaged. H.M.S. Sheffield had the top of her forward turret torn off and had to return to port along with the escort carrier Dasher which was also damaged. Six of the merchant ships were damaged and had to return to Iceland. On our ship the deck cargo began to break adrift. We were not sorry to see the oil drums going over the side but when the lorries in wooden cases were smashed up and eventually went overboard things were not so good. But we managed to save the tanks and kept on battering our way northwards.
I remember trying to use an Aldis lamp to signal to a corvette and found it very difficult since one minute she was in sight and then she would go down the trough of a wave and alt I could see were her topmasts; then up she would come and our ship would go down and all that could be seen was the water, but eventually we got the message through. At one stage the convoy was well scattered but as the weather moderated the Navy rounded us up and got us into some semblance of order again.
The loss of our escort carrier meant that we had no aircover and, as expected, a few days later, a German spotter plane arrived and flew round the convoy all the daylight hours, keeping an eye on us. The next day we had a heavy attack by Ju88 bombers in which our ship was damaged and our gun-layer was wounded by bomb splinters but we still kept plodding on towards North Russia. During this part of the voyage we were steaming through pan-cake ice floes which protected us from the U-boats which could not operate in such conditions. The blizzards, when they came, were always welcome as they hid us from the enemy.
MERCHANT SHIPS - British: Atlantic, British Governor (bombed Apr.4), Dover Hill (bombed Apr.4), Empire Fortune, Empire Galliard, Empire Kinsman (bombed Apr.6), Empire Scott, Llandaff (bombed July 24), Ocean Freedom (bombed and sunk March 13). American: Beacon Hill (Tanker), City of Omaha, Mobile City, Bering, Francis Scott Keyes, Israel Putnam, Thomas Hartley. Dutch/Panamian: Pieter de Hooge, Artigas. Norwegian: Marathon (Tanker). Polish/Russiarr. Tobruk, Petrovsky, Tbolisi.
ESCORTS - Cruisers: Belfast, Sheffield, Cumberland, Scylla. Aircraft-Carrier. Dasher. Destroyers: Boadicea, Eclipse, Faulkner, Fury, Inglefield, Impulsive, Intrepid, Meynell, Middleton, Milne, Obdurate, Opportune, Obedient, Orwell, Pytchley, Orkan.(Polish). Corvettes. Bergamot, Dianella, Poppy, Bluebell. Minesweepers. Halcyon, Jason. Trawlers. Lord Austin, Lord Middleton.
Two days later, on Feb.27th, we arrived at the entrance to Kola Inlet which is a long fjords with hills on either side and the town of Murmansk near the top. We had not lost any ships to the enemy and I must pay tribute to the good job done by the Royal Navy and the DEMS and Maritime Regiment gunners on the merchant ships.
Of the 22 merchant ships in our convoy, 15 were bound for Murmansk and the remaining 7 for White Sea ports near Archangel. Little did we know at this time that we would not leave Russia until the end of November. The Navy's oceangoing escorts which had taken us to the Inlet now refuelled and set off homeward with the empty ships from the previous convoy.
We were all very tired when we arrived because over the previous few days we had either been on duty or at action stations for most of the time. After picking up the Russian pilot and setting off independently up Kola Inlet we were looking forward to having a good sleep when we anchored near Murmansk but we were very quickly disillusioned when, about a mile up from the Inlet, we passed a merchant ship on fire and her crew taking to the lifeboats.
On asking the pilot about the ship, which was from the previous convoy, he cheerfully told us that on the way down to meet us he had seen her being attacked by aircraft, obviously a common occurence. We now understood why we had been fitted with so many anti-aircraft guns.
After two days at anchor we went alongside at Murmansk to discharge our cargo. The port was being bombed a good part of the time and one of our ships, the Ocean Freedom, was sunk alongside the quay near to us.
When we had discharged all our cargo we moved out and anchored about a mile apart on each side of the Inlet. We appeared to be on the side nearest the German lines, which were only about ten miles away, and we were regularly attacked by Me 109 fighter-bombers which swooped down over the top of the hill, down the side and came tearing at us about 20 to 30 feet above the water, dropping their bomb as they flew over us just above our topmasts. Our gunners were very skilled and opened fire only when the planes came well within range.
These attacks only lasted for about a minute but were very vicious and we had gunners wounded and damage done to our ship. We shot down one plane and on another occasion we damaged one which flew out of range before we could finish it off. The ship anchored astern of us then opened fire when the damaged plane came within range and it blew up. We only got a half credit for that one so ended up with one-and-a-half swastikas painted on our funnel.
We now come to the incident whereby, to our surprise, our names appeared in the London Gazette.
On Sunday, April 4 we were anchored in Mishukov anchorage, I was playing chess in the officers mess when "Action Stations" sounded and our guns opened up at the same time. I went through the pantry, looked out of the door, and saw 2 Ju 88 bombers coming up from astern, high up. Our Bofors shells were bursting below them and when they turned away I assumed we had beaten them off and stepped out on deck.
This was a foolish thing to do as, unknown to me, the planes had released their bombs before turning away. Four bombs exploded close on the port side and one on the starboard side and I was blown off my feet. As I got up our gun-layer came down from one of the bridge Oerlikons and pointed to a large round hole in the steel deck a few yards from where I had been standing. It was obvious that a sixth bomb had gone through the main deck and 'tween decks into our coal bunkers and had not exploded.
When we informed the Senior British Naval Officer, Murmansk of the situation and were advised that there were no British Bomb Disposal people in North Russia. We then realised that we would have to dig the bomb out ourselves in order to save our ship. The minesweeper Jason was ordered to anchor astern of us and to come alongside to render assistance if the bomb should explode, although I should doubt if there would have much to pick up.
Although the Dover Hill was only a battered old merchantman she was our home and no German was going to make us leave her while she was still afloat. The captain lined up the whole crew on the after deck and asked for volunteers and 19 of us, including our captain, formed our own bomb disposal squad. We had no equipment; in fact we only had a few shovels borrowed from our stokehold and 19 stout hearts when we started digging back the coal, trying to find the bomb.
