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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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