HMS Poppy - After PQ17

John Beardmore, Navigating Officer in H.M.S. Poppy recounts his personal experiences while serving on HMS Poppy

Following our homecoming from PQ17 we returned to our U.K. base of Londonderry and were given leave, when my parents were shocked to see how skinny I had become. But we were soon off again this time to the Med. in late October, in time for the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch), when just off Algiers on November 12th 1942 We sank our first U-Boat (U 605), sadly with the loss of all hands. Within a few weeks we returned to the U.K with a home bound convoy to Mount Stuart dry dock in Cardiff to have our rudder straightened - which had been bent when a depth charge prematurely exploded too close to our stern in our encounter with U-Boat 605.

It was to be a hurried job as we were soon wanted back on the Russian run. Nevertheless there was time for a short Christmas leave, during which I and another Sub, Denis Brooke, both being Londoners, were asked by our CO. to volunteer to attend an event on Christmas Sunday at Potters Bar, a suburb of North London that had adopted and paid for the building at Aberdeen of our ship The Poppy, for their National Savings Warship Week, when they had raised the sum of £157,000 a lot of money in those days and in excess of the target of £120,000, the cost of a Corvette.

The special Gala Christmas Red Cross concert held in the 2,500 seater Ritz Cinema (long since demolished) was indeed a star studded affair. There was Esmond Knight, well known film actor - who had been blinded when his ship, the battleship Prince of Wales was bombed and sunk in the Gulf of Siam. Still in the uniform of a Sub-Lieutenant, R.N.V.R., he spoke Henry V's rallying speech at Agincourt to great acclaim. There was Naomi Jacob, well known novelist; Robinson Cleaver, the B.B.C. organist; Teddy Brown, the 20 stone xylophonist; there was Wally Patch, Cockney comedian, who with Gordon Harker shared all those Cockney policemen in those 30's films, and many others.

During the interval my shipmate, Sir Denis Brooksand I (both then aged 22 and already three year veterans of the Battle of the Atlantic against the U-Boat) appeared on the stage flanked by the Corps of the local Sea Scouts and backed by a huge Union Jack (those were really patriotic days) to receive from the Chairman of the Urban District Council an inscribed wooden Memorial Plaque commemorating the Ship's adoption. There was much applause of course.

I was expected to reply, so my heart thumping I made my first public speech and told them nothing at all about the PQ17disaster of course but much about a football match played on a grassless pitch near Murmansk against fleet destroyer H.M.S. Milne with an intense dog fight going on overhead between German and Russian fighters. As two fighters fell out of the sky in flames, we paused. The skippers conferred, said, "Sod them, we play on I" and play on we did. And so wearing the brand new football gear that had been sent to us by kind friends in Potters Bar, we beat the destroyer Team soundly, six nil, to their utter astonishment. I mean a little Flower Class Corvette playing a great big fleet destroyer. But of course we omitted to tell them that in our Team we had a Ship's Cook (BloodRed) who had played in the forward line for Glasgow Rangers, and an Able Seaman (Jimmy Clough) who played for Bradford City.

The audience loved it and us, and all 2,500 of them rose to their feet and sang, "For they are jolly good fellows." Poor Denis and I were quite overwhelmed. It was of course typical of our Nation at a time when communities were drawn together, and to whom not a single member of Poppy's Ship's company could claim domicile, that they should have taken us so warmly to their hearts. Throughout the War prayers were offered up in the Parish Church of St. Mary & All Saints at Potters Bar, where our Ship's Bell and Battle Ensign now hang, and to the words, "and the fleet in which they serve" was added, "and especially our own Corvette, H.M.S. Poppy".

During that same Christmas leave of 1942, while I was enjoying Christmas at Barnes with my parents and sister Betty, who was in the W.A.A.F and serving at R.A.F. Turnhouse, Edinburgh, where she plotted in the operations room the passage of convoy PQ17under the R.A.F. code name of 'Gamma', totally unaware of course that I was personally involved, The Battle of Barents Sea was taking place in the Arctic on New Year's Eve when a 14 ship Russian bound convoy was attacked by the pocket battleship Lutzow and the cruiser Hipper and six destroyers, in extreme weather conditions.

