THE waves crashed around them, 60ft high, and the men of the Arctic Convoys, frozen to the bone and in terror of the German bombs, pressed on in what Sir Winston Churchill once called “the worst journey in the world”.
Of course, he might well have thought that. Those hardy souls on board the merchant ships and the navy vessels charged with protecting them knew better. They knew it was much, much worse than that.
A freezing hell spent dodging Hitler’s deadly U-boats and vicious Junkers 88s, sleepless nights and terror ridden days, when the journey around Norway in Arctic seas towards Archangel and Murmansk took them past hundreds of hidden inlets and coves – perfect hiding places for enemy attack.
Conditions were horrific enough. Then there were the sights, the heart-stopping moments when men could only watch helplessly as comrades plunged to their deaths from frozen decks into ice cold water, where within just three minutes they would perish.
Jim Simpson was there, fresh faced, just out of his teens. Today he is in his 91st year, ramrod straight, medals pinned over his heart glittering; the Arctic Emblem – a white polar star with a red Russian dot in its centre, pinned proudly upon his immaculate jacket, his brand new Arctic Star medal shining the brightest.
He sits in a plush armchair in his Barnton Avenue home, a model of a ship on a table nearby, some naval type prints on the wall clues to a remarkable war service that, 70 years on, is as painfully vivid as ever.
Not that he’s one for talking too much about it. He hands over some notes a relative has made with help from his wife, Sybil, which detail how he joined HMS Devonshire and headed off on an ocean voyage from which more than 3000 men would never return. The notes are factual and detailed enough yet there is little in the pages to hint at what it was really like for a young Edinburgh lad on one of the most hellish journeys imaginable.
Gently ask him to share some of the emotional turmoil of four years spent bobbing on Arctic waters like a plastic duck in a fairground shooting game, and he looks down at well polished shoes at something suddenly fascinating and totally absorbing.
“I can’t really explain it,” he says quietly. “When you’re being attacked with Junkers and bombers and U-boats on your tail at the same time, wherever you went there was a U-boat behind you.
“Then look around and you can see a wall of water 60 feet high chasing you. We had a lot of near misses. We lost a corvette one night,” he adds, and in his mind’s eye it’s almost certain he can still see a small but hardy little boat, specially built to serve with honour in the convoys, broken by a U-boat torpedo.
“He’s never really spoken about it until recently,” chips in Sybil, who has heard more about her husband’s Arctic Convoys experiences in the last few years than in all their 65 years as a married couple.
She is not the only wife who is only now learning of how spectacular and humbling a job their husbands did during the war. For just what it was really like for the thousands of brave sailors has only recently started trickling out, voices finally found as a campaign aimed at recognising their contribution in the form of a special medal gained momentum, led by, among others, Jock Dempster from Dunbar. Jock, of course, died just weeks after receiving his longed for Arctic Star and before he had the chance to wear it at a public ceremony.
Jim’s Arctic Star shares space on his jacket with the 1939-45 Star, the Atlantic medal, the War Medal and a special Russian Convoy Medal awarded by a grateful Russia to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the convoys. His wife keeps the ribbons bright and fresh by scrubbing at them using a toothbrush smeared with a little gentle soap.
They were on his chest again yesterday as he stood in the War Museum at Edinburgh Castle, VIP guest at a new exhibition which tells the remarkable story of the Arctic Convoys through striking images, first-hand testimony and poignant, personal objects.
Among the items on display are an aged telegram delivering the worst news possible to a wife back home of her lost husband, alongside a packing case covered in beautifully coloured labels including one that says simply “with thanks to the British convoys”, well-worn uniforms, grainy photographs, and the bell of HMS Edinburgh, sunk by the Germans with her cargo of gold on board, payment from grateful Russians for American help.
Jim was 19 years old when he left home to work in Skara Brae in the Orkneys, building camps for the army and Royal Air Force. After six months he was back in Edinburgh to answer his call-up papers.
