Vladimir Kroupnik


(JANUARY 2004)


Please, tell a bit about yourself, where you were born, how you became a Navy seamen.


I was born in Scotland in 1927 and educated in Edinborough. Being caught by the war I was evacuated to Cupar then, when it calmed down I went home again and finished my education. I joined Leith nautical college, was qualified and finally went to sea as a cadet. I joined a company called Henderson Line in Glasgow. Its normal trade was between the UK and Burma. But because of the war they went anywhere. For my first voyage I went on the American-built ship “Ocean Viceroy” which I joined in Glasgow, then to Liverpool and thence to Freetown in convoy and then went independent from Freetown to Buenos-Aires. We got through quite comfortably but after we had broken the convoy some other ships (“Hensada”) were torpedoed.


For the second voyage we were loaded in Liverpool and Glasgow and went up to Loch-Ewe in Scotland to join a convoy. At this time I was about 16. We sailed off to Russia and never again in my long following seagoing experience have I encountered weather like that. On Xmas Eve 1943 we were proceeding in convoy and I was on the bridge on signal watch. The flags got frozen and we had to use ALDS lamp. The cook was trying to prepare Xmas dinner. He had chicken and turkey afire in the oven. The flame started coming out of the galley funnel. The Captain McFadyen sent me to the galley saying: “Tell the cook to put the fire out as everybody in Norway can see us!” I went down to the galley. There were three inches of sea water in the galley and just inside the door there was an electric water boiler.    


The cook threw a full bucket of boiling water into the fire and it exploded and the flame burst out of the oven and the cook got so badly burnt! The fire burnt his clothing onto the skin. I was in a parka, balaklava, gloves, leather boots – I was in full regalia on (it was -20) and got only my face burnt. The cook had intelligence to turn me around and push me out into the open air. He followed me into the icy cold wind.  I took him to the midship accommodation. There was only one tube of tannafax in the medicine chest and it was not enough. Then I took him back to his accommodation which was near mine. I don’t remember exactly what happened then but I was obviously not good enough for work for at least 2-3 days. I was told to take it easy and look after him: there was nobody else to do it.


On Boxing Day we were attacked by Scharnhorst. About 10 o’clock in the morning she came in from the port quarter and started shelling. I had never heard a shell in my life. They make a sound like b-r-r-r-r-gh (kind of rattle). I had heard Stuka bombs but I had never heard a shell and there were a plenty of them.


The engagement lasted all day. The final part of it was on our starboard quarter. She was still firing but I don’t think it was chasing us anymore – she was defending herself. She had a hell of a job. We had 32 destroyers in the escort and they called up Duke of York, Belfast and Glasgow (the first – a battleship and the latter two – battle cruisers). They had radar fully operational and Scharnhorst never had it properly working, perhaps all they had was DF (direction finder - VK) and how she fought the engagement I don’t know. Eventually they knocked her off…


We had proceeded on to Murmansk by which time I was back at work. So, that was the worst experience I ever had. By the way, prior to the Scharnhorst engagement and the time I was burnt I was assigned to an Oerlikon 20-mm cannon, we had six of them. I was on the one on the bridge starboard side. I was only 16 and I was not a gunner at all. But we had Stukas and Luftwaffe in the air and were attacked fairly constantly during twilight (from 10am till 2pm)… Our redeeming feature was that we were the inside column nearest to Norway and as they made their run they missed us. Visibility was shocking, the weather was absolutely atrocious. The convoy was seven columns wide so they wouldn’t hit us - they would hit the rest.


The story about Oerlikon is that it carries two drums each of 60 rounds: tracer, armor-piercing and explosive – in that order and that was the way we had to pack them in. There was a locker with a steel lid and there were two loaded drums – one in the weapon and one in the ready-use locker. My personal story about that – you pull the trigger and it takes 3.5 seconds to empty the drum and I had to put the second one on! During the firing of the second drum one round jammed inside another in the breach and I fell into complete panic…


We had a Marine Sergeant who was in charge of the 24 DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship) personnel. And he fired a 4.7-inch dual purpose weapon on the stern, and above it we had a 12-pounder and on the forecastle - another 12-pounder. Anyway he was down on the stern. I got myself down to the poop, then climbed a ladder. The 4.7-inch gun blast struck me on the face. I almost fell off the ladder! I gave this guy all my information, he slapped me on my face and said: “Shut up!” He took me back to the Oerlikon, fixed it up and said: “Load the thing, keep firing!” I said “Yes!” and that was my experience of gunnery….


