Obituary: George Murdoch

George Murdoch, arctic Convoy veteran who met his wife on returning from 'suicide mission' to Russia. Picture: Contributed
George Murdoch, arctic Convoy veteran who met his wife on returning from 'suicide mission' to Russia. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 4 January, 1924, in Aberdeenshire. Died: 1 August, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 90.

George Murdoch was one of the now dwindling band of brave Royal Navy crewmen who served in the punishing North Atlantic and Arctic Convoys of the Second World War.

He took part in the secret operation to establish a British air base in the Azores, the crossroads of the Atlantic which had become a black hole for Allied ships, and was on board one of the final Arctic Convoy trips as the conflict came to a close.

That last journey would alter the course of his own future when his destroyer was detached from the convoy to join other vessels in Copenhagen for the reoccupation of Denmark and the German surrender. A stroke of serendipity during his stay there brought him into the path of a young Danish radio operator who he would eventually marry and with whom he would spend the following 65 years.

In peacetime he played an active role in both the Z Class Destroyers Association and Scottish Arctic Convoy Club, and finally saw recognition for the sacrifices he and his fellow sailors made in their youth seven decades earlier with the award of the Arctic Star medal last year.

George Carnie Murdoch was born to newsagent and stationer John Murdoch and his wife Isabella, in the village of Drumoak in rural Aberdeenshire where, as a youngster, he often spent time with his aunts and uncles on local farms. After an education at the city’s Ashley Road and Central schools he started in farming-related work with Scottish Agricultural Industries (SAI) in Aberdeen before enlisting in the Navy in 1942 when he was 18.

After training initially at shore bases HMS Royal Arthur and then HMS Mercury, home of the RN Signals and Combined Signals Schools, he qualified as a telegraphist and was posted to HMS Havelock.

From the summer of 1943 to the spring of the following year the ship was deployed on Atlantic Convoy defence duties, including Operation Alacrity, Churchill’s scheme to establish a British air base in the Azores.

The Portuguese-owned islands, which the Germans also had their eye on, were of strategic importance, right in the mid Atlantic, and provided the perfect location to station Allied planes to provide air cover for convoys. But great secrecy was required to set up the operation before the Germans could claim the islands for a U-boat base.

After his service in the Atlantic, he spent at few months at HMS Mercury before joining HMS Zodiac, another destroyer, which would be drafted in to Arctic Convoy duties escorting merchant ships sailing from Scotland to Murmansk and Archangel with vital aid for the Russian allies.

Known by the men as the suicide missions, or the worst journey in the world according to Churchill, each trip was a monumental feat of endurance, as much a battle with the elements as with the enemy.

Constantly under attack from German U-boats and aircraft, the Navy was dispatched to protect the merchant boats and the desperately needed supplies of food, equipment and ammunition. But the atrocious weather in the bleak North Atlantic was also an enormous challenge, with temperatures plummeting to minus 50 degrees and layers of ice coating the vessels.

“Every convoy had a lot of pressure on it, the eyes of the Luftwaffe watching them,” said Murdoch. “The main difference with the Arctic run was that if you were sunk you would only last about five minutes in the icy water.”

More than 3,000 men died on the hazardous journeys to beat the German blockade of Russia, but in April 1945 the Zodiac made it safely round Bear Island through to the Kola inlet to Archangel on an uninterrupted passage. It was on its way back when the convoy was hit as soon as it left the inlet. The escort ship HMS Goodall was torpedoed by the enemy and almost 100 lives were lost. It was the last Royal Navy ship to go down in the war in Europe.

Within days the Zodiac was diverted to Copenhagen and anchored on 9 May beside the famous Little Mermaid statue, four days after the country was liberated from Nazi rule.

Jythe Andersen, who worked for the DFDS shipping company and was its first female wireless operator, had received a telegram from a friend who was due to dock in the Danish capital. As a result, she just happened to be visiting the harbour with a parcel when Murdoch’s hit destroyer was in port. Jythe went aboard and asked to borrow binoculars to try to spot her friend’s ship at sea.

Being a telegraphist, she knocked on the telegraphist’s door to ask if someone could hang on to her umbrella and parcel while she went up top with the binoculars. Murdoch, now a leading telegraphist, was the only one who appeared to be working that day and the meeting was to prove pivotal in both their lives.

He later escorted her back to the gangway and requested a date. They then spent several days together before he had to sail back to Britain but kept in touch by letter and, by the following year, after a trip at sea together, they became engaged.

Their wedding took place in March 1948, in Budolfi Kirke in Jythe’s native city of Aalborg in northern Denmark, and the newlyweds set up home in Aberdeen.

Murdoch returned to SAI where he would remain for all his working life, moving up through the ranks from a post in the city’s Sandilands Chemical Works to data processing manager in Aberdeen before moving to Edinburgh, to the company’s computer office, in 1967.

A few years later the couple moved from Barnton to a new home at South Queensferry overlooking the Forth and once again Murdoch was back on the water. After retiring in 1981 he took up sailing and bought a boat, originally called Genesis, but which he renamed Dana Genesis in honour of his Danish wife.

He enjoyed sailing from Port Edgar and crewing with companions and over the years his other hobbies included curling, ten-pin bowling and gardening. In Aberdeen he had an allotment in addition to his garden and he had instigated a family camping tradition while living in the North-east his wife, who loved the Scottish countryside, particularly Royal Deeside.

They enjoyed many weekends under canvas with their two children, Dane and Gitte, but family holidays were always taken in Denmark, where Murdoch, who had learned the language to converse with his parents-in-law, was a proud Scot resplendent in his kilt. He and his wife also returned for the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the country’s liberation.

Outside the spheres of work and home he gave his time and professional expertise to Arthritis Care, of which he was treasurer. But perhaps his most significant interest over many years was his service as treasurer of the Z Class Destroyers Association and the Scottish Arctic Convoy Club.

The veterans had been honoured with medals from Russia on the 40th, 50th, 60th and 65th anniversaries of the Arctic Convoys but it took until 2012, more than 70 years after they first set sail, for the UK government to announce the creation of a medal for bravery from their home country.

Murdoch, who wore his white beret with pride at every opportunity, was predeceased by his wife and is survived by his son Dane and daughter Gitte.

ALISON SHAW