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Arctic convoys: Humbling tales of brave Ulstermen who supplied embattled Soviet Union in darkest days of WWII

Churchill called Arctic convoys the ‘worst journey in the world’... what sticks in my head is the bitter cold, huge waves and sea freezing over

By Ivan Little

It was, for writer Kate Newmann, a voyage of discovery about hundreds of journeys to hell and back. The Co Down woman knew absolutely nothing about the story of the Second World War Arctic convoys when she was asked to write a book about them three years ago.

But after talking with the Ulstermen who risked their lives on the route to bring vital supplies to Britain's beleaguered ally the Soviet Union, Kate said she felt humbled by the courage, humanity and magnanimity of the veterans, who were all then in their 90s.

And some of their stories were as chilling as the weather they encountered 70 years ago.

"But there was no hatred in them," said Kate, whose book - Nearness Of Ice: Arctic Convoys - is published today and records the veterans' recollections of their ordeals in the Arctic Circle under the most unimaginable pressures - memories which are still clear despite the intervening years and the traumas.

Kate said the book is about the human side of the convoys, which resulted in thousands of deaths.

"Memory is a fraught thing in what it chooses to jettison and what it chooses to hold on to. This project was not about culling the military facts; it was about speaking to people on what they retained from all those years ago," she said.

To understand the book, however, one first has to set the Arctic convoys in the context of the war, when Churchill rejected Stalin's overtures for Britain to send troops to the Soviet Union after the Nazi invasion.

The Prime Minister's compromise came in the shape of the supply convoys, the first of which sailed in September 1941 along the most direct but hazardous route to the top of the world around northern Norway to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel.

But the passage through a narrow funnel between the Arctic ice pack and German bases in Norway presented the convoys of merchant ships and the Royal Navy vessels escorting them with terrifying risks - from the ice, from mountainous freezing waves and fog, as well as from Hitler's submarines, warships and aircraft.

It is little wonder that Churchill described the convoys as "the worst journeys in the world".

More than 3,000 sailors and merchant seamen were killed and 100 ships were lost in the 78 convoys, with the worst disaster befalling one codenamed PQ17, which was almost completely wiped out after the order went out during a German attack for the ships to scatter, leaving individual merchant ships without their escorts.

But more than four million tons of supplies were successfully delivered during the four-year campaign to reinforce Stalin, including tanks and planes, food, tractors, trucks, railway engines and clothes.

However, it wasn't until December 2012 - seven decades after the end of the war - that then Prime Minister David Cameron finally recognised the gallantry of the crews in the convoys with specially minted Arctic Star medals, which were delivered through the post to up to 400 surviving sailors and relatives of the men who died.

Later, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded his country's own medals, the Ushakov decorations, to some of the British veterans in Moscow, and his ambassador to the UK, Dr Alexander Yakovenko, presented similar awards to 17 local men, or their relatives, in a ceremony at the Harbour Commissioners' office in Belfast. It was after this event that Newmann, a celebrated poet and writer, was approached by the Duchess of Abercorn, the honorary consul of the Russian Federation here, to compile a book about the Ulster-based heroes.

The Duchess, who had helped organise the Harbour Commissioners' ceremony, is of Russian as well as English descent. She is the great-great-great granddaughter of the famous poet Alexander Pushkin, who is acclaimed as the father of Russian literature.

In 1987 the Duchess set up the Pushkin Trust to bring creativity into the lives of children across Ireland and it was under that organisation's aegis that she commissioned the book, with the backing of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.

Some of the men who were interviewed for it have died in the last few years. One of them, William McBride, passed away towards the end of last month. The Shankill Road man had survived not one, but two hazardous wartime missions.

Mr McBride featured in another book by Belfast writer Sam McAughtry titled The Sinking Of The Kenbane Head, a merchant ship that was attacked by the German heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer in 1940 during the Battle of the Atlantic. Tthe author's brother, Mart, was killed in the attack.

