THE ARCTIC CONVOYS 1941-1945

IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE ARCTIC CONVOYS 1941 – 1945

4 AUGUST 2010: LOCK EWE, SCOTLAND

Mrs. Jean Green, [nee Watson] is the niece of Petty Officer, Walter Watson, HMS Mahratta who was lost at sea 25 February 1944.  She and her husband George Green visited Loch Ewe, Ross & Cromarty, North West Scotland in order to pay respects at the Poolewe Memorial.  Loch Ewe is important since it was the assembly point for the ships taking part in the Arctic convoys.

WEDNESDAY 25 AUGUST 2010: HONNINGSVAG – NORTH CAPE PLATEAU

Honningsvåg, Norway at 70˚58’ N claims to be the northernmost city in Norway and even in the world.  It is situated at a bay on the southern side of Magerøya Island, while the famous North Cape is on the northernside.  Fred Olsen Cruise Lines vessel, M/S Boudicca set out on the Wednesday afternoon into the Arctic Sea and weighed anchor for a remembrance service, held at the request of a passenger Mr. K.N. Richardson.  At 17.00 hours, a traditional service, complete with bugler took place.  Many of the crew and entertainers lined the deck and passengers viewed from the middle and upper decks as Captain Thommessen and Mr. Richardson dropped a wreath into the sea to conclude the service.

The remembrance service was to honour those who took part in the Arctic Convoys of the Second World War during the years 1941 – 1945.  Of particular note to Mr. Richardson was D/KX 82188 Petty Officer, Walter Watson, HMS Mahratta who was lost at sea 25 February 1944.  He is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial and the Evenwood War Memorial.  The museum in Honningsvåg displays the following memorial:

FRIDAY 27 AUGUST 2010: NARVIK, NORWAY

Narvik is located in Nordland, Norway on the shores of the Ofotfjord inside the arctic circle.  It was strategically important in the early years of the Second World War and the town became the focal point of the Norwegian Campaign.  We visited the CWGC War Cemetery and placed a wreath to commemorate those who lost their lives in the campaign.  Mrs. Kathryn Richardson had 2 close family members who took part in this campaign:

  1. Her father, JX 152684 Telegraphist John Thomas Cramman served aboard HMS Arethusa taking troops to Molde and Andalsnes and evacuating them, April 1940.
  2. Her uncle Vince, SSX26426 Able Seaman Joseph Vincent “Vince” Gardiner was aboard HMS Aurora. Between 18 and 22 April, HMS Aurora carried out bombardment of shore targets in Rombaksfjord; 24 April, enemy positions near Narvik were bombarded; 30 April, HMS Aurora assisted with the evacuation of troops from Molde with HMS Galetea; 3 May, she bombarded Beisfjord; 7 May, HMS Aurora sustained damage during air attacks when 2 turrets were disabled and sustained several casualties; 12 May, in action bombarding enemy positions in Herjangsfjord, north of Narvik with HMS Resolution, HMS Effingham and HMS Vindictive, also assisted with landings of French Foreign Legion battalions and finally, 13 May, she was released and returned to the UK (Portsmouth) for repair.

The Narvik CWGC Cemetery;  Able Seaman J.V. Gardiner & Telegraphist J.T. Cramman

30 SEPTEMBER 2010: OLD FRIENDS

Jean Green and Jack Humble photographed together.  Aged 18 at the time, Gunner J. Humble was one of the HMS Mahratta’s 17 survivors from a compliment of 246.  Jack is a regular visitor to Loch Ewe.  Jack’s story is set out below – to be read in conjunction with Walter Watson [Evenwood Roll of Honour]

  

The Northern Echo 6 May 2005 Jack Humble

“I thought: why do I have to die so young?”

Temperatures rarely rose higher than 10 below freezing and the cold was almost as big a danger as the U-boats.  Nick Morrison speaks to a veteran of the Arctic convoys about the night his ship was torpedoed and how a miracle saved his life.

It was 9pm and Jack Humble was in his bunk.  It was another 3 hours until his next watch and he was taking a much needed rest. In his hammock he could escape the otherwise constant cold and the endless cycle of chipping ice from the ship’s deck.  It was February 25, 1944 and they were just south of Bear Island inside the Arctic Circle.

Then the torpedo struck.

There was panic.  Seamen stampeded for the deck.  But what Jack – who had turned 18 just a month earlier – did next almost certainly saved his life.

All he was wearing was his underwear, nowhere near enough to stave off the cold of the Arctic Ocean.  So he started to put on as many clothes as he could find, his sea socks, sea boots, his gloves and his mitts.

But as he went down the passageway to make his way on deck, a second torpedo struck.

“It was terrible really, the explosion was out of this world.” He recalls.  “The ship was shaking.  People in front of me were shouting “We can’t get out.”

