INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HUGHES
Please, tell a bit about yourself, where you were born, how you became a Navy seamen.
My name is John Hughes
– it’s a Welsh name, but I was born in the south of
I finished in the Royal
Navy in 1946 and re-joined the New Zealand Navy in 1948 for a three year
contract. When I finished my contract with the New Zealand Navy the dockers
What kind of ship did you serve on? What was your duty?
I was on the cruiser called
The worst enemy to contend
with on the Russian convoys was the weather because we used to go up to the
I only went to
Were any measures taken to prevent it?
After that we were not allowed ashore.
After the Russian convoys
we also went to
Who did the unlucky sailors drink with?
With the local blokes. I went ashore myself but didn’t get drunk that much.
Please, tell about your feelings towards
I didn’t have much to do with the Germans. I disliked them. They were a very arrogant race. Same with the Japanese. I was in the Navy in 1938 when they had the crisis and the Prime Minister of England (Chamberlain) came home saying ‘no worry, don’t trouble, peace in our time’. But we knew that a war would break out soon, we didn’t believe him…
Please, tell with a bit more detail what did you think
I did not really know much
OK, but during the war? Were you aware of the situation on the Eastern Front?
I don’t remember, I didn’t even think about it, really…
Do you remember any attacks of Stukas?
Most of the air raids on
the Russian runs were high level ones. The Stukas
were coming over when we were not far from
We were torpedoed on the
Did you shoot down any of the attacking aircraft?
Yes, I did… Only once.
Did you feel any hatred towards the Germans at that time?
Well, it was a war and
they were just our enemy… When I was on the HMS Lulworth – an ex-American coastal cutter - we damaged
a German submarine off the
Did you have a chance to talk to any of them?
To start with there were some real Nazis amongst them. We pulled them out of the water on deck and they saluted us ‘Hail Hitler’ (John shows the Nazi salute – VK). What we did then – we pushed them back in the water! When we took them on board again one us said: “You salute this way (John showed normal way of army saluting – VK), not that way”. We had them under lock and key for about two or three days and brought them up by two at a time to exercise and at the finish they were really good!
When we came to Aberfoyle at 2 or in the morning the army came aboard to take them and they wanted to blindfold them. We said: “No, forget about it! They may think they’re gonna be shot!” (John laughs – VK).
Did you have a chance to talk to those Germans?
Only through the interpreter…
What was that about?
You know – mainly families,
where they lived in
John, you, obviously, were coming back to England from time to time, you saw bombed cities, found out about casualties among civilians? Did your feelings towards the Germans change?
Oh, yes. Not only that. We found out about atrocities in occupied countries, not only to the Jews but to other people. They would shoot half a dozen civilians for one killed German soldier in retaliation. Personally now I hate their guts, I have no time for them… Same for the Japanese. We took over the surrender of the Japanese in Hong Kong and I saw the POWs, mainly British. I was on the submarine parent ship and we took nearly 500 of them to Fremantle (Seaport near Perth, Western Australia – VK). They were in a shocking state – they couldn’t walk.
Did you visit the USSR yourself during the war? Did you encounter the Russians and, if yes, how did you get along with them?
We didn’t have much time in the USSR. On the third run we were tied up to a buoy in Murmansk, in the river. We had a big Russian tanker coming alongside to refuel us. I was on the watch from midnight to 4 in the morning – actually, on duty on the brow – little brow going between our ship and the tanker. Every member of the crew of that tanker was female! And there was a young girl who was the sentry on the tanker, she had a rifle. I wanted to talk to her but she would point her rifle at me: she wouldn’t let me go to the tanker!
Later on I decided to make myself a hot drink and a bit of toast and so I did. On the toast I had some sardines and she could smell it. And her lips were drooling! I said: “You like some?” She nodded. I had to go to the mess deck to get some more sardines. I was due to hand it over to her, when the officer on the watch came out. She took it but afterwards that I was in trouble because I had broken the regulations. The officer on the watch (lieutenant) reported on me but I got away with it, not even with a critical comment from the commanding officer. When they finished we sent two or three cases of herring or tinned fish to the tanker – the captain ordered to do that.
Did you hear about brothels for the Allied seamen in Murmansk or Archagel?
No, absolutely, nothing.
Please, tell me more about your drinking parties with the Russians. Were there naval seaman or civilians? What did you talk about?
They were civilians… We could not go too far from the ship, it was on the docks. In every port in every country there are pubs or bars or drinking places for seamen. The same was in Murmansk. Some of the locals could talk English. We talked about different things. It was so long ago… We were very friendly to each other. A Navy chap travels the world. He is friendly to any other chap.
