We often read about the bravery of Scottish soldiers in the world wars. However, the valour of Scottish sailors is rarely mentioned by historians or reported in war documentaries.
The documentary, PQ 17: An Arctic Convoy Disaster (to be repeated on BBC2 tonight) reminded me that six members of the crew of HMS Ayrshire were from the Isle of Lewis, Western Isles.
It stated that Lieutenant Commander Gradwell navigated through the ice with the help of a school atlas. Also on board HMS Ayrshire were two former fishermen from Hull who had sailed in those waters before the Second World War.
They were ordered to the top of the masts to guide the ship through the pack ice channels. I believe Coxswain John Morrison, an experienced seaman from Lewis, was the helmsman who steered the ship through the ice and this is why he was Mentioned in Despatches.
Murdo MacKay, one of the Lewisman on HMS Ayrshire, had a brother who was decorated twice for bravery at sea in the Second World War.
Their father, Murdo MacKay, was awarded the DSM in the First World War but was lost on HMS Otway when the vessel was torpedoed off the Butt of Lewis on 23 July, 1917. He was one of five Lewis naval reservists lost on this ship; another six islanders survived the sinking.
Returning to the UK from one Arctic convoy, Lieutenant-Commander Gradwell, breaking naval orders, decided to head for Stornoway instead of the naval base at Scapa Flow. This was to give the islanders a day’s leave at home.
The crew had not been paid for weeks, but Stornowegians, with so many family members serving at sea, rallied round and gave the crew ample cash to enjoy the pubs and buy food and stores for the ship. One man said he had never seen the crew with so much money.
Three Lewis merchant seamen – one on his third sinking – were survivors from SS Aldersdale on Convoy PQ17.
The youngest Western islander killed in the Second World War was merchant seaman Peter Wilson, Uist, aged 15 years, when SS Goolistan (Newcastle-on-Tyne), was sunk on an Arctic convoy. His fellow islander, Bosun John MacLellan, was also killed on this ship.
If he were alive today, Leo Gradwell would be mortified to learn that the Western Isles fishing fleet, which provided the navy with so many capable seamen during the war, is virtually extinct, while German and other EU countries’ trawlers hoover the Hebridean fishing grounds.
Scottish sailors from Shetland to the Solway proved their worth in the two world wars and were as brave as Scottish soldiers. It is time their capability and courage was publicised and appreciated.
Donald John MacLeod
Bridge of Don, Aberdeen