Vladimir Kroupnik


(JULY 2003)


Please, tell a little bit about yourself, how did you become a naval seaman?


I was born in 1920 in Portsmouth, England, and my father was in the Navy. I grew up in the Naval environment, if you like, as Portsmouth, was the main naval depot in England. When I was a boy – I lived next to the beach – I used to go across the road for a swim and see the ships going in and out of the harbor. I went to a naval school when I was 11 years old and of course it was always planned that I would join the navy when I was old enough.  And that was what I did when I passed my examination and joined the navy as the artificer apprentice. I had done two years of the apprenticeship by the 1939 and when the war broke out I went to sea and fought the whole period war.


I was an artificer in the engine room department for the whole war and was lucky enough not to have been pushed into the water (Ben laughs).


What kind of feeling did you have towards Germany back then?


My feelings towards Germany? They were fighting us and we were fighting them. The desire to protect your home is a natural occurrence. I just went to sea and did what was required from me.


What did you think about Russia?


I didn’t even think about Russia before the war. I knew it was a country, a large country, not very rich, governed by a dictator… We knew it was not very democratic.


What about anti-Nazi feelings?


Not as such. Everybody knew that they wanted to expand. But apart from the political part it was of no importance. The war broke out – I was already in the Navy.


Which ships did you serve on and what was your duty?


The first ship I served on was a destroyer. My duty was the engine room department – maintenance, repairs. It was a relatively small ship and a happy ship – HMS Hotspur. I was only a young artificer at that time and still under training. As the war dragged on I qualified as a full time engine artificer.


Did you visit the USSR?


I did visit the USSR in Murmansk. I was already in the cruiser “Sheffield”.  I did several Russian convoys and went ashore in Murmansk when it was cold, wet, snowy and there was not much to do anyway. So we just went for a walk and came back to the ship. No pretty girls.


It’s a question asked pretty often – did you have a chance to mix with the Russian girls?


No, no. They were not social enough, were not interested in, really.


Did you meet Russian people?


Yes, we had a Russian concert party onboard, in one of our aircraft hangars – we carried aircraft…. “Walrus” aircraft. It was really a good concert.


Did you have a chance to talk to the Russian seamen?


No, not really. We got along well with them, there was no animosity. They were allies and we were helping them. I don’t think Russians were really inclined to mix with us. They seemed to be distant, you know. We didn’t talk Russian, their English was not that good. Officers, perhaps, were more interacting.


Which day of the war do you remember most?


I think when the war started – September the 3rd, 1939.


Actually, England entered the war because of the German invasion of Poland. England was not directly attacked. Do you think it was the right thing of your Government to do so?


Yes, it was.


What was your impression of the books “The Cruel Sea” and “HMS Ulysses”?


Yes, I’ve read “The Cruel Sea” and “HMS Ulysses” and I found them realistic.


Was there any exaggeration about the harshness of life on a cruiser during Arctic convoys?


Well, no, but the destroyers were better.




Oh, yes. It’s a smaller ship, everybody knows each other, everybody got along all right. I did two stints on “Hotspur”.


Please, tell me more about the conditions of life in “Sheffield”?


We were in a mess of about thirty – thirty artificers. There was a lot to do – keeping watch, doing repairs. But conditions were more relaxed on a small ship. You’ve got only 4-5 artificers in a mess and you know everybody – say 150 as opposed to 800 on a cruiser.


I’m asking about it because Ted Slinger and Geoff Taylor told me a lot about the harshness of life on destroyers, how cold, wet and they were all the time, how miserable was food…


But on small ships everybody knew everybody else, it’s more happy.


Did you have to chip ice off the upper deck?


No it was washed of by steam from a hose.


I’ve heard that British ships were overcrowded during the war because there was a lot more equipment that they were initially designed for. Is that right?


Oh, yes. A lot more people than you would have in peace time, but it was comfortable enough. In terms of food on destroyers you would have more choice, different conditions. If you had a good messman the food on a destroyer was better than on a cruiser.


How was your food compared to the rations of the civil population of England? Who was better of?


I think we were. We were rationed of course, but not so strictly.


What about alcohol?


We had a small shot per day – about 70 grams. Junior ranks would have it as grog – rum watered down. And in chief and petty officers mess we would drink it neat – it was much better. It was not allowed but you could keep it in a bottle…


Another question about “The Cruel Sea” – the situation with survivors in the water when a U-boat was depth-charged. Was it a real situation? 


It could have happened. If there was a definite contact with a U-boat they had to attack it. It was more important to get the U-boat…


Did you have any German POWs onboard of your ship during the war?


I remember we picked up a German airman from the water. We just took him onboard, made sure he was OK, and when we hit the port we handed him over to the military.


Please tell me what you feel like you want to tell.


I remember on one occasion Sheffield was based in Gibraltar and we were ordered to steam off to North African coast. Our task was to apprehend any merchant ships steaming to the African coast. When we got to a certain point to engage them, to question them, they were in their own territorial waters and the shore batteries fired on us and Sheffield returned the fire. The French didn’t like that and when we were steaming back to Gibraltar they sent out a few aircraft to bomb us. It was in 1942. They bomb us all the way to Gibraltar.


Did they hit you?


No, no. When we got back to Gibraltar the chief commander of the base said “you brought them in – you get rid of them”.


I did two stints on Hotspur. First was when I was only 19 – we went to Norway and took part in the first battle of Narvik. (Ben showed a painting on the wall) This is the first battle of Narvik, this is Hotspur.


Did she get any damage?


Oh, yes. About 17 killed after seven direct hits.


Did you lose any of your mates?


No, no. They were mostly seamen. Engine compartment is usually lucky enough to be protected…


How high was the spirit? The war had just broken out…


Oh, yes. I was destined to join the Navy and the spirit of British Navy was always high.


The Germans suffered heavy losses then. Did you take any survivors onboard?


Yes, I can remember once we did only to transport them to a British port.


Did you have a chance to talk to them?


No, no. They were kept under guard. After that I served as a senior artificer and the ship was mostly on the convoy duties – over to Newfoundland and between Ireland and Newfoundland.  


You served in “Sheffield” – a famous ship which took part in hunting down “Bismark”. Did you know that it was the mightiest ship in the world then?


Yes, of course. We shadowed “Bismark” and when the fog lifted they fired on us.


Was it scary?


M-m-m, I guess so. We were in the action station and could hear the fall of shot sounding like depth charges. I was off the watch in the engine room in the fore part of the ship on damage control… One of the near misses shattered the picture of the King and Queen on the wall of the wardroom. Their gunnery was pretty good.


Did you know that “Sheffield” was equipped by new radar?


Yes, we did. We were one of two ships, I think the “Rodney” would have it. We had it on the mast, we could see it. We knew that’s why we were so vital for the force of Gibraltar – force “H”.


Do you remember any Stuka attacks?


No, I don’t remember any, but we were under attack from the Italian high level aircraft in the Mediterranean. They were very good in high level bombing. We didn’t incur any damage only due to the good seamanship of the Captain. Seamen on the watch would report on any attack to the Captain and he would change the course. Had we been on the same course, we would have copped those bombs.


I was fortunate – I didn’t have to swim for life...


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