Captain Robert Sherbrooke, R.N., Senior officer in H.M.S. Onslow, together with destroyers Obdurate, Obedient, Oribi, Orwell and Achates immediately turned and engaged a superior enemy, inflicting damage upon the cruiser Nipper. In the meantime the cruisers Sheffield and Jamaica, who had been covering the convoy at a distance, came up and in the ensuing battle Hipper was further damaged and a German destroyer sunk. We lost the destroyer Achates and the little Minesweeper Bramble. Captain Sherbrooke, severely wounded and blinded when his ship was shelled, refused to leave his bridge and continued to conduct operations until he could be safely relieved. He was awarded the V.C. Thus had the Royal Navy been vindicated against a superior force and the shame of P.Q. 17.

Christmas leave over, by January we were soon back on the Russian run after a particularly severe winter during which considerably more damage was done to our ships by ice than by the enemy. The convoys were again suspended in March until autumn and we found ourselves back in the Mcd, this time escorting convoys to the George Cross Island of Malta, and all along the North African coast, now safely in Allied hands after El Alamein and Tobruk and the expulsion of both the Germans and the Italians from North Africa.

In July 1943 we took part in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, but by September the Iti's had had enough and made a separate peace. We watched the surrender of the battleships of the Italian fleet in the Malta Channel. It was a rewarding sight.

Throughout the summer of 1943, and in spite of occasional brushes with the enemy, we had found time to swim from the sandy beaches of Port Said, Alexandria and at a rest camp at Ismalia on the Suez Canal, and over the Ship's side in the now silent harbours of Bengazi, Bizerta and Tobruk, scenes of much devastation and fighting months earlier. The hot Mediterranean sun browned our young bodies but we knew that it would not last and we would soon be back in the frozen north. So after a brief dry docking at Gib. we returned to the U.K. in time to hear of yet another Operation by the Navy to immobilise The Tirpitz in Alténfjiord.

On September 22nd 1943, six midget submarines, 50 foot long and with a four man crew, were towed across the North Sea by their larger sisters, to the entrance of Altenfjiord. Three boats aborted and one was sunk by a patrol vessel, only two succeeded in reaching their target. Lieutenant Brian Place, R.N. (X 6) and Lieutenant Donald Cameron, R.N.R., (in X 7), manoeuvred their tiny craft through the boom and the outer defences and under the heavy defensive netting surrounding the great battleship, laid four one-ton mines under her hull, and retired. In making their escape they were captured, and spent the rest of the War as P.O.W's in Germany, having been blown to the surface by four massive, simultaneous explosions which did immense damage and which put The Tirpitz out of action for six months until the following March. Both Brian Plaice and Donald Cameron were awarded the V.C. The two crewmen in Lieutenant Place's boat were unable to escape from their boat and died. It was an immensely brave operation by all concerned with enormously gratifying results for the Royal Navy.

So, a respite had been gained from the threat from The Tirpitz now very badly damaged, leaving just the Battle cruiser Scharnhorst as a direct surface menace to our convoys. The operations of the Russian convoys were now more experienced in defence and supported by full close escorts of fleet destroyers capable of 36 knots, and a "hunt to kill" philosophy, plus most importantly an Escort Carrier equipped with 12 Hurricanes, and a strong cruiser covering force that would never again be "retired to the West at high speed", as had happened 14 months earlier. The lesson of PQ17had been learned - but at what a cost? In spite of Admiral Donitz's increased efforts the convoys to Russia were never again to suffer the slaughter of 1942.

As losses by Merchant ships became fewer those of the Royal Navy's escort ships increased. Many more U-Boats were sunk but a new enemy, a deadly weapon, the acoustic torpedo, the Gnat, had been introduced by the Germans in 1943, tuned to the reciprocating engines of British Warships, and which caused much damage to H.M. ships, especially to the smaller vessels. Some were lost with few survivors as the torpedo either hit the ship's magazine or, more likely, the stern where the depth charges were stored. The Admiralty boffins however quickly invented an antidote: the Foxer, a rattling device towed 50 yards astern which sometimes diverted the course of the torpedo, which passed astern of the ship, or exploded in its wake.

We did not immediately resume convoying to north Russia but had a couple of north Atlantic convoys to and from St Johns, Newfoundland, then Britain's oldest colony - now of course part of Canada. A sharp contrast to bombed and starving Murmansk.

