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
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
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
On Boxing Day we were attacked
by Scharnhorst. About 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
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 till )… 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
– 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
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
Do you remember
the Battle of Britain and bombing?
and the children of Edinburgh
schools were evacuated and later returned. The Germans were trying to knock
off the ForthВridge
and cripple the communication.
Did you see
people dying under the German bombs?
No, because we had dug
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, tellwith 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
our enemy immediately, because Germany
was our enemy!
And when you
heard that Hitler had invaded Russia what was
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
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
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
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 WesternDesert
(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.
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?
action against Scharnhorst. I’ll never
forget that - I saw some other action but that was special.
I believe, you read the books “The CruelSea” 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
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
I probably did but I don’t
remember (George laughs – VK).
…I visited Estonia,
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,
Please, tell whatever you wish to tell about the
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,
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.