The bunker was full of good British steaming coal which we were saving for the homeward run so we used a derrick to bring it up on deck, hoping to replace it when we got the bomb out. When the Russian authorities heard what we were doing, although they had many exploded bombs to deal with in the town, they kindly offered to send one of their own Bomb Disposal officers to remove the detonator if we could get the bomb on deck.
When we had dug about ten feet down into the coal we found the tail fins and, by their size, decided our bomb must be a 1,0001b one. Unfortunately, the Germans also discovered what we were up to and came back and bombed us again, hoping to set off the bomb we were digging for. Due to the bomb explosions and the concussion of our own guns the coal fell back into the space where we were digging and things got difficult at times. We had to dig down approximately 22 feet before we got to the bomb, but after two days and two nights hard work we finally got it up on deck.
I was standing beside the bomb with two of my fellow officers as our Russian friend started to unscrew the retaining ring of the detonator, but after a few turns it stuck. He then took a small hammer and a punch and tapped it to get it moving. I can honestly say that every time he hit it I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up against the hood of my duffle coat.
After removing the detonator and primer we dumped the bomb into Kola Inlet, where it probably lies to this day. We then moved back to Murmansk for repairs.
Of the 15 ships which arrived at Murmansk in February, one had been sunk and four damaged. On May 17, in company with three other ships, we left the Kola Inlet and set out for Ekonomiya at the mouth of the Dvina River where we stayed until July 18 when we moved to Molotovsk (now Severodvinsk). Finally, on November 26, with eight other ships, some damaged, we set out for home.
Since it was now dark for almost 24 hours each day and we could only make seven knots maximum speed we went north to the edge of the ice. Knowing that a Russian bound convoy was coming up to the south of us we expected the Germans to attack that one and leave us alone. This in fact happened and we eventually arrived in London on December 14 in time to be home for Christmas.
The time we spent in the White Sea area was mostly peaceful and our main problem was lack of food; for part of the time we suffered from malnutrition, but we survived. I do not think it did any of us any harm as it makes us appreciate "all the more the peaceful times we now live in.
When we sailed up London River towards Surrey Commercial Docks to pay off, with our Red Ensign flying and patches on our decks and side, we were as proud of the old ship as if she had been a spick and span Navy vessel arriving in port. Our Red Ensign had a hole in it where an Oerlikon shell had gone through it during the fighting but it was the only one we had left.
The Dover Hill finished her days as a naval Special Service vessel and was sunk as a blockship on 7 February 1944, but I do not know where. This is a kind of way of saying that the old ship had taken a bigger hammering than we thought and that she was no longer fit to go to sea.
To finish on a personal note. I was the youngest of the young squad which took part in the incident in Mishukov anchorage, having had my 18th birthday on the way up to Russia. I was no longer a greenhorn, however, having joined my first ship at Plymouth as a cadet in 1940 when I was 15 years old. Due to a problem with my eyesight I was unable to continue in navigation department and came ashore, went to wireless college and returned to sea in the radio department.
I returned to Murmansk in 1980, mainly to find the grave of a friend who had been killed by a bomb splinter which went through his steel helmet and with the help of the Russian authorities I was able to do so. I went back again in 1985 and ^ again in 87, 89, 91, 93 and 95 with a group of veterans and great kindness and friendship was shown to us by the people of Murmansk who greatly appreciate the help we brought to them during the war.
In 1987 I also found out the name of the Russian Bomb Disposal officer who had helped us was Pavel Panin. l have had word from the Northern Naval Museum in Murmansk that he was killed in August 1943. He was a fighter pilot in the Red Air Force and was killed in a scrap with German ME109F planes. He is a Hero of The Soviet Union and rightly so as he was a very brave man who we admired very much. I have seen his picture in museums in Murmansk and Severomorsk. It would have been wonderful to have met him after all these years, but it was not to be.
Note by courtesy of Editor of Sea Breezes.
The Dover Hill 5,818 grt, was built by the Northumberland Shipping Co. Newcastle and was launched by December 1917 as the Maenwen but before completion was acquired by Clan Line as Clan Macvicar. In 1936 she was sold and renamed Dover Hill. After returning from North Russia she was taken over by Ministry of War Transport and was sunk at Arromanches on 9 June 1944 along with other ships to form an artificial port for the invasion of Normandy.
Veteran of the Arctic Convoys Lieutenant Commander Herbert Arthur Alfred Twiddy D.S.C.
Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the United Kingdom
From the book «My Teenage War and Later Career»
Off To Sea
My first ship was HMS Sheffield, a town class cruiser of 10,000 tons, which had already seen much service in the Atlantic, and in addition, had played a leading role in the sinking of the German Battleship "Bismarck" in May of 1941. It was however in July 1942, that I had my first sight of this grey camouflaged vessel berthed on the Tyne, and it was up her gangway that I carried all my worldly possessions in my kitbag on one shoulder, and my bed, in the form of my hammock on the other. I acquired another piece of kit, my lifejacket, not a very substantial one, but virtually a rubber tube with a blow up mouthpiece, and stowed in a cloth bag, to be carried always whilst at sea. This together with an identity tag worn around the neck was a constant reminder of the hazardous situation we were in at all times.
There was not a lot of time to settle down, because it was soon to be steaming for Scapa Flow, and the hard work of an intensive programme of exercises to prepare for months ahead of us, escorting and protecting convoys to and from Russia. Storing the ship with our own supplies of armament for the 6" and 4" guns as well as anti aircraft ammunition, together with food for over 600 souls on board, meant that everyone was involved.