Much to Stalin's disgust, the 1943 winter convoys to Russia recommenced later that autumn, for various reasons, not until mid-November! On the 12th November in a heavy gale we left Loch Ewe on the West coast of Scotland with a 14 ship convoy of war supplies for our Russian ally. Harassed by U-Boats and the Luftwaffe but with no losses (the worst part of the voyage was the weather), on 2nd December our convoy arrived in the Kola Inlet intact, the Merchant ships proceeding to Murmansk, we to the Russian Naval Base of Polyanoe.

While we awaited a return convoy we entertained ourselves and chummy ships with a ship's Concert Party, called 'Poppycock' (by the sailors, 'a Sods Opera') and we ourselves were entertained ashore by a Russian Male Voice Choir from the Russian Northern fleet, whose beautiful rendering of those lovely, sad Russian love songs moved many to tears. All that nostalgia and beauty in such a grim, bleak setting of the Kola Peninsula was strange to say the least.

As we lay alongside our sister corvette, H.M.S. Dianella, trying to keep warm in the sub zero temperature, we were afforded a visit a few days before Christmas by our Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, R.N., flying his flag in the 35,000 ton battleship Duke of York, anchored across the Kola Inlet at Vaenga Bay. After the visit the Admiral was piped ashore on to a snow covered jetty under the ever suspicious and watchful eyes of our Russian allies. Suddenly and without warning, the Admiral stooped, gathered up a fistful of snow and hurled it at his Chief of Staff. Within a few seconds a short snow fight occurred with the astonished Russians looking on. We were amused that even senior officers were as human as ourselves.

Typically, Admiral Fraser enquired after the Christmas welfare of the Corvettes and small ships of the fleet, and learning that we had neither Christmas turkeys nor puddings, quickly arranged for sufficient supplies to be sent over from H.M.S. Duke of York which sailed later that day to Aukeriri in northern Iceland to await developments.

We sailed on the December as part of the escort of a slow, homebound convoy of 22 freighters, mostly in ballast. The weather was simply appalling, bordering on a hurricane. On Christmas Eve the west-bound convoy and the east-bound convoy passed each other some 50 miles apart. Four of our own fleet destroyers, Matchless, Musketeer, Virago and Opportune were detached to support the escorts of the Russian bound convoy, which was more likely to be attacked than us, and who were to take a decisive part in the battle to come.

Christmas morning found us somewhere south-west of Bear Island and the ice Barrier, hove to in a Force 11 gale of great intensity. The tumultuous seas had extinguished our galley on the upper deck, which could not be rekindled, and our much anticipated Christmas dinner had to be abandoned. Instead we had to make do with corned beef sandwiches the size of doorsteps, washed down with Naval cocoa, which was wisely laced with rum. I am afraid there were no Christmas carols sung on our mess deck that Christmas night.

At that very same time the German Battle cruiser Scharnhorst, accompanied by five destroyers, left Altenfjiord and headed northwards into heavy seas. Forewarned of her departure through Bletchley Park and the Admiralty, through ULTRA, our own convoy was directed to the north-west and the other convoy to the north-east. Here I will endeavour in a matter of minutes to take you through the Battle of North Cape, which lasted 11 hours.

Of the 37 Allied warships: British, Canadian and Norwegian that took part, 13, namely one battleship, four cruisers and eight fleet destroyers took an active part in the Enemy's destruction, while 14 guarded the east-bound convoy, J.W.55B, and 10 guarded the west bound convoy, R.A.55A, its four fleet destroyers having been detached earlier to join the offensive action with the cruiser squadron (Force One).

On Christmas night the 32,000 ton Battle cruiser Scharnhorst, accompanied by five fleet destroyers, left Northern Norway and headed north into a heavy gale to attack the Russian bound convoy (JW.55A) south of Bear Island, heading north-east, which was its nearest target, our cruiser squadron, Sheffield, Norfolk and Belfast was south-east of the convoy at 30 miles and was steaming westward. German aerial and U-Boat reports were delayed so the German, Admiral Bey, deployed his five destroyers to the south-west to search for JW.55A, its exact position being uncertain. He never saw them again.

At breakfast time Belfast and Sheffield picked up Scharnhorst on their radar at 17 miles. 40 minutes later in heavy seas the range was closed to seven miles, when Belfast illuminated the enemy and the cruisers opened fire. Norfolk 's second salvo wrecked the radar on Scharnhorst and scored two further hits. Scharnhorsl, taken completely by surprise, turned away at high speed - Force 1 in hot pursuit. The cruisers rightly placed themselves between the convoy and the Enemy. The convoy, now heading north (in an emergency turn) was 10 miles away while Scharnhorst attempted to sweep round the cruisers with her superior speed and reach the convoy.