The door to the stairs had been blocked by debris from the blast.  The sailors were trapped and seemed doomed to go down with the sinking ship.  But after what seemed an age, the debris cleared and they rushed out on deck.  The scene that greeted them was far from reassuring.

“People were throwing themselves overboard because the ship was sinking.” says Jack, 79, who still lives in Durham, the city of his birth.  “They were shouting for their wives and their mothers.  It was terrible.”

He saw a friend – Alec Jones.  Alec asked for his gloves, so Jack gave him his mitts, which Alec put on his feet.  But they knew their prospects were as bleak as that stormy Arctic night.  Their ship, HMS Mahratta was at the back of the convoy and it would be some time before they could be picked up by another ship.  Jumping into the sea seemed to offer only another way to death.

Jack and Alec tried to release the rafts which lined the deck of the Mahratta but they were frozen solid.  They linked arms bur before they could jump a huge wave came over the side of the listing ship and took them into the sea.  Jack never saw Alec again.

“I was getting sucked under with the ship.  I remember getting pushed round and round under the water.  But, in a little bit of luck I suppose, I came to the top and managed to swim away from the ship.  Everybody around me was dead.  I tried speaking to people.  Nobody answered, I couldn’t find anybody alive.”  He says, struggling to contain the emotion.  “They had been in the water longer than I had.  I just thought that was the end.”

He was covered in oil from the ship.  It was in his eyes, making it difficult to see but it may also have helped insulate him from the cold.

Then he heard a voice.  Another sailor was alive.  The voice shouted that there was a ship in the distance.  Jack, through his oil-smeared eyes, could barely make out an outline but they started to swim towards it.  The other sailor had been in the water for longer and before they were within hailing distance, could go no further.  Jack never knew his name, “He saved me but he didn’t save himself.” He says.  “I remember thinking, “I don’t know why I have to die so young”.  I don’t remember much after that.”

But he swam on, the freezing water penetrating the layers of clothing.  Tiring and weakening with every stroke.  As he neared the ship he finally made out the shape of a destroyer, HMS Impulsive.

The crew saw him in the water and threw him a line.  Jack started to climb but his fingers were numb from the cold and slippery from the oil and he had gone only a few feet when he fell back into the water.  Life expectancy was an average of 5 minutes.  Jack had been swimming for about 20.  He knew then end was close.

But if it was the atrocious conditions that drew him close to death, it was those same conditions which came to his aid.

“I was being thrown about.  The next thing I knew a wave took me up the side of the ship to the level of the deck.  They grabbed me by the hair and pulled me in.”

Jack was carried below, his rescuers rubbing his hands and feet to try and get his circulation going.  He was laid on a table.  The crew of the Impulsive brought another survivor of the Mahratta, a petty officer and put him beside Jack.  He died while the crew worked on him.

It was the next day before Jack awoke again.  He was told 17 survivors had been pulled from the sea.  The Mahratta had a crew of 246, “I lost all my pals, really,” he whispers.

Jack remained on board the Impulsive which continued on its way, escorting ships laden with military equipment to bolster the Russian war effort.  When they reached Russia, the 17 survivors were taken to hospital.  Two were in a bad way and were put in a separate room.  One day they were gone.  Jack never knew what happened to them.

He was taken back to England on aircraft carrier HMS Chaser.  It had been only his second Arctic convoy, just a few months after he enlisted as a 17 year old cycling from his Durham home to the recruiting office, Jubilee School, City Road, Newcastle.  He had wanted to join the RAF but his age meant he could only be an apprentice.  In the Navy he could be a gunner.  He chose the Navy.

On his return to Britain, he decided the Navy was no longer for him.  He joined the Army and was recruited into the Parachute Regiment.

In 1945, he was dropped into Denmark, mopping up the retreating Germans.  After the war ended, he served in Palestine for 2 years before he was discharged.

Twenty years after the war, he went to Stockton in search of Alec Jones’ house in Ware Street, Norton.  He hoped to find relatives of the man who had linked arms with him as they were swept into the water. The street had been pulled down.

A few years earlier he had been contacted by one of the other survivors of the Mahratta, a Corporal Fred Hill, then serving at Catterick.  Cpl. Hill wrote to him then came up to visit but they lost touch a few years later.  He has never heard from any of the other survivors.

Jack never joined a veteran’s association.  He rarely talks about what happened and has never joined the campaign of the Arctic convoys which claimed 3,000 lives, though he supports it.  But this does not mean what happened is of little importance to this widowed grandfather.

“It is always there.  You never forget it.” He says.  “In those days we didn’t have counselling – we went back and we got on with our job.  I don’t think I shed a tear.  It is an awful thing to say but I don’t think I shed a tear over it.  You just accepted this is war, this is what happens.”

WITH THANKS TO Jean Green & Jack Humble.