Our first venture involved much extra storing, and the embarkation of Norwegian personnel together with a number of dogs. All was secretive, and during this process, no one was allowed ashore before sailing north on a wild September day, and heading into a Force 9 gale. It was a great relief to enter harbour in Iceland, where a small fleet was already assembled, but still with no external communication of any kind. Having sailed out of Hvalfiord we were told that the largest ever convoy to Russia was being formed. This convoy PQ18 was shortly to be involved in the fiercest convoy battle of the whole war. Sheffield was detached from this close convoy duty, and steamed to Spitzbergen, some 700 miles from the North Pole and the farthest northern permanent settlement for man. It was in this bleak and forbidding environment where we all worked extremely hard to unload the guns and stores, and personnel who were to be based there for some time.
The whole operation had to be carried out with some urgency, as it was known that German aircraft flew daily reconnaissance flights over the area, and we were in an extremely vulnerable situation, anchored in a creek, and with a vast majority of the company working to and from the ship in boats.
It was quite an adventure to meet up with some of the Russians who were already there, and I recall the exchange of real cigarettes for the Russian ones mainly consisting of cardboard tube with tobacco twisted into the end. This was but a brief interlude, but a memory that remains, of the surrounding ice, and the brightness of it all, as even the late summer months brought the sight of the midnight sun, so soon sadly to turn to darker and longer nights and days as well, as the winter approached.
An unwelcome return to the heavy seas en route to Murmansk and Archangel, and the seasickness and bitter cold temperatures I experienced, so often made me query the decision I had taken to follow the sea as a chosen career. I had never shirked or dodged work before, but any excuse to hide myself away from everyone and seek refuge in warmth and sleep was taken. My favourite refuge was just near the after funnel, where I would curl up covered by coats and canvas, with my lifebelt as a pillow, and pray that I would not be discovered. Anyone who has suffered from seasickness will know of the despair it brings to the sufferer. Fortunately, I did become accustomed to it and the effects were less severe as time went on, but every spell in harbour meant a few days of misery on return to sea.
Hardly had we got used to the routine patrolling off the Norwegian coast, as cover for convoys, and attempting to keep the major units of the German fleet at a distance, and all the time experiencing the heavy North Atlantic weather that seemed always to be with us, that we were despatched to Belfast for yet another highly secret operation…
Mutiny and Battle
…Darkness, rain, cold and snow, kept us company as we again headed North to Iceland for fuel, then to Murmansk and further, to escort convoys past Bear Island avoiding thick ice and waiting submarines, yet managing to refuel the close escort destroyers, whose hellish existence was marginally worse than ours. This voyage could be described as ten days of Hell. No enemy activity that I can recall, but the sheer misery of cold and storm force winds. Spray turned into ice pellets when it hit the deck and stung when it hit face and hands. Any exposed metal touched with bare hands risked a loss of skin on removal. Our main daily task was to chip away the ice that formed on all the weapons, decks, and superstructure.
We reached our anchorage in Vaenga Bay arriving on Christmas Eve, not to rest, because the first task was to further clear the decks and armament of the ice and snow which had added tons of top weight to the ship on our voyage north. Then to refuel from rusting Russian tankers. It was bitterly cold on Christmas day, yet more snow and ice. Because of my age, I could not even have the solace of a tot of rum, when the daily issue was made. The performance of a Russian choir and dancers, male, I would add, did very little for our morale, for the only sight of a female in ages was that of a plump engineer fleetingly seen on the deck of the tanker. All of this, interspersed with the firing of our AA guns at unidentified aircraft, any activity carried out at temperatures of near -40F, was hazardous to say the least.
Diary of my visit to Russia for Convoy reunion September 2001.
This trip was organised through the membership of the North Russia Club, which consists of veterans of Convoys to Russia between 1941 and 1945 and took place between the 25 August and 2 September 2001.
…Flying Aeroflot was quite comfortable, because for reasons I did not query, I found myself seated in business class. Food served was of a non-British style, and though drink was served there were no spirits, nor beer, and service was somewhat limited. Departure was at 2205, and arrival at 0445 local time as there was a 3-hour time difference…
Sunday 26th August
The Ambassadors residence was opposite the Kremlin, which displayed the colour and magnificence we have all seen in magazine pictures, and the interior of the house was of a similar standard. Senior diplomats and service officers and their families/ many of the Russian veterans of convoys/ and many members of Press and TV welcomed us. Drinks and canapés, speeches of welcome, and the first of the many interviews for TV, Russian in this instance for me.
Lunch was taken in the Dining room and Ballroom, and was really done in a grand manner. Salmon mousse, Beef of the highest quality, and good quality tart to follow. I met with Admiral Nicolai, who was aged 83 and one of 13 children. He spent some time during the war in Yorkshire, and was still able to use the Yorkshire dialect. He told the story of a friend of his who boasted that he learned English by memorising 5 words each day, and pointing to his head he said, "I have kept them all here in my bottom".
Massive paintings adorned the walls, and my first impression was that they were of our Royal Family. I could swear that they were of Queen Mary, and of Edward VII, and the others of other members, to me it was quite uncanny. Our programme after lunch was to visit Red Square and the Central War memorial. Like all monuments in Russia, they were massive, and dominating the area. The one in the Square was of a Dragon of War being slain. St George and the Dragon, to the last image. Atop a very tall obelisk were angels in flight and impressive overall. I was disappointed in Red Square, it did not seem the same as seen on TV, and there were no queues to see Lenin's body, that is, or was elsewhere. The streets were clean and around the area were well-tended flowerbeds. There were a few beggars about including children, but they were only to be seen in the underground walkways to cross a road junction…
Monday 27th August
Because breakfast was, frustrating in not finding what was needed, I decided to miss out on the schedule to see HMS Campbeltown, and RFS Zadorniy arriving, but to eat what was there in a leisurely manner, and listening to the live accordion music provided. Some representatives laid wreaths informally at the Alesha War Memorial at this time, one of many that the club officials took over.
1030 was the time of our meeting up with the other veterans at the Arctica Hotel in Murmansk, Where we received briefings by Embassy staff and others. I was very impressed by Barbara Hay, a Scots lady who is The British Consul in St Petersburg. Her manner, appearance and presentation of her briefing in two languages, was competent and professional and of course well received.