But around midday Belfast again picked up the enemy at 15 miles and all three cruisers went into attack. A twenty minute intensive battle resulted in Norfolk being hit aft with Scharnhorst suffering additional damage before she turned away at high speed to the south. The range opened from four miles to 20, with the cruisers in hot pursuit, the Scharnhorst of course had the advantage of considerably more speed and clearly thought she was making her escape. Overconfidently, she signalled her estimated time of arrival at Altenfjiord and even reverted to cruising stations - action stations being stood down.

In the meantime Force 2, The Duke of York with the cruiser Jamaica and four fleet destroyers, Saumarez, Savage, Scorpion and the Norwegian destroyer Stord, were moving up undetected from the south-west at 28 knots. At 4.17 pm, the Duke of York picked up Scharnhorst at 22 miles by radar and 30 minutes later opened fire at seven miles range. Scharnhorst, totally surprised for the third time that day and trapped, fled to the eastward, pursued and pounded by the Duke of York's 16 inch guns (52 salvos) and Jamaica's 6 inch guns. Heavy fire was exchanged but by 7.20 p.m. Scharnhorst, now barely making way, came under the intensive and close fire of the guns and torpedoes of the cruisers, Jamaica and Belfast. This was followed by persistent torpedo attack by the destroyers, the Norwegian destroyer Stord even dashing in to 400 yards to fire three more torpedoes (possibly the coup d'etat). The battle cruiser, already blazing fiercely from stern to stern, flnally rolled over in a pall of smoke into the Barents Sea at 7.50 pm, taking all but 36 of her crew of 2,000 officers and men with her. She had fought a brave and lone battle without her destroyers. Much of the Royal Navy's success had been due to Admiral Fraser's skill and tactics in battle and our own vastly superior radar and gun fire. Both convoys reached their respective destintitions without loss.

It was a great victory in the best tradition. The C-in-C. ordered the mainbrace to be spliced. There were congratulations all round from Roosevelt, Stalin, George VI, Churchill, in fact everybody on our side. Admiral Fraser was decorated by the Russians with their rarely bestowed Order of Suvorov (First Class).

A couple of days later when we and our own convoy were between iceland and the Faeroes, we were able to enjoy with some relish what was entered in the Ship's Log as "Admiral Fraser's Christmas Dinner." Many Christmases later, when Lord Fraser of North Cape, as he became, was in his eighties, retired and living in Surrey, I was able to relate this story to him. The good old Admiral was, I suspect, not only touched that he should be remembered for his great victory, but also that, like Lord Nelson before him, he should be loved for his care and compassion for the sailors under his command. He was a great leader of men having that most important quality of all "the human touch".

Some years ago as I was turning out an old Naval suitcase that had remained unopened in my loft for forty years, I came across my original plot of the action of that Battle that I had executed by hand in my little chart house ofl Poppy as Ship's Navigator on that Boxing Day from the many WIT messages that had poured in all day for 12 hours from the scene of the action as our units of the fleet engaged the Enemy. Realising that this was now an historic document, I offered it to the Imperial War Museum and it now forms part of the permanent exhibition on board H.M.S. Belfast in the Pool of London. I am of course delighted that my old ship, HMS Poppy, is remembered in this way.

On Remembrance Sunday, 1993, a special 50th Anniversary Service of Remembrance and Reconciliation was held on the quarterdeck of H.M.S. Belfast, at which I was asked to give the Address, and which was attended by senior dignitaries and their wives from the British, Canadian and Norwegian Naval Staffs, together with many Naval veterans of the Battle, and just a few of those still remaining of the 36 German survivors who, that Boxing bay night were plucked from the icy waters of the Barents Sea by our own destroyers, Scorpion and Matchless. Our own losses that day were fortuitously few, 1,965. German Officers and men died.

