‘We were 16 in a raft... at the end seven of us were left’
Tommy Jess still weeps at the memory of a friend he lost during the Arctic convoys of the Second World War.
More than 3,000 sailors lost their lives on the missions transporting military supplies across the Baltic Sea to the contested Soviet outpost of Kola Bay, near the Arctic Circle.
Tommy, now 89, was nearly among that number.
Fancying the uniform, Tommy signed up in Belfast with the Royal Navy as an able seaman.
His mother cried when he told her.
The ship he was travelling on, HMS Lapwing, had completed four successful missions to the Kola Peninsula before it was torpedoed by a U-boat in 1945 and sank in just 10 minutes.
Tommy, who was never a strong swimmer, survived because he was wearing a life jacket and carrying a knife, which he used to cut a raft free from the sinking ship.
Almost half the ship’s crew — 180 men — perished.
“The last order I got on board was ‘every man for himself’,” Tommy said.
“We all had to jump into the frigid waters.
“There were 16 in the raft. At the end there were seven left. The wee fella in the middle, they worked on him, but he swallowed so much oil that he died.
“They buried him at sea — and that was an awful thing, too.”
He added: “I was in the water for two hours. I woke up on HMS Savage, which picked us up.
“I had frostbite on my feet and my knuckles were all skinned because when the ship was hit I was blown about 10 yards down the deck.”
The 89-year-old breaks down remembering a friend from Banbridge who went down with the vessel, miles from his wife and young children.
“He was a fella called Close,” he said. “He used to give me parcels to take back to his children. He was a good friend. I had to meet his parents after the ship sank. It was terrible.”
Tommy’s wartime career, which ended with that Arctic convoy, saw him escorting merchant ships transporting food from New York and Boston to Europe, and later to the D-Day landings in Normandy.
“That’s the first time I saw dead bodies in the water,” he recalled. “The Americans got an awful slaughtering. They shouldn’t have went in there at all, they under-estimated the defence.”
The Arctic convoys he accompanied never returned without at least one ship lost. On his second convoy he watched another freighter in their party, the Bluebell, sink miles ahead of them.
He said: “There was just a big flash on the horizon, and there was one survivor. There would have been 120 or so men on the ship — and one survivor, a petty officer. He’s not that long dead.
“He was blown clean off the ship.”
Leaving from Greenock in Scotland, the missions usually lasted between seven and nine days, with an overnight or weekend stay on the Kola Peninsula.
The horror of his final mission to the Soviet Union prompted him to leave shortly before war’s end.
He returned to no job. His first bit of work was shovelling snow during the harsh winter of 1947. There was no support for men traumatised by what they witnessed.
“I don’t wake up at night having nightmares now,” he said with a chuckle. “But I did when I came home. I was bad then. If there was a bang, I would have jumped out of the chair.”