We had quite a long time in Murmansk – from about the 29th December till the 3rd of February 1944. The weather was extremely cold. We couldn’t get out of there, because the German submarines were hanging about outside… They didn’t seem to care whether a ship was loaded or not but of course a loaded ship was a better target. We had to stay until they said it was a fair thing to go. The bombers were coming every day as long as it was twilight. They were J-88 high level bombers.


Was it terrifying?


Oh, yes, it was frightening. But the worst part of it was the Americans. If you fire a short at an American he’ll let go with everything. It’s like a Western! There is no point to fire an Oerlikon at a Ju-88. You’ll never get there… But the Yanks fired everything they had including 9-mm pistols! It was alarmist, they did make a lot of noise but didn’t frighten the Germans.


Eventually we got back down to Pentland Firth (between the Orkneys and Scotland). The unfortunate part was that instead of going to the west coast they sent us down the east coast and the Germans were using high-speed diesel E-boats at that time. They were barely clear of the water – they did about 40 knots. The Germans were terrific in producing equipment. We never actually got hit but we went down in a convoy in column of two ships in line to a place called Hartlepool and that ended the voyage. That was my only experience with the Russian convoys.


Did you shoot down yourself any Stukas?


No, I don’t think so (George laughs – VK).


Please, tell about your feelings towards Germany in the beginning of the war. Was their only a desire to protect your homeland from the enemy or some ideological anti-Nazi feeling?


Hitler just went all over Europe and we hated him. I had some experience of German Jews. The Germans were killing the Jews and some of their children fled the country. And we were cruel to them: you know, children are cruel to each other and we used to call them “Fritz” or “Hunn. They used to wear white stockings with tassels – the gear they wore in Germany. I was in a private ordinary school in Edinburgh in 1940-41… There were Jews in Edinburgh – they had a synagogue – and they mobilised themselves to foster those children. I don’t suppose those children ever saw their parents again, I don’t know. Because of that I didn’t have any sympathy to the Germans at all because they mistreated those children who were of the same age as us.


Do you remember the Battle of Britain and bombing?


Yes, and the children of Edinburgh schools were evacuated and later returned. The Germans were trying to knock off the Forth Вridge and cripple the communication.


Did you see people dying under the German bombs?


No, because we had dug shelters.


Initially German seamen were like the Royal Navy – they were gentlemen. At the beginning of the war if they knocked something off, they would get the blokes onboard and put them on POW ships, but then they began to machine-gun the survivors. Off Freetown they sank “The Empress of Canada” and they left them (the survivors – VK) alone in the waters infested by sharks! That was one of the worst tragedies I’ve ever heard of. I sailed with a fellow who was amongst the few survivors. He didn’t lose his sanity but he never recovered from the experience…     


Please, tell  with a bit more detail what did you think about Russia before the war, then during the Hitler-Stalin pact and after the German invasion into the USSR? How was it changing through the war?


I knew nothing about Russia before the war except it was the biggest country in the world – three times as big as America. I don’t know much about it even now… The Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact made Russia our enemy immediately, because Germany was our enemy!  


And when you heard that Hitler had invaded Russia what was your feeling?


That was the best thing which ever happened for Britain. We became allies! Russia resisted, and the way they fought in the siege of Stalingrad was superb…


Were you aware of the situation in the Eastern front?


Yes, of course. After the war we went to Finland and there were only women – a sailor’s paradise. It was the only country which declared war on Russia along with Hitler and one could see – their men used to die like flies…


Did you visit the USSR yourself during the war? Did you encounter the Russians and, if yes, how did you get along with them?


Murmansk was devastated – it was bombed out completely. People working on the wharf I thought were either deserters or those who had done something wrong: they were marched around in columns or platoons by armed guards.


I went ashore a couple of times – there was nothing there for me – I was only a kid. We went to “Intourist” hotel (kind of a bar) where after standing in a long queue you could buy vodka and a coffee and they also gave you a candle because it was dark!  I didn’t have a chance to get in touch with the Russians – I was only a cadet and was told what to do.


There was no tucker in Murmansk. We had stacks of food stuffs in the tween deck and I and another guy were ordered to look after the stores to prevent stealing. As the cargo was discharged our blokes and the Russian workers could see those attractive foodstuffs, so we used it to build a sort of a barricade around the stores so that not to let other people pinch our tucker…


Did you hear anything about brothels for merchant seamen in Murmansk?