Our first official meeting with our Russian counterparts was over Coffee and Rum, and though dominated by speeches was pleasurable (I managed to rearrange a Onion Flag, which was upside down on the table, without too much fuss) I met a shipmate from HMS Sheffield whom I had not met since 1942, and we chin wagged. Lunch and yet more speeches followed. One was never sure what the meals would comprise, since on each occasion the table was prepared with meat and fish salads, and one set of cutlery, followed sometimes by another course, perhaps just potatoes, as in one instance, or soup, and another plate to finish the salads. However we did eat well and most times there was plenty of vodka, for which I have an intense disliking. There was never a written menu neither in English nor Russian.
The afternoon was devoted to visiting the ships, which by now were berthed in the harbour and official arrival ceremonies having been completed. The journey to the harbour was through the town, and was notable for the absence of shops as we know them, a few kiosks where customers were served through a small ticket window, and all of them seemed to be selling the same items, bottles (vodka, cigarettes, sweets?).
The ship visit was interesting in that we were shown round each ship, by members of the crew, all of whom it seemed to me were far too young to know anything, but they did and were enthusiastic about their jobs and responsibilities. All of this was attended by cameras in the face, still and movie for UK and Russian media and perhaps others, for we had a few Americans with us, who at times expressed their concern at not being sufficiently recognised.
Barely time to return to the hotel to freshen up, before returning to HMS Campbeltown for a cocktail party reception. This was a much more informal affair, and much to my surprise, was hosted by all ranks and ratings, something I had not experienced in my own long Service career. I found all that I came into contact with, conducted themselves in a very competent and professional manner, reflecting I suggest, the higher educational standards required for entry and advancement in the RN today.
On return to the hotel, a number of us were invited to view an undistributed film of events at sea and on land in 1941/42. This film had previously been offered to BBC, but it was considered unsuitable, it showed scenes of a Russian "Valley of Death" where many of the 27 million casualties were slain.
Tuesday 28th August
By now, we were accompanied by a police car escort, leading our busses, since there were a few intersections causing delays, which they overcame, and bringing up the rear an ambulance, having in mind the age and state of health of the participants, reassuring, but perhaps superfluous.
Today marked what was perhaps the major wreath laying ceremony, with guards paraded from both the Russian and British ships, attendance by Senior dignitaries, the playing of Anthems by the Russian band, and at least 5 speeches all translated praising the heroism and sacrifice of the convoys, and recognising the role of those convoys in the saving of Russia when at its most dangerous and precarious part of the war, under Nazi attack. The whole ceremony was carried through with great pomp and dignity, though I personally observed some cringing moments.
This ceremony was followed by yet another bus journey to the cemetery and memorial for Arctic convoy dead, and a more private wreath laying. It was distressing to see a line of 5 graves with all the same name of Firemen in a merchant vessel who died on the same day. There was some speculation if they were of the same family, but that merely helped to emphasise the horror of those dark days at sea and the sacrifice made. We who stood there in respect had all survived, though some were not full in body.
On return to our hotel at lunch time, I and a few others were touched when an unknown individual, who in his halting English, explained that he had lost his grandfather, but wanted to recognise our heroism in helping to save Russia, insisted on paying for our drinks, and was visibly in tears as he drank to our health. Such was the reaction we found when we came into contact with ordinary people.
Our afternoon visit was to School 51 in Murmansk, a school that has maintained a liaison with the veterans associations through the dedication of a certain individual, and has established its own memorial to their honour. They specialise in teaching English, and demonstrated their skills by presenting a concert of singing and dancing, despite it being during their holiday time. They gave us tea, and we gave them sweets and souvenir badges that we had taken with us. The association is a continuing one, as the member who is the sponsor of an Arctic memorial trust is promoting the visit of children to the UK, as a living trust.
Our evening programme involved a visit to an Ice Breaker for dinner. The access to the ship was difficult, particularly for those with walking problems, but it was achieved, resulting in us finding ourselves in a large dining room to seat over 100. The meal was excellent, though naturally punctuated by many speeches, delivered in the Russian manner, ably translated for us by our accompanying staff. All those in a political or commercial position in the district, welcomed and paid tribute to us, and a troupe of nationally dressed performers sang and played to us, we were indeed feted. It was difficult to bring the evening to an end but even ancient mariners get tired and we had to take our Dosveedanyas and leave before midnight.
Wednesday 29th August
Since there are a considerable number of memorials to those who lost their lives in the World War II struggle, our group split into two sections for private ceremonies at memorials, some of which were not maintained to the high standards, to be found in Europe, but honour was paid with humility and propriety.
The very slight commercial aspect of the visit was demonstrated by a visit to the Murmansk Shipping Company, who have dedicated a small part of their Museum of Shipping to the convoys and of course to the merchant fleet. It was particularly memorable because of the perfect models hand made in wood, of participating ships in the two sea battles I was in. The Barents Sea in 1942, and North Cape in 1943. Both German and British ships were on display, including Belfast, Duke of York, Hipper, and Scharnhorst among others.
Since our next visit was to Archangel, even further North and East into the Arctic Circle, the afternoon saw us on the way airport for our charter plane.
Thursday 30th August
…The token convoy of ships arrived at midday and anchored in the Northern Dvina River, where gun salutes were exchanged. This all in full view of the very impressive Eternal Flame Memorial, which was to be the scene of ceremonies the following day. This day however was to be marked by the formal arrival of the dignitaries, civil and military. The senior British Naval Officer was Admiral Stanhope, representing the RN.
A large civilian crowd gathered, as did all the veterans. The Russian Naval guard and Band were formed up and the square lined with sailors, to greet the British Ambassador in particular and other dignitaries, of which there were many. Once again, with my obsession of seeing that the Union flag to the fore, I noticed that it was indeed, prepared to be hoisted upside down!
