Jock Dempster: hell and healing – two voyages to Murmansk

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Arctic Convoy veteran, Jock Dempster, died yesterday morning – 5th May 2013, after having seen the award of the Arctic Star medal for which he had long campaigned and after having his own medal presented by Prime Minister David Cameron at a ceremony at No 10 Downing Street.

He was due to be in Gairloch in Wester Ross, for the World War II and Arctic Convoy Week – and woud have worn his Arctic Star medal here for the first time at the Memorial Service at Cove this coming Thursday, 9th May.

For Argyll is reporting from Gairloch this week. Arriving at lunchtime today and driving from Gairloch to Aultbea on Loch Ewe, where part of the week’s programe is hosted, we heard the news of Jock’s death on the car radio. This was a profoundly sad moment and one of personal loss, since this would have been our own first opportunity to meet in person a man whom we had got to know over the years on the phone, in emails and from his story.

Jock was an unusually gifted man, a natural manager, with a lot of personal authority and a clear set of values.

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A former Chair of the Russian Convoy Club [Scotland], he was actively supportive of the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project in Wester Ross – and was at Loch Ewe in person for the 2008 multinational tribute to the veterans of the Arctic Convoys.

His email was H.DEMPSTER and once, after we asked about the ‘H’, he told us the hilarious stity of how that came about. His father had gone out to register his birth; met an old mate on the way; went to the pub for a few celebratory jars – and, awash with sentimentality, ended up naming his young son for his friend – ‘Henry’.

Jock’s voice, with its tone of disgust, is still audible, saying: ‘ ‘Henry’. ‘HENRY’. I’ve never been a ‘Henry’. I’d never have survived as a ‘Henry’.’

A young member of the Merchant Navy, he was of course immediately called ‘Jock’, which he accepted with relief and ease, spending the rest of his life as ‘Jock’, with Henry surviving only as the enigmatic ‘H’ in his email address.

For the rest, the best thing is to listen to Jock speaking for himself in this piece which, titled as above, he wrote for us and which was pubished on 22nd October 2009.

Hell

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I joined the Merchant Navy at age 16  in 1944 and after basic training as a junior  ordinary seaman signed on my first ship, a tanker, MV San Venancio. Before sailing to Murmansk I had already crossed the Western Atlantic twice to load up with aircraft fuel so considered myself a full seaman.

The weather was, as usual, extremely cold and snow-showers prevailed most of the way. The ships deck was soon like a skating rink and extreme care had to be taken to never touch any metal with bare hands – the skin would have been torn off.

The appalling weather did have its benefits in that German U-boats and aircraft never made contact with the Convoy. In particular, we were extremely fortunate that the usual packs of U-boats which lay in wait at Bear Island failed to spot us.

In tandem with the severe weather conditions our luck continued to hold until we were approaching Kola Inlet, North of Murmansk, another haunt where U-boats lay in wait.

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The snow blizzards prevented our carrier based aircraft from making contact with the enemy and the inevitable happened – the U-boats struck. At around 10.00 am the ship immediately ahead of us, the Horace Bushnell, was torpedoed. She dropped her port lifeboats and we pulled to starboard towards the centre of the convoy.

We collected at  lifeboat  stations and two or three  minutes later the Thomas Donaldson, on our starboard quarter, was torpedoed and lifeboats were immediately lowered.. A periscope was sighted and all hell broke loose! The guns on the merchant ships opened up – everyone was shouting and yelling. A corvette dashed up from starboard flying the “Sub-sighted” pennant and dropped depth charges off the port quarter then returned flying the “Sub-sunk” pennant. The noise, the absolute bedlam which followed, scared the wits out of me.

All of us on the ship had always fully appreciated that, as a tanker, we would be the prime target on the convoy  The thought of death didn’t frighten me, I was very religious at the time, a firm believer that there was a life thereafter but I was terrified at the thought of being badly burned, losing a limb or my senses. I liked to think that I successfully hid my fear from my shipmates, they certainly seemed calm enough but as I later learned, we all experienced the same emotions.

We were ordered to “Run for it”. There was a natural boom  ahead of us which once crossed, would mean safe waters, the whole ship trembled and shook as the engines went on full speed.

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At the same time, the Sloop HMS Lapwing, well off to starboard, was torpedoed. The bow shot up in the air then sank in minutes, the stern went down 10 – 15 minutes later. Throughout all this action the stench of burning metal, the screeching as it was torn apart, the screams of the wounded, filled the air.