Only 20 people, including Mr McBride, survived the disaster, and he also lived to tell of the horrors of the Arctic convoys in graphic and moving detail.

He recounted how he saw "plenty of ships being sunk", with the loss of people he knew, but he said he didn't know that he felt lucky, because he was doing a job of his choosing.

He recalled how he had once been stuck in the White Sea for months until winter was over, because the Germans had bombed the two ice-breaking vessels accompanying his ship. But he could never understand why the Germans didn't come back to finish his vessel off.

Referring to the medals' controversy, Mr McBride said: "Putin did the right thing, giving out medals. Britain didn't want us to have anything to do with it. I never understood why that was."

Another veteran, Tommy Jess, died in 2015 at the age of 92 and his wartime exploits are recorded in the archives of the Somme Heritage Museum near Bangor.

The Lisburn man told how he'd joined the Royal Navy in 1942, because he liked the uniform.

Three years later he was on board HMS Lapwing when it was torpedoed by a German submarine in the waters north-west of Russia, but he managed to swim to safety. Mr Jess's family said he rarely talked about his experiences, but he was almost overcome with emotion after he received his medal from the Russians in Belfast.

Choking back tears, he said at the ceremony that it was "the good day in his life", which contrasted with the bad one when his ship was sunk with the loss of 180 good friends who he said were always in his mind.

He added: "I didn't think I would see this day. The medal is beyond my expectations."

Ballyclare-based Englishman Philip Ball, who's 94 ("and three-quarters"), told me that he would never forget the convoys. He served on HMS Victorious, an aircraft carrier, which was deployed on the periphery of the Arctic convoys to give aerial cover.

His carrier did come under attack, but it withstood them. He said: "We saw a couple of ships going down. And what also really sticks in my head is the bitter cold, the massive waves and the sea freezing over."

Philip, who is set to celebrate his 70th wedding anniversary later this month to his Northern Irish wife Jackie, said he didn't know why it took so long for the service of the convoy crews to be acknowledged.

He said his Arctic Star medal arrived by second-class post in October 2014, but a reception was later held by the Royal Naval Reserve in HMS Hibernia located within Thiepval Barracks, Lisburn, where all the veterans were presented with a pair of cuff-links... and a tot of rum.

He said the Russian medal ceremony was an emotional occasion. He didn't know any of the other veterans, but he discovered that one of them served on the Victorious, but they'd never come across each other on the ship, which had a 2,000-strong crew.

After the war Mr Ball stayed on in the Royal Navy and finished his 35-year service as a Commander.

Newmann said that all but one of the veterans were willing to talk to her about the Arctic convoys.

The reluctant hero hadn't been well, and told her: "It was a long time ago. I don't think I'll bother."

She had initial misgivings about approaching the veterans. She said: "I did wonder if I had the right to be inviting people to re-enter what was, for some of them, a traumatic aspect of their past. But they were very generous with their time. And all the interviews were fascinatingly different in their tone, their humour and their personality.

"They are all fabulously entertaining men and if you have anything to learn from them, it's their great life-force."

Kate, who is the founder of the independent Summer Palace Press, which has published 45 different authors and poets, was also moved after hearing how the veterans had gone to the aid of starving German children at the end of the war.

She said: "One man told me that he went into the naval stores to buy food so that he and his colleagues could distribute it to the youngsters."

Kate, a former junior fellow and editor at the Institute for Irish Studies at Queen's University, Belfast, said that the humanity shown by the seamen to captured Germans was also remarkable.

On more than one occasion they gave men they'd rescued from the sea alcohol and cigarettes and reassured them they would be okay.

Kate, who has facilitated or edited 13 books in her role as a writer within a number of community organisations in Northern Ireland, said that collating the latest work had left a lasting impression.

"It showed me that we live among people who have been places that are quite unbelievable and they carry that experience inside them.

"The men I spoke to mightn't have had a lot in common, but they all have a wonderful nobility about them."

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