In Wester Ross on the northwest coast of Scotland there is a place called Loch Ewe. It is beautiful, typical of the coastal Highlands: a large sea loch surrounded by sloping hills that climb away into the background until they recede into the sky. It is a peaceful place, a place for walkers and birdwatchers, where oystercatchers call as they chase each other along the shoreline, and the waves scrape across the shingle.
But it wasn’t always like this, for Loch Ewe has a secret history: during the Second World War this tranquil haven became the unlikely setting of Port A, a secret base for the Royal Navy. Instead of oystercatchers, sailors called to each other across the loch; where once porpoises played, now warships ploughed through the water.
On 14 October 1939 the Royal Oak was torpedoed at Scapa Flow, the Admiralty’s supposedly impregnable harbour and main British naval base further north at Orkney. That night, more than 800 men – of whom more than 100 were young cadets aged between 15 and 18 years old – died. The Admiralty had to find new places to hide their ships, and Loch Ewe was perfect: a deep-sea loch with a narrow mouth, which had already been used by the Fleet as a temporary base.
My grandmother and her four sisters were there when the first ships arrived. They had been holidaying at Loch Ewe but were told to remain when war was declared in September, because their father thought they would be safer if the Nazis invaded down south. My great-aunt, aged 10 at the time, recalls their excitement at the thought that they might see submarines refuelling in the loch, the fun of going to parties when their father’s mine-sweeper was anchored there, but also their fury at discovering that they were considered too young to need the secret pass that the locals were issued with.
Those early ships were soon followed by more, and, before long, Port A became HMS Helicon, a bustling naval base. Nissen huts and bell tents sprang up among the granite boulders and the heather; gun-placements scattered the hills; anti-submarine nets and mines were laid in the water. Wrens and sailors, soldiers and batteries of anti-aircraft artillery filled the single-track roads, outnumbering the locals.
And then in June 1941 Hitler reneged on his non-aggression pact with Stalin, and invaded the Soviet Union. Soon Loch Ewe became one of the gathering points for the Arctic Convoys – supplying fighter planes, tanks, armoured vehicles, food, ammunition, medicine, raw materials from the UK through the Arctic Circle to Russia – which Churchill called ‘the worst journey in the world’. Legend has it that at times the loch was so black with ships that you could have walked from one side to the other across them.
The Merchant Navy are the neglected heroes of the Second World War, who kept not only Russia but the United Kingdom alive, ferrying such supplies around the world (across the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Ocean) in the most horrible conditions, at the mercy of the weather as well as the enemy. Barely armed, and barely trained in warfare, the Merchant Navy lost proportionally more men than any of the armed forces – around 25 per cent of their number throughout the war; some estimates put the amount at more like 50 per cent in the early years.
The Russian convoys were crewed by men typical of the Merchant Navy, aged from teenagers to pensioners – and from countries including China, India and the Commonwealth, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands, and the ships they sailed were equally international: American, Norwegian, Dutch, Panamanian, Russian, Honduran, Polish, Belgian. They were part of a classless, multicultural marine force of around 140,000 sailors, yet their exploits and bravery are not well enough known.
While they waited for their orders, the sailors went ashore and climbed the hills around Loch Ewe. They stumbled across anti-aircraft artillery men shaving in the burns outside their tents; Wrens delivering orders; cooks ordering supplies from the local stores.
The Nazis knew about the base. They laid mines, and sent planes, dropping a few bombs, although most plane activity was reconnaissance. The sky was lit by tracer fire, and the hills echoed with the blast of anti-aircraft batteries. Once a German pilot was shot down in the hills, and, making his way to the nearest croft, managed to communicate with the surprised crofter who opened the door in their only shared language: Latin.
The Merchant ships lay at anchor in a separate part of the loch to the Royal Navy ships, but their lives were inextricably intertwined. The Royal Navy were to be their main armory, forming a protective ring of submarines and warships of varying sizes, bristling with guns and torpedoes – an escort on what some of the men referred to as the suicide missions. After the disastrous convoy PQ17 in July 1942, when the RN escorts were ordered to leave their charges, and the Merchant ships were picked off one by one, the escorts were joined by one of the most powerful weapons of the Royal Navy, the aircraft carrier, and the Fleet Air Arm.
So the ships gathered, and once they were ready, the convoys set off across the ocean. They moved in a strict formation, columns of ships about 1,000 yards from each other. There could be anything up to around 40 Merchant ships surrounded by their escorts, covering an area of miles, an easy target for those who sought to destroy them. They could move only as fast as the slowest ship, which could be achingly slow as Merchant ships were not designed for speed but for carrying bulk. Their orders came from the commodore aboard a Merchant ship, to zigzag, to make less smoke, to stay in line. If a ship went down, or a sailor went overboard, no one was allowed to stop and assist, for that would put the whole convoy in danger. They had to hope that their comrades would be plucked from the water by the rescue ships that followed along behind – before they froze to death or drowned. Survivors talk of hearing the screams of men in the water as they passed by.
They were under constant attack in an area with one of the highest concentrations of the enemy, deliberately targeted by the Nazis who did not want anything to get through. During polar summer, when the sun never went down, they were exposed to the endless circling of reconnaissance aircraft, the bombers, the torpedoes, the depth charges. During polar winter, not only were they in constant darkness, but they were at risk of collision and another enemy: the cold. Great chunks of icebergs, ice floes, pack ice, blizzards, towering waves, fierce storms, gales so strong that ships rolled to their limits, and the men would rush from port to starboard to try and stabilise their vessel, giving up after a while, thinking each roll would be the last, but it went on for hours. Waves turned to ice as they smashed against the advancing ships, clattering across the deck. Men froze to death on watch. They had to constantly hack at the ice as it built to stop it becoming so heavy that it would sink the ship. A Royal Navy translator in Russia recalled how the captains of the Merchant ships hated the ice more than anything – in the White Sea, where the icebreaker pushed columns of ice more than six-feet tall either side of its bows – they were frightened of it, even after all the other things they had seen, and had to be shouted at to stay in line.
If they made it to Russia, they still had to face the return journey, still under threat of attack, still at the mercy of the Arctic weather. In total the Allies sent 78 convoys to Russia, delivering thousands of aeroplanes, tanks, vehicles, as well as medicine, clothes and food. More than 80 Merchant vessels were sunk as well as 16 Royal Navy ships. Most heartbreaking of all, more than 3,000 men lost their lives on those convoys alone.
Of those that did make it back, some returned to Loch Ewe, a welcome sight after weeks at sea.
Now the ships have all gone, and the roads are empty once again. The oystercatchers still call, but if you look closely you will see the crumbling gun-emplacements jutting out from the hillside, and if you drive to the end of the road beyond Cove, to Rubha nan Sasan, you will find a memorial to those men who never returned.
The Restless Sea by Vanessa de Haan is published by HarperCollins at £14.99. Out now.