High on the hillside above Loch Ewe yesterday, 9th May 2013, the Gods smiled with sunshine, warmth and no wind on an assembled crowd of veterans of the World War II Arctic Convoys to north Russia; their carers and descendants – and those of the lost and since gone; a host of visiting dignitaries, representing the Queen, the Royal Navy, Russia and both the Westminster and Scottish governments.
At the commemorative stone on the hill top at Cove, on the western entrance to the sweeping Loch Ewe, the memorial service for the 3,000 lost sailors of the Merchant Navy cargo ships and of the Royal Navy escort ships of these convoys, was led by Mark Strange, Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness.
Two buglers from the Royal Marines Band, Calum Gordon and Chris Harris, sounded the Last Post while the flags were lowered at the commemorative stone; and the Reveille for their raising.
Tony Moir, a piper with the Black Watch Pipe Band, piped at the start and finish of the event.
The RAF sent two Tornados on a roaring fly past from the east coast. The Coastguard Service had the fisheries Protection boat, Minna, at the entrance to the loch [top photo], hooting her own salute; and a helicopter that made a series of celebratory sweeps over the horde of the rememberers.
The organisation of this event, by the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project team, was led by their awesome Secretary and Events Manager, Jacky Brookes – above, in a rare quiet moment in the crowd. Her own father-in-law did not survive the sinking of destroyer HMS Hardy in the First Battle of Narvik.
The event was a military operation in its own right.
Many of the veterans were fragile, some wheechair bound, all driven by the will, whatever it took, to be there on this day to pay tribute to lost colleagues; and to receive their Arctic Star medal, 68 years late in being awarded. That’s politics. At least the current UK government awarded it, even if they did not do so as soon as they had promised, with too many more veterans dying – like Stanley McKessock in October 2012, grandfather of bugler Calum Gordon – before this final recognition.
Wreaths were laid by many, led by the Lord Lieutenant of Ross and Cromarty, Mrs Janet Bowen; the Right Honourable Mark Francois MP, UK Government Minister for Veterans; Keith Brown MSP, Scottish Government Minister for Veterans; Timothy Kunicky, representing the Russian Consul General in Scotland; and Rear Admiral Chris Hockley, Flag Officer for Scotland, Northern Engand and Northern Ireland.
During the speeches at the medal presentation ceremony in Poolewe, which followed the memorial service at Cove, many references were made to the late Jock Dempster, a former President of the Russian Convoy Club of Scotland, who had campaigned tirelessly down the years for this medal to be awarded.
While Jock lived to receive his own medal – from the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street – he died two days before the start of this ongoing Arctic Convoys week at Loch Ewe. He was listed to attend and had hoped to be able to wear his medal for the first time at this Memorial Service above the loch he left as a boy on his first convoy.
Many of the speakers talked of Jock’s campaigning and agreed that the event this week should be seen as a tribute to his success on behalf of all of his peers.
The logistics of the event involved a fleet of five or six large coaches to transport the veterans, their carers and families and other members of the audience out along the narrow single track road to Cove. Others made their own way out – with a fleet of parking supervisors in hi-vis jackets making the otherwise impossible possible at the foot of the hill.
Then there were pairs of cadets assigned to get each of those in wheelchairs safely up and down the steep hill to the flat top by the commemorative stone for the service.
The faces of all of the veterans demonstrated the depth of feeling created by the warmth of the belated formal recognition of the value and the cost of their service.
In Poolewe Village Hall, the Lord Lieutenant for Ross and Cromarty, Janet Bowen, whose diction was eerily like the Queen’s, delivered a personal message from Her Majesty which is reproduced as the foreword to a Commemorative Brochure published for the medal presentation ceremony.
UK Veterans Minister, Mark Francois remembered his own father, Reginald’s, World War II naval service in minesweepers and was unequivocally supportive of the Russian Arctic Convoy museum project which he said ‘will happen’.
Scotland’s Minister for Veterans, Keith Brown’s [above] was the star speech. Also the Transport Minister and a recent armed forced veteran himself, Mr Brown showed an easy confidence and genuine understanding in his direct address to the Arctic Convoy veterans in front of him.
He started by saying simply that he echoed what those speaking before him had said – which he had also intended to say but would not now repeat.
Then speaking comfortably off the cuff, he offered a powerful insight into the condition of serving in a merchantman, born from his own relevant first hand experience.
Saying that he was particularly sensitive to the nature of the service of the men of the Merchant Navy in these convoys, he said to them: ‘You guys didn’t sign up to be heroes – but you were.
‘There is nothing that feels more vulnerable than being in a ship you cannot defend yourself and having to rely on others to defend you.’
He drew this from his own experience ‘..when I was going down to the Falklands in an old store ship’.
This insight added something new to the way one understands the condition of the Merchant Navy men on the convoys – fat targets for the U-boats and the Luftwaffe dedicated to sinking as much tonnage as possible – totally helpless, with no self-defence possible, with survival or not at the discretion of the fortunes of the naval escort ships and the accompanying armed and anti-submarine trawlers.