I drew attention of this fact to those around me, and the word quickly spread through the ranks of the British contingent. It took not many moments for a Russian officer to appear at the flagpole, closely followed by a naval lieutenant interpreter. Much gesturing, including a message to delay the arrival VIP's went on as the Flag was reversed and honour saved. It was hoisted and flew proudly alongside the Russian National Emblem, when the British National Anthem was played by the band as the Ambassador stepped ashore. The traditional ceremony of Bread and Salt was observed, as well as welcome speeches, after which the Ambassador met as many veterans as he could, welcoming all by their Christian names, helped by the bold name badges that everyone wore.
Our late afternoon was free and a few of us took a walk around the town centre. We found the roads and paths in very poor repair, and many of the heavy iron bases of the street lamps had sunk into the ground at odd angles- A children's play park was on our route, and we could but comment how dilapidated it was, though it appeared that the children were unaware as they seemed to be enjoying the swings and rides. Again no shop windows, though we did find shop stalls within a couple of buildings nothing we saw could have come under the heading of luxury goods, so we bought nothing, even as souvenirs.
Dinner this evening was hosted by the British Embassy and Naval staff, and we met a Naval Padre whose 'Parish' was the whole of Russia. His 'grace' before the meal was the shortest public oration of the whole week, for the speeches throughout the proceedings were lengthy and boomed out in the Russian Manner. However their sincerity was as impressive as was their delivery, for we were never left in doubt of the warmth of welcome and of their gratefulness for our past deeds. A Scots piper, courtesy of the RAF, livened up the evening with some spirited and professional playing, and in honour of the Scottish named ship, the Scottish ports from which the convoys left, the Scottish Consul General, and the number of Scots present, he played a selection of traditional tunes which the Russians also knew, so a general sing song took place. The Captain of Campbeltown, produced his piano accordion, and he played more songs known to the Russians, among which inevitably was Tipperary. As with most of the events there were many film crews and cameramen present, as each days papers and TV devoted a lot of time and space to the reporting.
Friday 31st August
The Seafront terminal was our embarkation point for today's event of reviewing the fleet of ships present. We veterans boarded a ferry whose lower deck tables were laid out with food and Vodka, and we were invited to partake freely whilst proceeding past the ships, dressed overall, and looking smart, with ships companies lining the decks, salutes were fired and cheers given as we passed, and once again photo opportunities taken which even reached the British press.
This trip was followed by yet another wreath laying ceremony, this time at the Eternal Flame, to which all contingents, even our over 80's marched with due decorum. Once again the ceremony was carried out with pride and sincerity, the young sailors with their exaggerated swagger in marching being particularly memorable, and the tributes generous.
The Russian marines gave a demonstration of a beach assault under fire, and showed their skills in armed and unarmed combat, whilst their comrades on shore provided us with food from a field kitchen. Were not impressed by the tapioca like fare, but it was creditable that they managed to provide for so many in such a short time. It was at this point that we met so many of the civilians who were anxious to pay their tribute to us and many were the hugs, the tears, and the flowers that were so generously given by them. I found that the whisky flask that I carried in my back pocket, helped to cement some of these relationships. The mass of cameras in faces was quite a new experience for most of the veterans, but was reflected in the immense coverage by the Russian media.
The afternoon we were entertained at Russian Naval School No 12, by the staff and senior officers, and our initial reception by a very competent band playing in the Glen Miller style. I must say however that they had great difficulty in managing to avoid vast holes in the road and manhole covers standing high as a major road hazard/ as they marched and danced to and fro. The meal once again was interspersed with more speeches, but such was the mood, that all and sundry had a desire to make their contribution of thanks.
It was during this lunch, that through an official interpreter, I was quizzed about ray age and activity during the convoy actions, and my later career, by a retired senior Russian naval officer. As a result of this discussion he declared his admiration for me personally, and insisted on giving me his Marshal Zhukov Medal, and requesting that I keep it and wear it. Needless to say, I was very touched, and quite lost for words.
The evening event in Lenin Square was a well planned and well produced event with, music, dance, choirs and solo singers, culminating in a wonderful firework display. The temperature dropped quite rapidly after dark, and the candles we were given to hold, gave light to the proceedings, but not necessarily a lot of warmth to the hands. An excellent evening.
Saturday 1st September
Our final day in North Russia, and a visit to the English cemetery was our first duty, with a simple but sincere ceremony in the presence of the Ambassador, and naval representation. This was the resting place of many young service men who lost their lives in Russia at the end of the First World War. It would appear that resources were limited for its maintenance, but it had been well tidied for this occasion and their graves honoured.
This day was marked by a grand concert and lunch, hosted by Archangel Administration. A very large stage was provided, with a screen for the showing of commemorative films, and a couple of professional presenters to introduce the artists and speakers, who performed both during and after the meal, which was accompanied by the usual many bottles of vodka, toasts were frequent and hearty, but since the vodka was not particularly to the taste of the U.K. veterans, no one of our group was any worse for wear. It was unfortunate that because of our impending flight to Moscow for our return home, we had to leave before the party finished.
Veteran of the Arctic Convoys Richard Seaman
(Royal Fleet Auxiliary)
Harrow, England, the United Kingdom
Veteran of the Arctic Convoys Geoffrey Shelton
Glasgow, Scotland, the United Kingdom
70th Anniversary of VE Day Red Square Moscow. 9th May 2015
I received an invite from the Russian Government to celebrate with them the 70th anniversary of VE Day in Red Square, all expenses paid.
I asked David Cant a fluent speaker of Russian if he would come with me as carer. David was happy to accept, so on Thursday the 7th of May we checked into The Holiday Inn at Glasgow airport to allow us an early start in the morning. The following day we met up with David Craig and his son in law from Kilmarnock. At London airport we met up with Ernie Kennedy making a trio of Arctic convoy veterans plus two carers. We were in fact the only representatives from the UK. The British Government chose not to be represented because of the Ukraine situation but such decision was not only petty but an insult to the memory of 27 million Russians who not only gave their lives for their mother country but also together with us to rid this world of Fascism. How could any country be so callous as to dishonour the dead in this way.
