THE stink of petrol on board the ticking time bomb is a smell Tom Davidson will never forget.
It was 1942 and he was just 20. The young man from Wallyford had started as a flight controller on board escort and fighter carrier HMS Searcher – a vessel that would be assigned a key task in protecting some of the Arctic Convoys travelling to the Soviet Union during the Second World War.
Now 91, the veteran will today be officially presented with the Arctic Star medal by the Lord Lieutenant of Midlothian, Patrick Prenter.
The honour was awarded for the first time this year in recognition of service to the Arctic convoys that sailed from Britain from August 1941 until May 1945 to deliver urgently needed supplies to the Soviet Union.
His time with the Royal Navy would take him to the far reaches of the globe – to Burma, Sri Lanka and America – but as he flicked through a scrapbook of extraordinary pictures from his time on board he admitted he would fear for his life every time he stepped on that ship.
“It was a time bomb,” he said.
“There was 50,000 gallons of petrol forward and 50,000 gallons of petrol aft and 30-odd aircraft full to the gunnels with petrol and guns and bombs.
“One went up on the Clyde. Everyone died on it. There was no smoking on board. They’d take you up to the foredeck and put a bullet in you if they caught you smoking. They had to because it was stinking of petrol, because the aircraft were always getting refuelled.
“It was a time bomb, simple as that. You were glad to get ashore.”
HMS Searcher, which operated out of Liverpool, participated in attacks on key German battleship Tirpitz at her base in northern Norway during 1944.
The carrier would later be involved in the Allied invasion of Southern France known as Operation Dragoon.
Tom, who lived through those experiences, recalled hitting a fierce storm off the Scandinavian coast in freezing conditions as they set out to bomb the Tirpitz.
He said: “It was horrendous. The waves were 30-40 feet. We had to turn back. The admiral said the boat was going to tip over. The raging sea, when she hit you, she hit you with a thump and she vibrated. On one trip, the sides started to split because she wasn’t riveted.”
Losing planes over the side of the ship was one of the biggest problems. Among an extensive collection of photos kept by Tom is a black and white picture of Lieutenant Sharpe trapped inside a fighter half submerged in the water.
“Taking off and landing had to be spot on,” Tom said. “Sharpe was taking off and he must have put on one of his brakes. Instead of going straight forward, the plane swung round and struck the ladder and ended up overboard. We had ropes and nets to pull him out.”
There were light-hearted moments despite the constant threat of conflict.
A fox terrier cross called Spud was adopted and became a permanent crew mate. Tom said: “He had an official number. We picked him up somewhere. You pick lots of things up when you come on board.
“One young guy even had a 10-month-old bairn and we couldn’t get it off him. He said he paid for the bairn. We had the police on board and the military police. He wouldn’t give this bairn up. He was going to take it home.”