Words cannot describe the havoc of the emotions which racked my mind. Wanting to do something but unable to help and steaming rapidly away from the scene. Men clinging desperately to lifeboats and rafts, many because of the intense cold coupled with sodden clothing sliding back into the sea.

The crews of the destroyer HMS Savage and the corvette HMS Allington Castle rescued many from the Lapwing but 158 seamen were lost out of a complement of 229.

Merchant seamen always felt particular sympathy for the RN crews because we knew they were packed in like sardines and loss of life was always heavy.

On our return trip six weeks later the frigate HMS Goodall was torpedoed at the entrance to Kola Inlet and again there was a tragic and heavy loss. 112 lost their lives out of a complement of 156.

Over the years the memories of the carnage, though permanently etched in my mind, have gradually eased. They flooded back when our cruise ship Discovery,  in July this year (2009), sailed over the stretch of water where the ships lie. I made a point of being completely on my own and silently paid my respects.

Healing

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In company with two other ‘elderly’ Russian Arctic Convoy veterans, Geoffrey Holmes from Louth, Lincolnshire and Len Dibb-Weston from Weston-Super-Mare in Somerset, I sailed on the 22nd July 2009 from Harwich to Murmansk on the “Discovery” cruise ship.

We were fully aware that we would only spend one day in Murmansk, the other 13 days spent visiting Norwegian Ports but appreciated that this represented probably the only opportunity we would ever have of sailing into Murmansk once again and reliving old memories.

The day in Murmansk proved to be one of the most memorable in our lives!

Our departure from Harwich was enhanced by a party of extremely smart and enthusiastic local Sea Cadets, male and female, all around 16 years of age. Having sailed to Murmansk at that age, my memory cells were already working overtime. At the other end of the age scale around  200 other war veterans and mariners plus a large number of family and friends, gave us admirable support.  All of the other 650 passengers were, to say the least, extremely interested in visiting Murmansk.

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Our spirits were uplifted as we progressed towards Murmansk. The crews of some of the Russian Navy ships which we passed, including a large aircraft carrier, were lined up from bow to stern paying their silent respects to the thousands of seamen who gave their lives in our joint struggle for peace.

Our hearts really warmed up as we tied up at our berth. The Russian Northern Fleet Brass Band gave us a magnificent welcome and played their hearts out with a selection of very popular melodies. When we disembarked we were crowded by TV Crews anxious to talk to us about our experiences on the convoys and ashore in Murmansk and Archangel.

Coaches took us up to the Russian National Memorial, Alesha, where we were greeted by the Vice-Admiral of the Northern Fleet, the Mayor of |Murmansk, a full top class Naval Guard of Honour who were quite outstanding – and again the Naval Band.

Speeches, quite passionate in their content, thanked the Russian Convoy Veterans most sincerely, for their sacrifices. and the vital role they had played in helping Russia attain victory on the Eastern Front. Much stress was placed on the immense  appreciation of the Russian people.

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I was privileged to make a speech, in Russian, reciprocating the appreciation of the veterans to the Russians and thanking them most sincerely for never forgetting us. Since the end of WW11 successive Russian Governments have awarded us commemorative medals every ten years since 1985. Because our average age is 86 and our numbers are rapidly dwindling, the current Government has decided to award us the medal due in 2015, five years ahead of time, in 2010.

I particularly reminded them that had Russian not secured victory on the Eastern Front, the World would not be enjoying the comparative freedom which has endured since the end of the War.

The remainder of the day was devoted to wreath laying and paying our respects at the graves of allied seamen, some only 16 years old, in the local cemetery. Respects were also paid and wreaths laid at the Russian Convoy Club Memorial in the centre of Murmansk.

The tour concluded with an extremely interesting visit to the Nuclear Ice-breaker  Lenin.

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Every one on the cruise agreed that the welcome received from the Russians was very wonderful indeed. The non-veteran passengers were quite amazed at the depth of appreciation so openly displayed by everyone we came into contact with.

On our return trip, a Memorial Service was held aboard ship and wreaths cast into the sea in memory of our shipmates who never returned. A Royal Air Force Nimrod overflew the ship to further honour our shipmates who had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Jock Dempster, died 5th May 2013.

