Vladimir Kroupnik


(AUGUST 2003)


Please tell a little bit about yourself.


I was born in London in 1921. When I was at the age of 15 there was a depression, not a lot of work for anybody to do and I eventually in early 1939 joined the Navy as a boy seaman. After the war broke out I went through the war serving in its various theatres and in one period of time – in convoys to Russia.


Apart from the Russian convoys I was involved in work in South Atlantic and Mediterranean. I was involved in a bit of land fighting in Norway. One of the ships I was on was Sheffield which was involved in escort duties during the Russian convoys when they started and we did quite a number of those. In 1942 on the way back from Murmansk we hit a mine off Iceland and were badly damaged but we managed to keep the ship afloat. Eventually the ship returned to England for repairs and I was transferred to another ship called HMS Ajax and went out to the Mediterranean theatre of war. Out there we were hit again in a harbour in North Africa and I was transferred to another ship HMS Dido. After serving in Mediterranean in Malta convoys we were transferred back to United Kingdom. We were then put on escort duties to the Russian convoys and we did a number of convoys with her. We were also involved in the surrender of German fleet in Copenhagen.


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


It was long ago… It depends on one’s age and when you are very young you don’t realize what was going on. I heard rumours, you read newspapers, but I don’t think that at that time I had any particular attitude towards the Germans or Germany. Obviously once I was in the service we were told that the war was about to be declared. Obviously as a serviceman my main duty was the defense of my country – I was in the navy and that was my job and that was all I was interested in. But as any personal feelings I think they intensified as the war went on. My city – London – was badly bombed and then one got a personal animosity towards the enemy and one desire was to finish them off.


England was not directly attacked by the Germans. England declared war on Germany because Poland had been attacked. Was it an absolutely right decision of the British Government to enter the war?


Yes, I do not have any doubts at all. Once it started my only ambition was to get it finished.


Please tell what you thought about Russia before the war, then during the Hitler-Stalin pact and after the German invasion into the USSR? How was it changing during the war?


In regard to what I think about Russia before the war we knew very little of it – only what we read in the books and the press about it. I got the impression I suppose that it was a very hard country, ruled fairly rigidly. We had no experience of the Russians or Russian life – only what we were told at schools.


So, you were given some kind of perception of Russia which was anti-communistic, I suppose…


Yes. And when I was young I got kind of a picture of Russia covered by snow and very cold which I found out to be true when I came to Murmansk (Dennis laughs – VK). At that time we didn’t do much traveling and didn’t know much about other places and people.


You mentioned Stalin-Hitler pact… It raised some concern and certain fears as to what might happen. After the Germans invaded Russia the perception was: They must be on our side now, we are supported. I suppose that was on the agenda, that’s what I would imagine we felt at that time.


What kind of ship did you serve on and what was your duty?


I served on cruisers. I was a boy seaman in the Sheffield and stayed there till 1942. I was electrician by trade and my main duty was gun controls, radio, explosives. I became a demolition expert (Dennis laughs – VK).


During the Norwegian campaign we put some troops on the ground but they were so outnumbered that they couldn’t last long so we were sent in to help evacuate them. We went ashore to cover them when they retreated. A part of my job was to blow up a couple of bridges. In my memory it was winter time, snow, and to try to win the war floundering around in the snow was hopeless. We were badly equipped and I still remember those young kids whizzing around on skis when we were struggling to get through the snow.


The Quislings were very active at that time. We were based in a school for a while and one day we were trying to brew some coffee or tea and a young girl came down form the farm with a bucket of goat’s milk. We thought it would be very nice to make our tea with it. So we put it on the fire and started to boil but a medical officer came past and asked: What do you have there? – Milk. And he said: It’s full of arsenic, as he could smell it.


So, they wanted to poison you?




What was the general attitude of Norwegians towards you? We they hostile?


No-no. They were friendly but this was an element of Quislings and she (the girl – VK) was one of them and any opportunity they got they had a go on us…


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


The only time I stepped on the Russian soil was in Murmansk when we were refueling. Any contacts we had were very limited. I think it was a period of time of suspicion between the Russians and us as the Second front had not started yet. I suppose in a way they were resentful – they didn’t think we had done enough. I could understand their feelings: they were facing the bulk of the German army and got a lot of hammering and what could appear we took only a few ships out there and they were hoping to have a bit of land support. But, again, it all depends of what they were told, the same with us. When you get down to the lower levels you can only form your opinion of what you are told. Some time the information you were given was very selective. But we had no trouble with people we got in contact with.