Oh, I want to tell you one thing! When we were in Russia every morning they played the Russian national anthem. And we were singing as well. Let me remember: “Keep the red flag flying high…” (John sings – VK). We used to sing it, but the officers didn’t like it. They didn’t like it for a minute. Then we sang the British national anthem.
Which day of the war do you still remember most? Please, tell about it.
I guess the day the war ended. I was on the submarine parent ship here, in the Pacific, in Luzon. We had one flotilla – four submarines, and the Americans had their own flotilla and a parent ship. The submarines would come back and her crew would come on board the parent ship and relax while the so called spare crew would do the maintenance work on the submarine…
We were really happy when the war ended. There was a lot of drinking. We were lucky because they used to send a merchant ship up from Australia full of beer. We used to have a bottle of beer every night in addition to our rum issue. The Americans were dry – they didn’t have any alcohol at all, they had only coca-cola and soft drinks. They used to come aboard of our ship and we used to give them rum. We used to water it down a bit (John laughs – VK) but they loved it!
What was your impression of the Yanks?
I didn’t have much time for them then, I have even less now. They went to Iraq when everybody said “No”, and now they want the rest of the world to help them out!
The Americans were typical blow-outs. “We are from the best country in the world, we are the best fighters…” But they had a lot of money. Say, in Hong-Kong shortly after the war finished the prices in brothels went up three times after the Yanks had come in! But many of them were decent people. When we lost our bows we went over to America to a navy dockyard up the river from San-Francisco. We were there for three or four weeks before we went back to UK and the local people couldn’t do enough for us. We were invited to the local homes, breweries, we had free beer, Once some locals dragged some of us to their cars out of the bar we were drinking in and drove us to the local music-hall to listen to the Andrews Sisters! They were wonderful people.
And it was the same when half of the crew went to New-York by train. Wherever we stopped it was the same.
Once on the HMS Versatile we went to the North Atlantic and ran into the Force 8 gale. We had a new Lieutenant-Commander then and he would not slow down. The boats were washed overboard, the depth charges were swinging around. We lost six blokes over the side. After we got back to London he (Lieutenant-Commander) was court-martialled and I was one of the chief witnesses ‘cause I was on the wheel when the Captain ordered me to turn around and go back to Ireland. The First Lieutenant said: “Disobey the order, stay where you are!” But we turned around and, actually, got back with one third of the ship flooded. I don’t know how we got back but we did it. The Lieutenant-Commander lost his command and he lost five years of seniority, in other words, he could not get promoted for five years which was really bad for an officer. And he deserved it only because he ordered to turn around instead of cutting across the rough seas.
I believe, you read the books “The Cruel Sea” and “HMS Ulysses”. Did you like them? Were they realistic?
I read these books and found them realistic.
What do you think about the situation when a U-boat was depth charged and the survivors in the water were killed? Was it justified?
(After a long pause John shows a photo – VK). This is an Italian destroyer we chased it and finally sank. But before that there was another one and there were survivors in the water. We were chasing this one and we never altered our course – we went through them. I suppose many people died… We could not muck about – we were after another one.
But, John, I am talking about a different situation. There were survivors from an Allied merchantman in the water and the captain ordered to depth charge a U-boat. Would you have done it yourself if you were the Captain?
It’s very-very difficult to say… I don’t know. I would not like to do it myself. But it could have happened…
Did you have a chance to see your former enemies and allies after the
war? If yes, what kind of atmosphere did it occur in?
I’ve never come across any Germans after the war. During my years on the docks in Auckland I worked on half a dozen Soviet ships. I had a lot of sympathy from the Russian seamen through being on the Arctic convoys…
We used to play soccer with the crews of the Russian ships which were mainly coming to load wool. We could not invite them to get together with us for coffee, tea or sandwiches. All the Russian ships had a commissar and they had to be very careful... Some of the Russians spoke English and in one case I was invited for a dinner on board of one of the Russian ships. We were sitting down and the meal was brought in, but nobody would start and I could not understand why – they wanted me to start first! They were very friendly and we had a great time.
Was it during the Cold War?
Yes, maybe in 1951.
Obviously, it was an uneasy time for such a contact?
The Cold War was between America and Russia and I was on the Russian side.
Please, tell whatever you wish to tell about the WW2.
It should never ever have
happened, I mean World War Two. Trouble with Britain is that it’s only a
little island. They had the British Empire all over the world and they didn’t
have enough forces to defend it – just enough to defend the island. I joined
the Navy and joined up to fight. Sometimes you didn’t like it, sometimes
you did. Every day in the war was a different day whether you were in action
or ashore. Sometimes it was good, sometimes – bad. Two days were never the
same. I took every day of the war as it came.