The comradeship of the sea had healed all wounds a long time ago and as we laughed with and hugged our one time enemy, there were also a few tears, And now every Christmas I think not of the glory of the battle won, nor the defeat of a ruthless enemy, nor even - given the fortunes of war - that it might well have been us, but of 40 innocent and terrified 15 year old German Naval cadets who, a week before Christmas had said good-bye to their parents and who, on Christmas night had eagerly gone to sea for the first time and who, on the following day, were to perish in the blazing inferno of the stricken Scharnhorst as she sunk beneath the waves, leaving only those few survivors, some of whom we would, one day meet and find reconciliation in each others arms, and hopefully redemption in God's mercy.

We reached Londonderry on New Year's Day but there was only time for a short leave and we were Soon off again, on 12th January, 1944, to join another convoy of 20 Merchant ships for our Russian Allies, JW.56A, sailing in two parts from Loch Ewe. We again encountered appalling weather conditions and ice - we even had to shelter the battered convoy in Akureyri in Iceland and returned in one large convoy of 40 ships, reaching U.K. on 11th February. H.M. destroyers, Onslaught and Hardy plus three Merchant Ships were torpedoed and sunk. With the Scharhhorst, now sunk and with the Tirpitz under major repair, the convoys to Russia were again suspended in March, after another atrocious winter, but this time for quite another reason than the impending summer daylight.

In April additional anti-aircraft armament was added to Poppy and after special training in May, June 6th 1944 found us taking part in the greatest armada of all time, Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe and the landings on the beaches of Normandy. We escorted tank landing craft and our brave soldiers to Sword Beach, returning with those same landing craft containing dejected (or maybe relieved) German Prisoners of War.

Over the next six weeks we saw quite a lot of Sword, Gold and Juno Beaches, firstly accompanying the concrete filled blockships to form a breakwater, and recognising names of old friends, veteran freighters from the Russian run, now past their sell by date, ending their days like this on a sand bar, having been superseded by the rapidly built liberty ships. Then the prefabricated 'Mulberry Harbours’ and finally, Operation Pluto (not Walt Disney's) but screening what looked like enormous, 50 foot high metal floating cotton reels as they unfurled the petrol pipe line across the Channel from the Solent to Arromanches, to supply our Armies and the R.A.F. with petrol - the first Channel Tunnel in fact!

By the end of July the beachhead had quietened down somewhat, then in August we were suddenly and quickly ordered north again to take part in something to be called Operation Goodwood. (Goodwood, surely we thought this cannot be anything to do with gee-gees? It wasn't It was the code name of what was to be the Home Fleet's biggest concerted attack by the Fleet Air Arm on the Tirpilz, now believed to be seaworthy again and lying in Altenfjiord.

From Scapa Flow we sailed northwards into the Norwegian Sea to contribute our small part in this operation. Between 21st and 28th August, 247 sorties of Barracudas, Helicats and Corsairs were launched from five aircraft carriers, H.M.S. Victorious and Furious and the escort carriers Nabob, Trumpeter and Striker. As the bombs rained down through a heavy smokescreen, those that actually hit the Tirpitz (mere 500 pounders) bounced off her heavily armour plated decks, while a 1600 lb. armour piercing bomb that penetrated two decks failed to explode. The escort carrier Nabob and the sloop Bickerton were both torpedoed by the same U-Boat; the latter sank, The Nabob saved and towed to Scapa. The Tirpitz remained virtually undamaged. Several enemy vessels were sunk however and shore installations and German aircraft on the ground destroyed but not what was intended.

We returned to Scapa only to learn this news from the reconnaissance reports. Our own losses of 11 aircraft and their crews plus those losses of two Naval ships had made this an expensive operation. The Fleet Air Arm in its last great operation of the Second World War had done its best, it was now up to Bomber Command of the R.A.F.

Almost immediately the Tirpitz was moved to a safer anchorage at Tromso. Tromso was, however, within reach of our bombers. Throughout the War as many as 22 major operations had been launched against the world's greatest battleship, seaworthy but never at sea, by the Fleet Air Arm, by R.A.F. Bomber Command, by midget submarines and by even futile attempts like P.Q. 17, to draw her out into battle.