No, I didn’t know anything about that. Maybe, I was too young to be interested in. There were very few women, very seldom we saw a woman and it was bloody hard to tell it was a woman because they all wore the same gear…


What kind of conditions were on the merchant ships compared to the warships, say, destroyers? Were you better off?


Oh, yes, much better off comfort wise... Their living conditions were frightful! Our bridge was 50 feet above the water and on destroyers only about 12 feet above the water! They were under blue water all the time, wet and cold… And they were stuck on the warships. If I didn’t like it I could have quit, couldn’t I?


But in this case they would have drafted you to the Army…


Oh, yes, and I would have been sent to the Western Desert (George laughs – VK).


We were in the first convoy in to Rangoon – we carried wheat from Wallaroo (South Australia). The Japs were still in the suburbs, but believe it or not in the Bay of Bengal the submarines were German, and there was so called “U-boat Alley”.


Were you under attack from U-boats?


We were under threat of attack most of the time.


Did Japanese aviation attack you?


Yes. We had a sistership called “Sagain”. She was sunk alongside the wharf in the Trincomalee harbor and the Japs sank it with bombs. I was in a hospital ship “Amarapoora” in Trincomalee where we ferried wounded defense personnel on to and from the ship.


Which day of the war do you remember most?


The action against Scharnhorst. I’ll never forget that - I saw some other action but that was special.


I believe, you read the books “The Cruel Sea” and “HMS Ulysses”. Did you like them? Were they realistic?


I read “The Cruel Sea” by Nicolas Monsarrat… The description of the weather in “Ulysses” was comprehensive…


I see another book written by Monsarrat on your bookshelf…


Oh, yes (George smiles – VK). The Cruel Sea is very realistic. Nobody believes what he wrote about the ocean but I’ll tell you off the North Cape the weather was like that! They actually told us straightforward: “Don’t worry about it if you fall overboard. Nobody will look for you. You’ll have only 3 and a half minute…”


Was the attack on U-boat justified when there still were survivors from a torpedoed merchantman in the water?


It’s very difficult but they might as well go for U-boat. The Captain was under order. He was fighting the enemy…


Yes, but it could have been you in the water as well… Did you have a chance to meet your

former enemies and allies after the war? If yes, what kind of atmosphere did it occur in?


Yes. I went to Hamburg shortly after the war. It was devastated. You could buy anything for five cigarettes. The second mate was teaching me how to live – he was older than me (George laughs – VK). We had passes to get ashore and he led us to a place called “Atlantic Hotel”. It was a fabulous place like “Sheraton”. Magnificent hotel, two double beds in the bedroom… And for 5 cigarettes you could buy a bottle of best French champagne! And all what the girls – young nice blond blue-eyed German girls – had to eat was terrible rye bread and there was nothing with it…


I came to Western Australia from Queensland to get a job in Fremantle port authority. I had direct contacts with captains of all foreign ships coming here including Russian ships.


Did you ever tell them that you had been to Russia during the war?


I probably did but I don’t remember (George laughs – VK).


…I visited Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after the war – maybe, in early 1950-ties. I was the first mate and our cargo was timber. I had learnt the carriage of timber by sea – it’s not easy because you have stability problems. Timber floats but it’s no good for a ship.


We went ashore quite a bit. I chanced to know one Latvian bloke fairly well. He was a supercargo. He was a very nice fellow. His hobby was to collect stamps and I gave him all stamps I could find and also a couple of magazines… I suppose they were not allowed to have those magazines.


They even took our radios away! It could have been in the Cold War. I didn’t worry me too much but they even immobilized our radio station when we were in port. Actually, they took away our magazines so that we couldn’t give them to anybody but I sneaked away a couple for that fellow…         


Navigating in the Baltic and Gulf of Finland was fabulous especially in the winter. The water is black, the islands and trees are snow white! Gorgeous, really beautiful…


Please, tell whatever you wish to tell about the WW2.


It took an awful lot of time… In the final analysis any war is fruitless because wrong people suffer. Maybe it’s good for politicians but it’s no good for an average guy in the street. An awful lot of people died and I lost a lot of people I knew. I’m pleased we won it. I feel sorry for the Germans because they were carried away and they were poorly led. I feel tremendous amount of sympathy for London, Coventry, Liverpool and all civilians who were dispossessed… I now live in the best country in the world and have no complaints because we enjoy great freedom here.


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