Murmansk War MemorialThe photographs accompanying this article show, from the top:

  • Jock Dempster
  • At the Loch Ewe 2008 Tribute, from left, Reay Clarke, Jimmy McHugh, Jock Dempster and Jim Osler
  • Jock Dempster at the graves of some of those who died in service on the Arctic Copnvoys – and standing in front of the grave of JB Anderson, a 16 year-old Merchant Navy Steward’s Boy on the SS Induna, where a wreath was laid.
  • Jock Dempster with fellow Arctic Convoy veterans on the Discovery before leaving Harwich on the voyage to Murmansk. Pictured, left to right: Geoffrey Holmes, Ewan MacDonald RN Commodore SE England, Jock Dempster, Len Dibb-Weston.
  • Jock Dempster, second left, with Australian veterans of the Arctic Convoys.
  • Geoffrey Holmes, left and Jock Dempster, second right, with Sea Cadets seeing them off on Discovery at Harwich.
  • Jock Dempster giving the address to the Russians on behalf of the Arctic Convoy veterans at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Murmansk.
  • Jock Dempster with 3 Russian girls at the Murmansk ceremony.
  • The Mayor of Murmansk, right,  wearing the White Cap just presented to him by Jock Dempster, left, at the Murmansk reception.
  • Another view of the magnificent Russian Memorial, celebrating the strength and heroism of the ordinary soldier.
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4 Responses to Jock Dempster: hell and healing – two voyages to Murmansk

  1. RIP Mr Dempster. And this government and the last, none of whom deserve to be mentioned in the same breath, should (but won’t) hang their heads in shame at the time it took to present the medals that you and your comrades so richly deserved for your heroic effort on the convoys. How sad that you didn’t get to wear it with pride in public.

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  2. I served with Jock Dempster at R.A.F. Gatow, Berlin, during the Cold War, after he had joined the first joint services Russian course, I think in 1948.
    It was immediately obvious that Jock was a very unusual and a special kind of man. Although he was a Flight Sergeant when I first met him, but promoted Warrant Officer during my term serving under him, Jock was unfailingly courteous and considerate to those of us who were junior to him.
    On his promotion, Jock presented me with his brass R.A.F. cap badge, as Warrant Officers wear the woven badge as worn by commissioned officers. He told me that I was “no a bad lad” and instructed me to “look after this laddie – there’s a lot of work gone into it. And, by the way, its your round!” I could not have had a more morale-boosting accolade than that from Jock, and I retain his badge to this day.
    I would dearly have loved to pay my last and limitless respects to Jock at his funeral, but as I am based near Penzance in Cornwall, and no doubt the funeral will take place in Dunbar or close by, I regret that I am unable to do this.
    My sincere condolences go to his lovely wife Maggie, who brightened each of our reunions like a ray of sunshine, and to all of Jock’s family and many friends, who, like me, have lost a totally unique and irreplaceable colleague and friend. His remarkable life will remain to all of us as a summit which none of us can hope to attain. I am just thankful that, despite the negligence and inefficiency of successive governments, Jock was able to receive his Arctic Star medal, for which he had fought for so long on behalf of all his white-beret shipmates, before it was too late.
    I mourn the passing of a loved and respected colleague, and a totally unmatchable friend. Jock, as far as you are concerned, it will always be ‘my round’. It was a pleasure and a privilege to know you.
    With sincere regrets and undying admiration, I shall always remain your loyal and respectful friend,
    Barry J. Webb.

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  3. I had a great privilledge of knowing Mr. Dempster and his wife Maggie. In 2009 while I was still studying at Fettes College in Edinburgh, I have invited Mr. Dempster and his shipmate Mr. David B. Craig to tell the school some of their was stories. Mr. Dempster magically kept the attention of the auditorium throughout the evening and it was great for so many of my fellow students to find out more about the Convoys and the heroic actions of Jock and his shipmates.

    Some time later Mr. Dempster and his lovely wife Maggie had kindly invited me to their home in Dunbar. It was a real honour to get to know both of them and my sincere condolences go to Maggie, Jock’s children and many friends who will always remember him fondly.

    I am saddened that I can not be at the funeral, as I am based in Oxford, but will pay my respects when I go up to Scotland in June.

    Rest in peace Mr. Dempster, you were always a role model to me and my generation and I will always remember you.

    Sunny Jain
    sunnyjain10@gmail.com

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