Finally on 12th November 1944 (six months before the European War was to end) 32 R.A.F. Lancaster Bombers of No. 9 and No. 617 Squadrons, led by Wing Commander J. B. Tait, flew out from Lossiemouth on the East Coast of Scotland across the North Sea. They were loaded with 12,000 pound Mark 14 "Tallboy" bombs. The Tirpitz was now anchored near Tromso, off Haakoy Island. The great ship was theoretically well protected by instant heavy smoke screening and by fighters at nearby Bardufos Airfield. However, due to some failure of communication, never explained (so you see even the Jerrys were capable of making a balls up) the initial early warning of the Lancasters approach was cancelled as a false alarm and stood down. So the Lancasters from 14,000 feet flew in unimpeded by smoke or fighters. Direct hits opened up her portside like a sardine tin. She listed, suffered several huge internal explosions, capsized and sank within ten minutes, taking 900 of her crew with her. 800 escaped and 85 were cut from the upturned hull later. All our Lancasters returned safely to great acclaim.

Thus had this single ship tied down an entire fleet of capital ships without even going to sea. What a strategic success she had been having outwitted the Royal Navy until the very end by her inaction! Even Stalin felt obliged to send congratulations again to Churchill. For three long years Tirpitz had only once fired her main armament and that was at the defenceless weather station and mining installations on Spitzbergen in early September 1943.

After the War we learned that Hitler never had the slightest intention of committing this great national symbol, the Admiral von Tirpitz, to the ignoble and risky fate of the Bismarck unless all British Aircraft Carriers in the Arctic were first sunk or put out of action. What a hope.

The U-Boat war continued to intensify, especially towards the Naval escorts. The Battle of the Atlantic had been virtually won in May 1943 when 41 U-Boats were sunk in that one mohth, and Germany must have known that the U-Boat War was lost but she fought on bravely to the end. Over 85% of all U-Boat crews died at sea and a total of 790 U-Boats were sunk by the Allies.

In the last year of the War fewer than half-a-dozen Merchant ships were lost on the Russian convoys but a relatively high proportion of Naval Escorts were sunk, often with heavy loss of life, including the Sloop H.M.S. Kite, and the Frigate Goodall sadly in the last week of the War. We felt a personal loss when the little Flower Class Corvette H.M.S. Bluebell was torpedoed with the loss of 85 out of her crew of 86. Now every May when the Flower Class Corvette Association gathers for its Annual Reunion at Leamington Spa, after the wreath laying ceremony on the Sunday morning, the now white haired widows of the men of the Bluebell scatter bunches of that long stemmed blue flower of the English countryside around the base of the War Memorial. It is a moving sight!

In the later weeks of the War the Battle cruiser Lutzow and cruiser Hipper were sunk in dock in Kiel by R.A.F. Bomber Command. The cruisers Prince Eugen and the Nurenburg surrendered at Copenhagen. By the end of May 1945, all the German U-Boats had surrendered - 17 scuttled themselves, a couple fled to Argentina. In the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea only the weather remained unchanged. The slate had been wiped clean.

The War ended, we returned to an uneasy peace but the passing years have brought their own measure of reconciliation, forgiveness and hope. Russia, a most difficult war time ally has even after 40 years of the Cold War, finally become a friend, while Germany, our one time enemy, has been a valuable ally and partner for 50 years in the European community and NATO. Such is the order of things!

After Stalin's death and the gradual removal of his cronies, in due course there followed glasnost and perestroika and a more friendly, even chubby, leader in the form of Mikhail Gorbachev, who together with Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher laid the initial bricks and mortar which finally led to the ending of the Cold War and a degree of understanding between East and West (Russia of course now almost bankrupt had much to gain by such a reconciliation).

Then in 1986, the Government of what was still after all the U.S.S.R. decided to break the ice by awarding their Anniversary Medal commemorating their victory of the War against Fascism to the British and Allied Veterans who had come to their aid in the Arctic Campaign of 1941-5. Thus it was that on November 6th, 1986, 270 of us, Members of the North Russia Club and the Russian Convoy Club, were invited to the first Investiture and Reception at the Russian Embassy in London to receive what has become known as the 'Russian' Medal' from the Russian Ambassador. For the first time ever a B.B.C. TV team was allowed into the Russian Embassy to record this unique event and that evening on the 6 o'clock News, standing in front of a huge bust of Lenin (long since relegated to the dog house) I was interviewed and was proud to tell 10 million watching British viewers something of our feelings on that memorable occasion.