We eventually boarded the Aeroflot flight for Moscow. I had enquired the cost of upgrading the flight to first class but when I was told it would cost an extra £2000 each I declined, but then the crew had formed a reception committee and ushered into the first class area. We were astounded by their kindness as well as their constant expressions of thanks. I never knew people could travel in such luxury with everything thrown in free and aircrew there to help our every need.
On arriving in Moscow we were met by three limousines who took us to the Golden Ring hotel. Again we were met by a reception committee all expressing praise and thank yous. None of us felt we had any right to this outburst of praise but it was all so genuine. There were many Russian veterans staying in the hotel with both breasts reaching down to their waists and covered with medals. There were also two old ladies from Toronto similarly adorned though neither of them could speak English.
Some two weeks before we left home I had dinner with David and his friend from Moscow Alex. It transpired that Alex's granddaughter was a journalist and expressed the wish to meet us. On the evening of our arrival we went to dinner and took with us Alex and Sasha who sat beside me throughout the meal asking questions. I then gave her a DVD of an interview I had participated in two months earlier which may be of help.
We had a good nights sleep but the two hour time difference was somewhat confusing as we did not alter our watches.
The following morning we were taken by coach to Red Square. We passed some amazing buildings together with the more modern buildings which were a delight to behold with their own distinctive style of architecture but which was still able to embrace older styles.
Red Square was not square as I had imagined but rectangular. There were thousand of tiered seats but we were directed to the second row behind the rostrum. Somehow this didn't seem right but sure enough Mr Putin sat right in front of us. We could easily touch his shoulder, but it appeared that of all the veterans present we were given the place of honour. We already knew how much importance the Russians placed on the convoys but this was above our wildest expectations. The first row was for the other heads of state such as the Chinese leader Xi Jimping, Cuba's Raul Castro Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, The Secretary of the United Nations as well as many others.
On the far side were I imagine about 20 bands all playing together. And then the march started, it seemed like tens of thousands were marching men and women. Frankly I found it very emotional. In my minds eye all I could see were the 27 million who died and yet whose sacrifice allowed these young men and women to march in freedom so heavily won for them by their forbears.
Mr Putin made his speech and as David had been moved away with Jack from we three veterans, we did not have the benefits of an interpreter, but since being home I have seen it in English and was astounded at the quality of his words with no bitterness to absent leaders but praise for his war time allies. The march past took about an hour and was follow by tanks and motorised transport and a fly pass. On leaving the square by baggy people including young soldiers waved to us calling out their thank It was very humbling.
We were then driven to the Kremlin Palace where dozens of round tables were straining under the weight of food. Each table sat ten; so apart from we five we had a Russian official and four Americans. Orville was 97 and with his son. The other veteran was 90 and with his wife. There was caviar and salmon and such a variety of dishes I cannot recall but course after course came up, in fact I lost count after seven and we were expected to go to lunch afterwards. We were introduced to Nicholas Soames, Sir Winston Churchill's grandson also the British Ambassador. While this was going on we had The Red Army choir singing together with a number of wonderful solo singers. Mr Putin and his Prime Minister were making their way round the room and I said to the Russian gentleman on our table that I would like to talk to him. His reply was that protocol would not allow it without an appointment. I made my way through the throng to Mr Putin and immediately said, "Thank you for giving us the Ushakov medal." He said, "Where are you from?" When I replied Scotland he said "Welcome and thank you for coming." I thanked him for inviting me, we then shook hands.
I must confess it never occurred to me that he may not speak English but he did. The Kremlin Palace is a magnificent place. We were then transported back to the hotel for lunch which we all declined, but then a young lady called me and she said she wanted to interview me for internet. A room in the hotel was all set up with cameras and another young lady interviewed us. She said she had a number of questions from people on the internet .The American veteran who was at our table was also there and she sat between us asking each in turn the same question. After this interview we were supposed to go to a gala concert but I believe it was cancelled. That night there was a firework display across Moscow so we went up to the Winter Gardens on the top floor. David then bought some Vodka and we toasted each other before retiring to our rooms.
In the two days we were there a young lady called Victoria was with us the whole time. She was always caring and smiling and frequently took my arm, in fact David thought he had been made redundant but when he asked why I told him there were a hundred reasons why.
We were all given a shoulder bag the contents of which I did not open until I got home. The contents were amazing. A scarf, a forage cap, a book of verse, a brooch, a silk scarf and a beautiful pair of binoculars. There were other things but the kindness and generousity of our Russian friends knows no bounds.
Back at the airport Aeroflot again upgraded us to first class.
In conclusion I would say that the West should spend time getting to know our Russian friends. I have found them warm and caring and I cannot thank them enough not just this weekend but over the last 70 years when we veterans have maintained contact with our Russian shipmates.
I cannot close these thoughts without acknowledging the tower of strength David has been, not just to me but the other veterans too. In retrospect I could not have succeeded without him, although I must admit Victoria aaah she is the exception to the rule.
"70 years on, why I now weep for my dead shipmates"
Article for Daily Mail, March 13, 2015
As a veteran of the World War II Arctic convoys, I've received an invitation from the Russian government to attend their celebrations in Red Square on May 9. I believe I'm one of only two veterans in Scotland to receive such an invitation, and there are two others down South.
Young and in our prime, we could shrug off the sub-zero temperatures and sleepless nights. We tolerated the storms, and accepted the low pay, long hours and freezing mess decks.
We learnt to live with fear, ears deafened by gunfire and depth charge explosions. We all recognised that, like a shadowing Blohm and Voss flying boat, the Grim Reaper also shadowed us night and day. Death was never very far away — but we believed it would be someone else.
When we lost a shipmate, we accepted it with quiet acquiescence. If he'd gone overboard, we said a silent prayer. If he hadn't, we sewed him up in his hammock and offered his body to the deep.
For 24 hours the mess deck was quiet — not an enforced silence, it just happened. Then we auctioned our shipmate's gear for inflated prices and sent the proceeds to his nearest and dearest. There was sadness, but no tears.
In those times of silence, we pondered on our fears and hopes. We thought of loved ones at home and of the departed shipmate's family, probably asleep in comfortable beds, unaware we had already slipped his body over the side.