Did you have a chance to talk to some Russians?          


Not really. Funny enough most of the contact was made with a supply ship, you see. Most of the crews were women! In  fact we were frightened as they were big women with muscles (Dennis shows how big muscles were and laughs – VK).


Did you or any of your mates have a chance to mix closely with Russian women?


Not really. No.


Were the women interested in?


No, we had only a very short period of time ashore. There was no chance anyway.


And those women were your only chance to socialize with the Russians?


We were allowed to go down to get a certain point of view but, I suppose, there was a certain attitude of suspicion and they were told not to fraternize. It’s quite understandable.


What about later on when you served in the HMS Dido?


No. We pulled in only once for a couple of days to refuel and that was it.


I also served on HMS Ajax but only for a month. We were sunk in a harbour in North Africa.


Dennis shows photographs:


These photographs of the V-Day were taken when we sailed into Copenhagen to accept the surrender of the Northern Fleet. These are German senior officers on the deck of “Prince Eugene”, here they are coming onboard of HMS Dido to surrender. When we were there General Montgomery came over for a review.


Once we were there we were the first Allied force to get into Copenhagen and we were given a task of clearing the city of the Germans left there. We joined the local resistance group and were allocated to the leader of one of them. When we got there he turned out to be a woman! She was a reporter in a newspaper and also the leader of a Resistance group. She took us around the city to chase up those people – the Quislings. And she was ruthless! She shot many of them…


Did you see that?


Yes. She shot quite a few. That’s she on this photo…


This is a photograph taken during one of the Arctic convoys – typical freezing conditions. This guy is chipping ice off.


Ben Titheridge showed me a photograph with them washing ice off by steam from the engine room. But there was ice chipping as well?


Oh, yes. These are photos with damage done to the boats by the waves…


This photo was taken during the Spanish conflict. We were picking up refugees and taking them down to Gibraltar. And you see we had to put our colors on top of the turrets just to make sure they (hostile aircraft – VK) knew who we were. These are photos taken mostly in Mediterranean during the convoys. This is an air attack from the Italian Air Force – pattern bombing from great heights. These all are near misses. This is a German supply ship we sank in the North Atlantic and these are the survivors we picked up.


Did you have a chance to socialize with those Germans?


No. But we treated them well, buried them well. We had no trouble with them.


This is a photo of Sheffield taken from another ship, these are shells from the Italian ships. You can see they were close enough. This is me at work (Dennis is lying under a torpedo and fixing it up – VK). And this is a piece of shrapnel from the Bismark which whizzed beside me (Dennis showed a photo with a large hole in a mast – VK).


Which day of the war do you remember most? Please tell about it.


We were based in Gibraltar to cover convoys mainly in the Mediterranean and we got a call that the Bismark was out in the Atlantic and had just sunk the Hood. So we were detached from Gibraltar to cover the escape route to the South Atlantic. When we left Gibraltar we were about 3000 miles away from Bismark. Within three days we were within 3000 meters detached to shadow the Bismark and we were in a couple of miles from her in extremely bad weather to keep in touch until the main fleet came up. There was a very heavy snow storm and we hit it. When we got out of it on the other side of the snowstorm the Bismark was lying broad side on. From the range of 3-4 thousand meters she opened fire on us with all her main armament. Six shells fell – 4 on the starboard side, 2 on the port side within about two hundred meters. Top part of the ship was peppered with shrapnel. Couple of people was killed but we suffered no main damage. And a chunk of shrapnel went past my ear. An amazing side of it was that the Bismark was accompanied by Prince Eugene which was very similar to our HMS Sheffield and a carrier which came up with us to launch aircraft to attack the Bismark. And again because of the weather they took us for the Bismark and dropped six torpedoes on us. But luckily the torpedoes were set a bit too deep ready for the battleship and they went underneath us!


So, they were shot well? I read that they just missed the target but they went underneath! Did you see that?


Oh, yes.


Was it scary?


