Belfast Telegraph

World War II veteran who fought with Arctic Convoys to get award

By Bob Malcolm

A World War II (WWII) veteran from Cregagh is finally to receive recognition for his efforts during the Arctic Convoys.

Robert McCullough (90) is one of many veterans to receive the retrospective Arctic Star Campaign Medal for operational service in the U-Boat stalked waters north of the Arctic Circle.

He will attend Thiepval Barracks this evening with family and friends to receive the award – almost 70 years after the war.

It was not until 2012 that the Arctic Star was announced and in 2013 the Queen formally approved the award.

Robert has received medals for service in every theatre of war during WWII – The Atlantic Star, the Pacific Star, The France and Germany Star.

He may even receive a medal from the Russian Federation.

During the early years of WWII Robert was a sheet metal worker at the shipyards in Belfast, helping in the construction of ships to aid the war effort.

There was a bar on workers such as he joining the armed services because of the necessary work they were doing.

But as time went on more men were needed and this was lifted.

He went to a recruitment office in North Street early in 1944 and after signing up for the Royal Navy, left his friends and family behind and set off for a grand but dangerous adventure.

Robert said: "I was one of the few who joined the Navy. There were a few from the shipyards who joined the Army and Air Force.

"After about nine or 11 weeks training I got to go home for a week's leave, then I was sent to Rosythe in Scotland to the Fleet Air Arm.

"It was bloody boring there "You just looked out at fields.

"Then we went to Cammel Lairds in Liverpool and had to do care and maintenance of the ships."

Robert became a crewman on the HMS Ulysses, a ship that acted as protection for the convoy for merchant ships which brought war material to Russia to assist in the Eastern Front. A photo of the Destroyer hangs proudly among family photos and mementos in his living room. He says he was on her for three years and that the twin-engined ship "could shift".

"First we were in the North Sea and then into the Atlantic – the place was flooded with German U-Boats.

"Lots of ships were lost."

Robert added that the crewmen in the convoy gave nicknames to their vessels.

The Ulysses was known as 'The Useless, the Ulster became 'The Ulcer' and the Undaunted, The Unwanted'.

"They let you off the ship for a night if you docked in your home city, so while we were in Liverpool one of the men got out and brought back a pair of his wife's stockings. He ironed them out and put them up the flag pole!"

But things were not always so light-hearted. The Arctic convoys were constantly harangued by U-Boats and though the Ulysses was never torpedoed it was strafed by German planes.

"There were no heroics.

"I felt so sorry for the merchant men – they had the hardest job – and the Russians as well, they were on coal burners. You wouldn't need radar or sonar to catch them. You'd just need to follow the smoke."

Robert was present at D-Day, part of an effort to defend Allied troops by bombarding the Germans with Naval artillery.

He was also "down in the tropics" in the Pacific Theatre, attached to the American Navy, who he said "wanted all the glory for themselves".

"There were ten islands that needed loosened up on the way to Japan and there were about ten Japanese soldiers on each with listening posts, keeping track of the ships.

"They bombarded each of them and then moved on towards Japan.

"The sea was black with ships."

He said the use of Atomic bombs against Japan was a "hell of a thing" but that the Japanese would have fought to the last and it saved many lives.

The Navy spent time after the end of the war dealing with the capitulated Japanese.

"The Australians said: 'Join our navy for three years and you'll get citizenship, a job and somewhere to live.'

"My mum told me I wasn't going to do that. I'd been away too long and she wanted me home."

And home he came.

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