A HISTORIAN has published two volumes of first-hand accounts of naval war veterans who served on the Russian convoys during the Second World War.
Peter Brown, from Southend, is the man behind Voices from the Arctic Convoys.
He was spurred on by a Government decision belatedly to award a special campaign medal, the Arctic Star, to those who sailed on the convoys carrying vital supplies to our Soviet allies during those dark days.
Mr Brown said: “Newspapers up and down the country have been picking up stories about the Arctic Star.
“I asked them to pass on my details and every time these chaps have got in touch.
“The Navy News also mentioned my book and that’s when the phone really started ringing!
“I event got e-mails from people in New Zealand, Canada and Russia, wanting to share their stories.”
The books feature the reminiscences of more than 60 sailors, who served in many different capacities.
Mr Brown said: “There has been a huge variety of different accounts – from stokers, who kept the ships’ boilers running, to gun crews, to those on the bridge, the first mates.
“Fewer than 200 of these chaps are still alive now, so it’s fascinating to speak to them.
“The books will give a really accurate, explicit view of what it was like on the convoys between 1941 and 1944.”
It had been an emotional experience, too, the author added, explaining: “They’re so modest about what they went through.
“To them, it was just doing their duty. I’ve heard some really horrifying stories and spoken to some fascinating people – some with very sad stories, but also some with quite glorious stories.
“I do try to put myself in their position, so it can be quite emotional, hearing about what they saw, especially at such a young age.”
One contributor, 91-year-old Alf Fowler, from Southend, was a stoker aboard the destroyer HMS Sheffield, which kept watch for U-boats and the Luftwaffe.
In the book, he describes one occasion his ship almost rammed two German destroyers.
He said: “We had an action stations call that an enemy ship was about.
“All of a sudden, two destroyers came out of the mist on either side of us and we realised they were German. The signal went out, ‘Stand by to ram’, but it was called off.
“My defence station had been right in the bows of the ship, by the anchor, so if we had rammed, I wouldn’t be here today. You can’t get much closer to death than that!”
Mr Fowler said the sub-zero temperatures were the hardest things to deal with.
He added “People don’t realise, but the enemy was not only the German submarines and aircraft – the weather was the biggest enemy of all.
“On the smaller ships, if you didn’t keep chipping away the ice, it would make the ship top-heavy and turn turtle.
“Once you were in the water, you’d only be able to survive for a matter of minutes.
I was fortunate, because HMS Sheffield was a cruiser and being much heavier, it was more stable than other boats.”
James Lovett, 93, from Rochford, was also on the convoys, a torpedoman on the destroyer, HMS Fury.
In one of the books, he recalls the day he lost a shipmate overboard: “I got relieved from my duty one day and a shipmate took over. I gave him all the lifesaving gear I was wearing – there wasn’t enough to go around. Before I got inside the ship, he was washed overboard.
"He was never found.”
Mr Lovett also recalls the terrible struggle he and his shipmates had, simply to survive against the elements.
He said: “It was minus 20 degrees below deck. The portholes were frozen over – you couldn’t open them even if you wanted to.
“You had to wear gloves all the time, because the guard-rails on the side of the ship – which were the only thing stopping you from going overboard – were covered with ice.
“When people used to say the icebergs were like mountains, that’s exactly what they were like – and, of course, there was also much more underneath.”