Of course, you should have heard our captain what he told about it. All possible swearing in the world. Those were Swordfish. How they took off in that weather, God knows. It was an atrocious weather…


Was the whole action scary? The Bismark then was the mightiest ship in the world…


Oh, yes. We knew it was very well built. The thing which let them down – poor sea training. The crew was inexperienced. They did not have any experience of bad weather, manning weapons, firing in bad weather. They were raw, really. It did not stop them of doing damage – they had a lucky hit on the Hood… We were respectful of the way they built their ships but they were inexperienced. Their submarines were different. They put their surface ship to sea very seldom for training so we had an advantage there.


Another day I remember was V-day in Europe. We were just sailing up towards Copenhagen and ran into a minefield and two of our men got killed. That was very tragic – to go right through the war and get killed…


After I was transferred to Ajax we moved to the…. harbor in the Mediterranean for anti-aircraft protection. We were only in an hour of flying from Sicily and of course the Germans  were flying over 24 hours a day – Stukas.


Was it scary? For many people it was the most horrifying experience in the whole war – the Stukas’ attack…


Exactly. One day they came across and, believe it or not one bomb went down the funnel and blew out in the boiler underneath. It rested us on the bottom of the harbor. You wouldn’t see even a bit of damage. We were there for three weeks trying to get the ship afloat again. Anyway, we got to the sea again and were towed to Algiers and they were going to take the ship to America for repairs. It would be very lovely – to spend six months in America. We were waiting to go but HMS Dido went to Algiers and they were short of a specialist electrician. I was the only one available and was transferred to the Dido. And we went straight back to the harbor – to the very place we were just sunk!


We went right through the North African campaign with the army, landing commandos, we landed a raid on the Southern France coast. They were from the Foreign Legion. Their job was to silence some gun batteries before the invasion.


France pulled out of the war and surrendered to the Germans. What was your feeling about the French? Did you feel any resent?


Yes, there was a lot of anti-French and anti-Belgian sentiment. They caved in too early. There was a lot of it even after the war and I don’t think many Britons forgave them, really.


Despite the fact that many French fought alongside the British in Palestine and Africa even before the Allied landing in Algiers?


Oh yes, even today in England there is a certain amount of resentment.


What about the Yanks?


We worked with them in many convoy operations and we got along with them very well. We were envious of their facilities on their ships, the way the crews were looked after. But we used to dread to do any close work with them because they were a bit trigger-happy (Dennis laughs – VK). They would open fire with a slightest excuse. We probably got more damage from them than we did from the enemy at a time. If they had a radar report on the aircraft even twenty miles away they would open fire even from their small arms. They used to close their eyes and pull the trigger swinging the guns around.


Were you hit by their fire?


Oh yes. They were terrible.


Did you have a chance to socialize with the Yanks onshore?


Yes, of course. There was normal rivalry, you know, a few punch-ups in the bar but nothing serious (Dennis laughs – VK). Funny enough we used to get into trouble with the Australians very often, but never serious.


I believe you read the books “The Cruel Sea” and “HMS “Ulysses””. What was your impression?


I found these books reasonably realistic.


Was there a bit of exaggeration, especially about the conditions in the Arctic convoys in the “HMS “Ulysses’”?


Yes, there was. I also remember in the “Cruel Sea” movie they seemed to be dressed in their best uniform all the time. A bit funny.


Another question. What do you think about the situation when a U-boat was depth charged and survivors in the water killed? Was it justified?


Yes, I think so at the time. Again, at war thing are happening you would never consider. It was not unusual as it was not unusual for the German aircrafts to machine gun the survivors from sunk merchant ships.


Did you witness it?


No, I didn’t but it was recorded.


Please tell about the war what you would like to tell.


There are no rules at war once it starts. Your object is to destroy the enemy, however. This is it – kill or be killed. From the Navy point of view we saw the enemy very seldom as oppose to within the army. What killing we did was at a long distance.


I volunteered to join the service before the war at a very young age. We knew the war was coming. Then you get more experience and make your own opinion. We were told what to do and we did. And I can honestly say at time I had no feelings towards people we were killing. We bombarded coastlines and stuff like that… We did a lot of damage to the coast in the North African and Italian campaigns. We bombarded Genoa and I knew we were killing people but I knew that was our job. Perhaps after the war when everybody gets more material you are more timid about that. War is war – what can you do? You give in or you fight for what you believe in. At the time we believed we were defending ourselves. And the Russian believed in that when they were defending Stalingrad to the last man…


Back to contents