What feelings do we harbour 70 years later? Since retirement, I've had time to ponder and to meet old shipmates in the North Russia Club. Have my thoughts changed? Yes. I find I grieve for my shipmates now more than I ever did.
We shared danger together and I miss them, pray for them and, in my private moments, weep for them. I think of the changes that have taken place since they left us, changes I've been privileged to witness, but they have not.
One of the world's most beautiful experiences is to hold the hand of a child in yours. Our dead shipmates will never know that. They've missed men landing on the Moon, England winning the World Cup, colour TV, Pavarotti, The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise, the new Queen. They know nothing of Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands. They don't know there was a Cold War against the very people for whom they gave their lives.
They don't know about the Berlin Wall or the assassinations of Gandhi, Kennedy and Luther King. They never saw the magic of Torvill and Dean, or watched the beautiful post-war musicals. So much has happened, so much to enjoy, all denied to them. Some died leaving families behind, others newer had the chance to know the love of a young lady.
That is why my grief is more profound and my heart heavy with sorrow.
Mrs Nancy Black
(War-time employee at a shipping company's office in Oban, Scotland)
Oban, Scotland, the United Kingdom
From the book «Courage. A Teenager’s View of War»
Captain McMullin, the wild Irishman, blew into the office like one of the Atlantic gales he had just experienced. “I want a call to these blasted owners of mine. The Chief Engineer is up in arms. The spares he needs did not arrive before we left Liverpool”.
He placed a pile of letters on my desk to be stamped and taken to Customs for censoring. I put through a priority call and, during the fifteen or twenty minute wait, Captain McMullin was pacing up arid down between the roaring fire and the typist’s chair, talking non stop to everyone. And using his Irish charm to persuade us he needed to make a phone call to his wife. Strictly against regulations but who could refuse when it might be the last talk they would ever have together.
“Any mail for us?” I looked in the box above the fire, not a very safe position I now realise but it made a good excuse to have a heat at the usually roaring fire, and produced the ship’s mail.
“A cabin boy is coming off the train this morning to join my ship”, he uttered, after tearing open a letter “as if I did not have enough troubles. Keep him here until the four o’clock drifter” and, after speaking to his owners, he took himself off to the Convoy Masters Conference in the Station Hotel and, we knew, into the bar afterwards.
I liked Captain McMullin for he was full of vitality and though you knew his talk would normally be interspersed with oaths, like all the other visitors we had to the office, his language was modified when ladies were present.
It may have been partly cupboard love as often, after he had visited the office, I would find an orange or bar of chocolate in my desk. On one occasion a price ticket had attached itself to an orange and I remarked to our typist, Mrs Travis, “whoever would pay 6d for an orange?”. There was momentous occasion when the captain of the "Cavina’ promised to bring us in a crate of fruit the following day. The convoy sailed that night.
On another occasion Captain Edmondson of the Beecheville borrowed a library book from my desk but I, with the previous instance in mind, chased along the street alter him to get it back. The fine of 7/6d for non return of the book was a large slice of my pay if the convoy had sailed that night, unexpectedly, as had happened before.
One day, our typist was given two bananas and very generously gave me one. I shared it with the family but have it on record that “it did not taste as good as I thought it would”.
I took myself off to the Ministry of Transport office at Naval Headquarters to arrange for a drifter from the boat pool to deliver the ordered stores out to the convoy, collecting the ferry books at the same time. […]
On my arrival back at the office a young boy was sitting on the adjoining stool lo mine. We shyly introduced ourselves and I found out his name was John but now I cannot remember his surname. A few minutes later he mentioned he had relations in Oban and would like to visit them if it was possible. I went in to see my boss and, as there were four hours until the drifter sailed from the ship, he could not see any objection as long as John returned in plenty of time.
He left, delighted, but still had not returned when Captain McMullin, well awash, stormed into the office around two o’clock. “Where is that young whippersnapper - why isn't he here?” With that, the office door opened and John walked in.
“Where were you?” the Captain asked brusquely. “Mr Calderwood gave me permission to visit relations, sir, and I still had some coupons left so called at a shop for some biscuits”.
“Biscuits? Biscuits? No one has ever starved on MY ship. What do you want with biscuits!". The Captain went in to a diatribe about ungrateful crew members before realising his shore leave was passing quickly.
Captain McMullin took off again alter admonishing his cabin boy not to move from the office and to divert John from his hurt pride in being subjected to such an interrogation in front of the staff I asked if this was his first trip. It was his second.
The first had been on a ship in a Russian convoy and was very cold and miserable but no mention was made of the attacks and sinkings in the convoy as we were very conscious of careless talk. Even in port at Murmansk there was no respite as the nearest German bombers were situated less than an hour’s flight away.
Later, I learned that on one of these convoys forty two air attacks had been made in a few days and this would have been in addition to submarine activity. For all the ships travelling in our own waters there was also the danger of mines laid by submarines apart from that of sailing in darkened ships and navigational errors.
John's last ship had been the steamship San Valerio, a tanker built in 1913 for the Anglo Saxon Petroleum Company but now run by the Ministry of War Transport. I believe she was a sister ship of the San Demetrio whose story was so vividly presented in the film of that name.
A forty year old tanker of just over six thousand gross tonnage, more used to the oil shipping routes of the Mediterranean and the Red Seas would have little in the way of comfort for its crew in the freezing Arctic Ocean even without the hazard of meeting up with submarines and torpedo bombers intent on the ship's destruction. Extra heating pipes and insulation were installed in the ships sailing in the Russian convoys but this would not be of much help in the freezing conditions. The crews would spend much of their time, in winter, chipping ice from the masts, boats and deckhouses to prevent capsize.
A voyage in these conditions was enough to put anyone off going to sea for the rest of his life but here was John willing to join another ship which could have taken him back to the same discomfort and danger, without complaint. At his age, fourteen, it would have been so easy to opt out.