After 40 years, it was a fine gesture by the Russians, warmly received by the Veterans, particularly as successive British Governments, both Labour and Conservative, refused all requests from the RN.A. and all Veterans' Associations to issue an Arctic Medal in commemoration of the of the Arctic Campaign. This was because throughout the Cold War there was a complete reluctance especially by the United States Government to even admit that we had ever given succour to such a monstrous regime, or that we had ever been allies at all. In particular the United States paranoia of McCarthyism and "Reds under the bed" was a sign of those times, which our governments felt obliged to follow.

Then in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and on August 31st 1991, the cruiser H.M.S. London sailed into the White Sea and up the Dvina River to Archangel to commemorate on that exact day, 50 years earlier, the arrival of the first Russian convoy Dervish, bringing aid to our new wartime ally. It was the first British Warship to enter Russian waters for 45 years. The Russian people cheered and waved from the river bank and when the British Veterans marched proudly through the streets of Archangel behind the Royal Marine Band of H.M.S. London many wept openly in gratitude for what we had done to help them half a century earlier.

Over the last 15 years, return visits have been made by the Russian Convoys Veterans to Murmansk, Archangel and to St. Petersburg to meet old friends and visit schools and see the beautiftilly tended war graves of our own war dead, and to hear once more the heart rending singing of those Russian choirs and to experience the warmth and hospitality of the real Russian people.

Then in 1996 the new democratically elected Government of the Federation of Russian States issued yet another Gold Medal (well golden) to commemorate the Anniversary of What the Inscription describes as "The Great Patriotic War". This time the medals were sent by post (there was no vodka, no caviar, no Embassy party - times were hard).

Finally, and this we must call the last chapter of my story, on 29th November 1997, a special Service of Dedication and Remembrance was held in the Crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral, among the tombs of the great heroes of British History, and before the Russian Ambassador, a few M.P's, the Canons of St. Paul's and the City churches, members of the Royal Canadian and Royal Norwegian Naval Staffs and some 200 Russian Convoy Veterans and widows. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (in her 98th year) unveiled a Memorial Tablet to our 3,000 lost shipmates of the convoys to and from Russia. In company with the Russian Ambassador, she stayed (as always) longer than her scheduled time chatting with the Veterans. As she left she remarked, "Weren't they all such brave boys?"

v It is important to emphasise that the War at Sea particularly the Arctic Campaign and the Battle of the Atlantic, was not solely won by the efforts of the Royal Navy alone, but of course by the Merchant Navy, whose ships were the U-Boats main targets, and also by the aircrews of R.A.F. Coastal Command and Bomber Command, by the Fleet Air Arm and the allied Navies: and particularly the Royal Canadian and the Royal Norwegian Navies. However one must also not forget the engineers and ship builders, the scientists, the development of radar and, of course, the "boffins", including the highly secret Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire where cryptanalysts and code breakers led by the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing penetrated ENIGMA, the sophisticated German cipher and throughout the War kept up a continuous 24 hour flow of the enemy's intelligence and intentions and dispositions to the O.I.C. (Operational Intelligence Centre) at the Admiralty, who in turn were able via ULTRA, (code word for the distribution of special intelligence), to re-route convoys out of danger, to pin-point U-Boats' positions and to effect the destruction of U-Boats, supply ships, blockade runners and surface raiders, all of which undoubtedly shortened the War and saved many lives. Bletchley Park, with its staff of 12,000 operators, both military and civil but mostly Wrens, was the best kept secret of the Second World War, a secret that remained intact until all was revealed 30 years later, which says much not only for the Official Secrets Act but also for the integrity of those who worked there.

The Russian convoys formed the last great campaign mounted in World War II by the Royal Navy. Mr. Ivan Maisky, Russia's wartime London Ambassador, called the Russian convoys a saga of northern heroism, bravery and endurance whose memory would live for evermore. But memories fade and great institutions like the British Mercantile Marine almost disappear.

Of all the battlefields of the world, the sea leaves no trace of what has passed upon its surface. For these are ephemeral things, sustained only in men's memories. When Winston Churchill described the convoys to North Russia of the Second World War as the "Worst journey in the world," I don't think that he was very far wrong.

When we returned they told us that we were heroes. But that is a word we do not understand. We only know that we were the lucky ones who came home. But for all those fine young men, who were our shipmates and whom we left behind in our battles long ago, and whose graves are the icy waters of the Barents Sea. "Theirs is the true glory." The English poet, A. E. Houseman wrote, "Life to be sure is nothing much to lose, but young men think it is," ... and we were young!

© 2002 John Beardmore