Waiting for him after brief training at Devonport was HMS Devonshire, newly refurbished with hi-tech radar designed to help detect U-boats – radar that, along with a brilliant captain, would save the crew’s lives time after time.
Her role was to provide cover for air operations by planes launched from aircraft carriers – a death-defying task in itself – from the guns of German battleship Tirpitz, lying in Altenfjord in occupied Norway. The Tirpitz was just one enemy vessel facing the 50 or so ships in the convoys taking vital supplies to Russia, danger came also in frequent fire from Nazi planes and U-boats firing torpedoes night and day.
“We hardly slept,” remembers Jim, whose job was “damage control”, closing off the bulkheads to prevent the ship taking in water in the event of a direct hit.
“We were never in our hammocks when at sea, if we slept it was usually on the main deck – we could be at ‘action stations’ for hours.
“Our job was to keep her [Tirpitz] in harbour while the aircraft carriers sent off their planes to bomb her.
“Some of the planes didn’t make it back. Sadly quite a few men were lost,” he adds. “There was no time to rescue them, there were other planes coming in. It was horrendous for all concerned.”
Men went days without sleep, he remembers, warming now to the idea of talking about it. Clothes went unchanged – it was minus 50, the idea of stripping off was unthinkable.
“Conditions were unbelievably bad, the seas were rough, it was freezing cold,” he says. “The deck would often freeze – so did the moisture in our noses and our moustaches.”
And all the time enemy spotter planes buzzed the convoys, followed by the Junkers 88s in wave after terrifying wave of attack.
“The Junkers dropped their torpedoes mainly at dusk,” adds Jim, “it was difficult to see where they were. We opened fire, gunners were shooting all day long. We had to be alert at all times, U-boats were all around. We fired off depth charges from the stern of the ship when they were too close for comfort.
“We didn’t think too much about the Germans,” he adds. “I suppose they were lads just like us. But it was them, or us.”
Jim was eventually demobbed in November 1946 – having left the Arctic he joined HMS Jamaica for service in Indian waters. Life with Sybil from then on involved the much less dramatic task of working in construction and raising their family. Today, they have five grandchildren.
Telling his story now, says Sybil, is mostly for them and their children’s sake, so the vital chapter in British war history won’t be forgotten.
“He didn’t speak about it until there was an Arctic Convoys veterans reunion recently. Since then he’s been telling more stories,” she adds.
“We want the grandchildren to hear his story before it’s too late.”
Constant threat of attack from air or U-boats
The Arctic Convoys sailed from Britain from August 1941 until May 1945, delivering urgently needed supplies to the Soviet Union including tanks, vehicles, weapons and raw materials.
Their route took them through incredibly harsh environmental conditions in dense fog and turbulent seas, with freezing temperatures causing ice to form on the ships to the extent that it could cause vessels to capsize if it were not removed immediately.
As if the appalling conditions were not enough, there was the constant threat of German attack from the air or from U-boats based in Nazi-occupied Norway. Churchill, right, privately admitted that he would have been happy if even half of the Convoys got through. In fact, the success rate was rather higher, with 707 of the 811 merchant ships to sail arriving safely. However, over 3000 sailors were lost.
One of the most poignant stories in the exhibition is that of convoy PQ17. It was passing the west coast of Nazi-held Norway when incorrect intelligence suggested that the Germans were going to launch a concerted attack. The convoy was ordered to scatter, leaving ships wide open to attack.
Twenty-four of the 35 merchant ships in the convoy were lost.
A frantic rescue operation ensued, featuring vessels including the SS Rathlin which was credited with rescuing 634 crew from 13 sinkings.
One of the personal stories in the display is of James K Thompson, a boatswain on the SS Rathlin. In January 1943, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his role in shooting down two enemy aircraft in defence of convoy PQ17.
The Russian connection is brought up to date with the loan of objects by Timofey Kunitskiy, who works in the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Edinburgh. His grandfather was a senior officer in the Russian navy and was involved in many air reconnaissance operations. Objects on loan include winter-weight fur gloves used in air reconnaissance and various navigational instruments.