The Loch Ewe Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project is delivering a serious success in its WWII and Arctic Convoys Week programme, a focus of intense interest.
Audiences have been packed, way beyond anything expected and with many arriving at least half an hour early to be sure of a seat. They have come – not only from all across the UK but from around the world.
They have not only come out of interest and to learn. They have come to share their own information and the harvest is proving an extremely rich one. 40 veterans are attending, with first hand accounts of their experiences. But a marked feature here is the number of second generation information carriers and seekers – those whose fathers and uncles served on the Arctic Convoys, either in the royal or merchant navies.
Typically, few ever said much to their families about their service experiences. This was another world and there was no meaningful bridge to it for those who had not been there.
Those people have scraps of information, some more substantial than others, much garnered from dedicated personal research. They are here to add what they have – and to get more. They are also giving to the Museum project, documents and artefacts from their families.
They are the core argument for the need for the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum whose campaign team mount these increasingly complex and important annual events.
The generation who most need to be here are these ‘second generationers,’ committed to discovery, to putting together a profoundly important personal jigsaw. They will pass to their children – and through their own growing network of the interested – all the information they have gathered – and signpost the still missing links to be explored.
This place, these resources and the increasing volume of information and insights will be needed in perpetuity. The Aultbea Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project has more than proved the case for its need and for its potential contribution to the national knowledge bank and to the local economy.
The event began on Monday – 6th May – and runs until this Saturday, 11th May – centred on events in venues and schools in Aultbea, Gairloch and Poolewe, heightened by the fact that on Thursday 9th May, the new Arctic Star medal will be formally presented here to some of the 40 attending veterans of the historic Russian convoys.
This will follow a memorial service held at Cove on Loch Ewe on Thursday morning.
The transformations of Loch Ewe
This is a part of Scotland that experienced the most sudden changes of gear twice, within an astonishingly short time, at the start of World War II and as it came to an end.
Allan Kilpatrick – an archaeologist with RCAHMS [Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland ] – talked last night [7th May] on the measures taken to protect Loch Ewe as a major harbour for the Arctic Convoys to supply Russia and for incoming convoys to supply the UK.
He pointed out that in 1939, at the outbreak of war, the area around Loch Ewe has virtually no infrastructure. It was remote, was a harsh place to live and a difficult one to get to. It had no port and no defences.
In just over two years, by 1941-42, it was what Kilpatrick described as ‘a busy routeway’ with 200,000 tonnes of shipping a day and refuelling piers.
This was shipping coming in from all over the world, from Canada,Australia, America, India, the Caribbean…. These ships came in to Loch Ewe, some waiting for a convoy to Murmansk or Arkhangel to gather and depart with its naval escort ships; some refuelling here before dispersing to supply the UK through ports to the south.
By 1942 the area had coastal batteries, heavy and light anti-aircraft artillery [some from ships based there for the purpose], a minefield and submarine booms.
Locals also had access to the facilities – including a theatre and a cinema – provided to maintain the morale of service personnel posted to a place with nothing except its natural potential as a first class and well placed harbour.
Loch Ewe, the quietest of quiet backwaters, had become a major hub for international sea transport and defence – just like that – and with all of the infrastructure and command and control operations that this role required.
And just as suddenly, much of this infrastructure and most of the swollen population had gone.
Loch Ewe was closed in 1943, the convoys leaving from other ports. Its guns were demounted and taken south for the defence of London and the south and south eastern coasts.
One of the veterans present here this week, Roy Elwood [seen above talking to Jacky Brookes of the museum team] and who has written for us on several occasions in the past, was a radar operator on HMS Zambesi, escorting the last Arctic convoy to leave from Loch Ewe, JW63.
Where some of the wartime structures were converted to local use, many were demolished, much to Allan Kilpatrick’s chagrin. Nevertheless, his researches go on to find and identify the physical remains to help to piece together the full story of wartime Loch Ewe.
New discoveries are being made by the day. Only yesterday, 7th May, while leading an archaeological walk around the gun emplacements of Loch Ewe, Mr Kilpatrick found new evidence at Mellon Charles, beyond Aultbea, including what appear to be anchors for barrage balloons.
Time, though. is a major issue in the human resources available to piece the story together. The Archaeologist stressed the imperative for the immediate recording of the oral history of the time.
There was immediate evidence of the value of this diminishing goldmine.
An earlier speaker, Hamish Johnston’s told of the contribution to World War II in Britain and in Europe by the Royal Indian Army Service Corps – Force K6, commanded by his grandfather – and with a Supply unit and its mule transports based in a self contained camp at Inverasdale on the east shore of loch Ewe.
Today’s Loch Ewe became aware of the earlier presence of this unit when Donald Matheson of Inverasdale went out with a metal detector on his family’s croft there.
He unearthed a series of curved pieces of metal and one by one, pieced them together – realising that they are in fact tiny horseshoes. Thinking they possibly belonged to Shetland ponies as they were so small, he took them to a local retired blacksmith who instantly referred to them as belonging to the ‘wartime Indian mules’.
The story of the Indian supply unit’s camp gradually unravelled and when one of the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum’s team interviewed an elderly woman who lived at Inverasdale in WWII, she said she remembered the Indians coming into Poolewe shop – and that she thought she had a picture of one of the officers.
She found it – and it was one no one had seen before. Lord Ashdown, former Leader of the Liberal Party, whose father was in charge of the Royal Indian Army Supply Corps during WWII, has put the museum team in touch with two leading experts who are delighted to know of their finds.
By its nature and role in WWII, Loch Ewe reaches out to many nations across the world.
Jacky Brookes, the endlessly energetic and focused Secretary to the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project and whom one can only describe as indefatigible, yesterday herself met Peter Matthews, whose father Joe, a gunner, survived the sinking of HMS Hardy, in which her father-in-law had served.
Keen to follow his father into the Navy, Peter had gone to an open day in Chatham Naval Dockyard, where the family lived. Taken on a private visit to the engine room [he was thinking of becoming an ERA, Engine Room Artificer], he discovered that the waterline was level with the top of the double height engine room – and joined the RAF.
Note: we chose as our lead photograph above the engaged face of the son of a mariner with the HMT Lord Austin, an anti-submarine warfare trawler which served on the the devastated Convoy PQ17 and was lost on 24th June 1944.
Note: We will have news later today of tomorrow’s [9th May] Presentation Ceremony to Arctic Convoy veterans of the new Arctic Star medal; and we will also later pull together some of the astounding facts and insights we have learned over our few days here with these lode-carrying people.