THEY nod their heads at a shared understanding, no words are necessary. For while they have never met before, Jock Dempster and Eddie Campbell have a bond, one forged through a shared experience of witnessing unimaginable horror some 70 years ago.
No-one else can understand what they went through, how they have had to live daily with what they saw, how they have struggled with the question of why they survived when so many others perished.
The constant memory of a badly-injured crewmate who told Eddie “just leave me” moments before he disappeared beneath the waves; the feeling of helplessness as Jock watched dozens of men jump to their certain deaths.
This is what bonds these two unassuming pensioners.
Jock, 84, and Eddie, 96, are both veterans of the Arctic convoys – the “suicide missions” during the Second World War credited with sustaining Russia and keeping Britain’s ally in the east in the fight against Hitler.
They have been living less than 30 miles apart in relative anonymity as the British government – for decades – refused to recognise their contribution to the wartime effort.
However, with the help of the Evening News, Jock, from Dunbar, and Eddie – from Liberton – were brought together for the first time.
Now, sitting in Eddie’s living room, the pair exchange memories of their first mission, their vessels and the friends they lost.
Jock had taken it upon himself to run Scotland’s own Russian Arctic Convoys Club up until recently, when age caught up with him. He had spoken publicly and passionately of the government’s oversight in not recognising the efforts of fellow veterans with an official Arctic campaign medal.
Eddie had, in the meantime, barely spoken of his time on the convoys. Even his son, Eddie Junior, knew next to nothing about his father’s involvement in the war.
The only evidence was a glass frame containing the veteran’s medals and two old black-and-white photographs – one of a 23-year-old Eddie sitting alongside wife Betty Campbell, and the second of his wartime vessel, the minesweeper HMS Gossamer.
Retired compositor Eddie speaks glowingly of the Russians and of their hospitality during three months spent living in those frozen climes.
Jock responds by standing to firmly shake the fellow veteran’s hand. “Not many think so highly of the Russians,” he says. “I’m glad you do.”
Both agree on the justice in the government’s decision made just before Christmas to finally award an Arctic medal.
Eddie taps the glass frame, pointing proudly to where the new addition will sit alongside his other honours.
Forty-one convoys in total shipped supplies to Russia between August 1941 and May 1945.
Of those, the majority sailed from Loch Ewe in Wester Ross, situated on the far north-west coast of Scotland.
A memorial stands at the Highlands location in tribute to the 2800 British seamen who were killed during those deadly missions.
But by Jock’s own admission, it was not death that most men feared – it was the possibility of being left less than whole by an explosion or contact with the freezing water itself.
“I was never frightened of death,” he says.
“I implicitly believed in the life thereafter. What I was scared stiff of was the fact that I was on a tanker and I knew if we got hit, it would go on fire. I dreaded the thought of being hideously burnt or losing an arm or a leg.”
The wartime journeys of the two surviving Edinburgh veterans started at opposite ends of the campaign.
Eddie was newly married when he embarked on the very first convoy, PQ1, out of Iceland bound for the Russian port of Murmansk, working as a boiler stoker.
He recalls: “I signed on in March 1940, just after the war started. We were actually in Belfast, and I was expecting to go on a few days’ leave but we sailed the next day and we didn’t know where we were going. The skippers told us we were going to Reykjavik to pick up the convoy. That was the first mission.”
He said the initial convoys in 1941 had travelled in relative safety, with the German forces not yet having turned their attention to disrupting the supply chain.
But his enduring memory of the risks struck while later escorting PQ11 on board HMS Gossamer.
The minesweeper was attacked on June 24, 1942, by a U-boat while at anchor and dive-bombed in the exchange. The vessel took just seven minutes to sink to the depths of the Kola Inlet, close to Russia’s coast, with Eddie on board. He says: “I remember that vividly because that morning we were told we were going back to the UK with the convoy.
“We were doing a boiler clean and I was actually in the top part of the forward boiler when we got hit by two bombs. There was about 24 casualties.
“The time that we took to sink was about seven minutes. There were three of us in the forward boiler. I didn’t really know what was going on, but I thought I better get up on deck.
“When I got up there, the ship was turning over. Four of us had a hold of a boy, a leading seaman called [Robert] Hackett. He was in charge of the forward gun. That’s where the second bomb had hit and he reckoned his back was gone.
“He said ‘just leave me guys’, so we had to leave him because the ship was turning over. It was an extremely tough thing to do.
“I actually just climbed over the guard rails on the starboard side and I walked down the side of the ship into the sea.
“There were tugs round about and they picked us up in about a quarter of an hour. I felt lucky to be alive.”
Eddie says the survivors were herded into a barn by their Russian allies back on shore.
He recalls witnessing a young lad of about 16, Jimmy Campbell, having both of his arms and legs amputated, adding: “He was such a cheerful wee boy. He used to say ‘we’re going out for a game of five-a-side’.”
It would be the start of a three-month sojourn spent near Murmansk.
Jock, who went on to serve in the RAF after the war, meanwhile made two convoy trips to Murmansk starting from March 1945. He was only 16, working as a deck hand and high on the adrenalin of his first great adventure.
“The conditions were quite horrific,” he admits.
“From the time the ship set sail on its way up to Russia, which was a nine-day trip, the weather was abysmal. You had full-scale blizzards, you had high seas, you had everything that a seaman dreads.
“The seas were really mountainous and it was freezing on top of it all. As the ship went through, when the bow hit the sea, the spray would come up and before it even landed it would freeze. That’s how cold it was.
“But it was still for me, as a kid of 16, quite a thrilling experience.”
Jock said there was one blessing to the “atrocious” weather on his first convoy – that it kept even the Germans at bay.
He said: “They always had two or three packs of U-boats up at a place called Bear Island. They didn’t even make contact with us there. But at the end of the voyage as we approached the Kola Inlet, which was about 20 miles from Murmansk, they struck then.
“One ship ahead of us – an American merchant boat – that was torpedoed and then just minutes later another one ahead of us was torpedoed as well.
“The Royal Navy had the escorts there all the time – they used to fly around like bees – and one of them came dashing around, a ship called HMS Lapwing.
“She came round with all her depth charges primed, hoping to kill the submarine. Instead of that, the Germans got a torpedo in her.
“She exploded, she went on fire. That really was the most graphic thing about the whole episode for me. To see men that had no choice, that had to jump off the blazing ship into the freezing sea. They had a crew of 229 – I’m not pulling these figures out of thin air, I remember them so well – and 158 died that day.
“They were jumping in the water and trying to cling to rafts, but the ropes on the rafts were absolutely frozen so when they got their hands to them they just slid back into the sea.”
“They weren’t all that far from us. To hear men screaming for help, and they perished within minutes – that’s always lived in my mind.”
National recognition, more than the Arctic medals themselves, have made those sacrifices truly worthwhile for the likes of Jock and Eddie. However, the timing will never be forgiven. Only an estimated 200 of the 65,000 men who served in the convoys are left alive in Britain.
Jock says: “People keep calling us heroes – I disagree with that. But these guys gave their life. It was the ultimate they gave and yet they’d been sort of ignored by the fact the government had never issued a medal recognising them. I’m absolutely delighted, but I’m grieved that it’s taken so long to give it.”
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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