Convoys often had to scatter when U-boat packs were detected – in the greater interests of the greater number, to limit the potential losses. Imagine what it must have been like, to be a lone cargo ship steaming away from the security of the escort ships and away from even the sight of your fellow merchantment, defenceless and knowing that the U-boats were on the hunt.
With the Convoy veterans having been on the go since before 10.00am in the muster for the coaches to Cove for the memorial service, the game plan was clearly not to make them wait too much longer for the presentation of their Arctic Star medals.
With several in wheelchairs and many fairly tired by this stage, the plan executed efficiently was for each of four dignitaries to take one of the four sides of the Poolewe Village Hall – with the centre space left free to allow for this – and personally present a medal to every veteran on that side.
There wasn’t even standing room in the hall, light levels were low, people were dashing this way and that to try and get shots of the particular veteran they were there to celebrate.
We could only see snatches of Rear Admiral Hockley’s [above] and Keith Brown’s territories. Each spent time with every single veteran. Keith Brown was again naturally easy in conversation, crouching down to eye level to talk – and probably glad to stand straight for a while each time one veteran chose to stand up to be given his medal.
We caught sight of Roy Elwood, a veteran from HMS Zambesi who later became an exhibited photographer, sitting on the left hand side, leaning forward to take photographs. His daughter Carolyn was standing against the wall opposite, so we first reckoned she was his target. Then looking at the position of his camera, we think he was taking photographs of his fellow veterans sitting on the opposite side of the hall. Those will be good memories of a memorable event.
Two veterans who met at Loch Ewe this time discovered that they had served on the same boat at the same – the frigate HMS Bahamas. They had been on Bahamas on Convoy RA62 back from the Kola Inlet to the UK, when a fellow naval escort, HMS Cassandra had her bow completely blown away by a torpedo delivered from U365.
Bahamas towed Cassandra by the stern back to the Kola inlet, keeping he flow of water away from the non-existent bow section. Cassandra was saved.
John and James had not known each other aboard – in a crew of around 180, working four hour watches around the clock most of the time, friendships were deep but confined to smallish groups.
James Kirk’s daughter has a profoundly touching photograph she took yesterday morning when he and John Allen met and discovered that shared experience. Neither had ever expected to meet another survivor from Bahamas.
On one of the coaches out to Cove were two people who exemplify exactly why the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum for Aultbea must and will happen.
John McIver [pronounced as the Irish McKeever] and his daughter Eilidh had come out for the memorial service because his father who had died when he was very small, had served as a gunner and died on HMS Achates, sunk on 31st December 1942 in the Battle of the Barents Sea.
Achates was an escort duty for Convoy JW51B from Loch Ewe to Murmansk. The convoy was attacked by a group of six German destroyers with the heavy cruiser, Admiral Hipper and the pocket battleship Lutzow.
The escort fleet were seriously outgunned by the attackers but fought it off without the loss of a single merchant ship. Then, while Achates was laying smoke to shield the position of the convoy from the German surface attack group, she as hit by fire from the Hipper and badly damaged, losing her commanding officer and 40 of her crew.
Under a stand-in skipper, Achates continued to lay smoke despite her condition. But the damage she had taken was serious and she started to list, then rolled on to her side. John, who has worked to piece together his father’s story, has discovered that he was last seen helping others, including the injured, out from below onto the hull and into the sea in the hope of being picked up.
Then Achates completed her roll and went down, with many, including John McIver’s father, sucked down with her.
Eilidh McIver has, through her father, become interested in this story and in the history of the Arctic Convoys. Already engaged, she will retain this interest and this search for more parts of her grandfather’s story, taking it on down the generations.
The continuing need and demand for the sort of resource the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project plans to deliver could not be clearer.
This is not a only a touchstone to the past, it is about a living and growing history, progressively refined in detail and accuracy by the voluntary work over the decades and centuries of those who have a personal, a professional or an academic interest in the subject and in the people involved.
It will bring people to Loch Ewe, to the location centrally involved in so much of the work of the convoys, renewing the connections between this incredibly beautiful and characterful place and the descendants down the years of those who left there to face the terrible attrition of the journeys to Murmansk and Arkangel – for the greater good.
A note for the future came at yesterday’s medal presentation, in the speech from Timothy Kunicky [above], representing the Russian Consul General in Scotland.
He delivered the gratitude and best wishes of the Russian Arctic Convoy club at St Petersburg. They are building their own memorial, which will be ready in 2014. He invited the British veterans to St Petersburg for this event. Amongst the clapping at the gesture there was was the audible sound of walking sticks being thumped on the floor with appreciation.
One of the big stories in the continuing saga of the Arctic Convoys is the warmth of the relationship between the Russians and the veterans.
The Russians have always been grateful for the help and the sacrifice of those who served on the convoys. Russia has given something like a series of four medals to convoy veterans around the world. The most recent was the Ushakov medal which, only earlier this year , the current UK government alone refused permission for its veterans to receive.
It has been a relief to see the Arctic Star finally awarded. It is an ineradicable shame that this was not done a very long time ago.
The Russian Arctic Convoy Museum team has done an enormous amount to compensate for that neglect. The events of this week – which run until tomorrow, 11th May, have triumphantly underlined the need and the value of straightforward human values – and another kind of service.