- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Donald Harman
- Location of story:
- Arctic Ocean
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 November 2005
ARCTIC CONVOYS — Part 3
We eventually made it to Murmansk and in those days it was a grim city, I don’t always blame the Russians for this because it was almost like a Russian landing in the Orkneys or the Shetlands, and hoping that it was all singing and dancing, which it wouldn’t have been. Yes it was absolutely grim in the extreme and it was also, very much under the thumb of the then Russian Secret Service (NKVD), which was the name at that particular time.
Whenever we were in the Polamory which was when we were in the Kola inlet as it was, we would tie up the ship and sometimes just to have a bit of exercise, and we used to amaze some of the Russians watching by the fact that we used to play things like, three legged races with the officers and men joining in together — they thought that was amazing. They also offered us to go to the Red Navy club and that was pretty grim and it was always surrounded by NVKD people.
The thing I remember most about Murmansk was that there was always a broadcast blaring away which was obviously a government sponsored broadcast to the people, about the wonderful things the Russian government were doing, and it had such an effect on the locals that they never had a life of their own. They couldn’t accept chocolates from us or have a dance with us without them being criticised if not worse by the NVKD. So we got very little contact with the Russians. Very occasionally we used to have one or two Russian officers on board and one of the ploys we used to do when they came on board was to move one or two of the clocks on board, so they would get back to wherever they had to go late, and they would get into terrible trouble.
My worst moment was when the ship Lapwing was sunk ahead of us. That I think was the worst moment. We stopped and picked up some sailors because they were fortunate that the ship had spilt some oil at the time it was sunk, and they were able to survive in this very very cold sea, covered in oil. We put a scrambling net down, picked them up and the Doctor, who was called Peter Murray Kerr, I remember, pulled them round and gave them a new life and this was almost unheard of, and he got the DSO for it because it was a marvellous feat of medical ability, but on the whole it was unwise to stop because if a ship very close to you had been torpedoed, the submarine wasn’t far away from you. It would have been very hard, had we had experiences that other people had of seeing sailors in the water and not being able to do anything about it. You would survive for only about 5-10 minutes in those cold waters, if that, it was so so cold, it was absolutely freezing apart from the fact that you probably had all your arctic clothing on, and that would probably soak up water and you would sink. It was most unlikely that you would survive.
There was another bad moment when a force ten gale blew on the way back from Murmansk, and the seas were absolutely mountainous and we were eventually forced to turn back and head north into the teeth of the gale for safety and it was in the turning that the danger lurked, because obviously you were likely to be broached because of the seas hitting the side of your ship.
I do think about my time with the Arctic convoys from time to time without any worries. I thought it was a worthwhile thing to do. I occasionally think about my life in those few years. Some of the people that were on board whose names on the whole I’ve forgotten. Some of the ships that were in the same flotilla, we used to sing a song about the Savage to the tune of Lilly Marlene which went something like this:
Battleships and Cruisers lying there in state
Why is it always flotilla number twenty three?
Passing through the gate
Battleships and Cruisers lying there in state
Watching for Destroyers passing through the gate
Why does it always seem to be?
Flotilla number twenty three
Up in the Arctic Ocean
Up in the baron sea
And that was a song we used to sing occasionally when we had a bit of off duty and it was very appropriate, I thought.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by June Woodhouse (volunteer) of the CSV Action Desk at BBC Hereford and Worcester on behalf of Donald Harman (author) and has been added to the site with his permission. The author understands the site’s terms and conditions,
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