I commiserated with him in serving in a ship with such a wild Irishman in charge. We were too young to realise the responsibility carried and the fact of having a youngster of fourteen on board would weigh heavily with the Captain, especially if he had left a young family at home. We talked for well over an hour, our mutual passion for the sea giving us a basis for friendship.
We were patriots and determined to fight and win. Though young, we had read of the German's plans for the world and listened to the words of Lord Haw Haw, who broadcast local news items from Germany to demoralise the British people. This was to make us think we had many German spies in this country. We made up our minds it was not for us. My plans had been made. If the invasion came I would head for the hills with as much food as I could gather, get hold of a rifle somehow and fight to the end. I did not ask the intentions of the rest of my family! A friend, on leave from the Commandos, had shown me a few dirty tricks for emergencies, knowing full well what might be in store for us. We were living with these thoughts in our mind but nothing would divert us from giving of our best for our country. John and I were similar in our outlook.
He was a good looking, polite, well mannered boy and it was with regret that I said goodbye to him when the time came for departure.
I did not see or hear of him again. Nor Captain McMullin.
Marine Robert Stewart – PO/X108744 and Convoy Service on HMS Glasgow
In August 1942 Jimmy Stewart's father Marine Robert Stewart, age 29, having completed his Royal Marine training in gunnery, crossed the Atlantic in the liner Queen Mary to join his ship, the Southampton Class light cruiser HMS Glasgow at the US Navy Yard in New York,where it had been fitted with RADAR systems for gunnery ranging and detecting the enemy up to 80 miles distant.
The ship set sail for Bermuda on the 28th August '42 to deliver much needed food supplies, and then east to Portsmouth, arriving on 3rd September '42, then on to Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands; all the time Robert, along with all the other Marines and the Sailors developed their skills, including working the guns. The Marines operated the three 6 inch guns of X turret, along with all the other aspects a Marine would need to do, including practicing responding to emergencies. The individual guns in their turret were named Shadrach, Meshasch and Abednigo. By the conclusion of the war the Marines of X turret had worked together so well they could almost do the job with their eyes shut!
The crew had not been told where they would be fighting, but when the ship sailed for Clydebank around the 5th December '42, to a dockyard, for steam pipes to be fitted around the turrets, control towers and through the Mess, it looked as though they might be going somewhere cold next. That became clear as they left Clydebank on Christmas Eve, and steamed up the west coast to Loch Ewe, the point where the convoys of supplies for Russia were assembled.
Convoy JW52 left Loch Ewe with a destroyer escort on the 17th January '43, creeping along at six or seven knots.They were sailing to the port of Murmansk in an inlet of the Kola Peninsula, Kola Bay, on the northern coast of the USSR. Meanwhile, Glasgow leaving Loch Ewe had made it's
way to Scapa Flow again, joining up with the 10th Cruiser Squadron, comprising the cruisers Glasgow, Kent and Bermuda. The squadron sailed for Iceland, leaving Scapa on the 13th January '43, while JW52 struggled through the atrocious storm at six knots with the initial close escort of Destroyers.
The sea, within six degrees of the Arctic Circle receives the worst weather, caused by the Atlantic low air pressures, the wind often blowing to a steady force ten. The cruiser Glasgow reached Iceland. Supplies were loaded at Seidesfjord then Akureyri before sailing east to escort the 15 merchant ship convoy JW52, getting in position with it on the 21st January '43.
On the next day, the 22nd January '43, four German torpedo bombers attacked the convoy, sinking two merchant ships, though the U-boats were kept under because of the presence of the cruisers and destroyers. The convoy minus the losses arrived in Murmansk, in the Kola inlet on the 27th January '43 after a journey of 10 days from Loch Ewe. Glasgow tied up at Vaenga (Severomorsk) just north of Murmansk, and returned, as part of the 10th Cruiser Squadron escort, with convoy RA52, eleven ships in 4 columns, on the 29th January '43. The convoy arrived back at Loch Ewe on the 8th February '43, with the loss of one merchantman to a U-boat torpedo; but without loss of life.
The men aboard the ships would have been in a state of tension much of the time, as well as facing the debilitating cold and heavy seas, the exhausting labour of removing ice from the guns, deck and fittings. The German battle cruisers and pocket battleships including Scharnhorst, and Admiral Scheer, a total of nine would have been able to wreck havoc amongst the convoys, but did not appear, including the possibility of Tirpitz being in the area.
Glasgow was running out of food, and returned to Akuryri, then on 2nd March '43, then along with the battleship Anson, she supplied distant cover for the next returning convoy, RA53.
On the 29th March '43 on patrol in the Denmark straits, Glasgow encountered a German blockade runner, Regensburg. Sadly, Regensburg's captain scuttled the ship with great loss of life. The crew and passengers had not been given time to take to the lifeboats. Women and children, were to be seen, ice-covered, dead in the water.
For Robert Stewart the experience of war was long-lasting. Hr continued serving on the cruiser Glasgow. It escorted the troop ship/liner Queen Mary, when Churchill was taken to the United States, and in then the Bay of Biscay in a highly successful action against U-boats and destroyers. While supporting the Normandy Landings, off Omaha Beach, substantial injury and damage was sustained, in response to bombardment of installations on the French coast, as well as during the bombardment of Cherbourg, which followed.
Following repairs, refits and exercises the cruiser Glasgow sailed for Colombo in Siri Lanka where, on 5th October '45 it became the Flagship of the 5th Cruiser Squadron based in the Far East. The war was over. The End of Service for Robert Stewart was on the 8th October '45. He returned home to his family in Perth, and to the employment he had left. His contribution to the united effort against the foe was great as was his endurance.
The importance of every convoy was clear, considering the potential size of the cargo in relation to the effort of the Russian army fighting the Germans. For example, a 6000 ton freighter could transport over 200 tanks of different weights and 18 twin engine bombers, as well as other supplies. In a convoy of 15 merchant ships this could amount to 3000 tanks and 270 twin engine bombers. Vital supplies for Russia's war effort.