Vladimir Kroupnik


Chairman  Arctic Convoy Veterans Association, Perth, Western Australia


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


I was born in Bradford, Yorkshire. I joined the Navy because of the war - that was the only reason. A holiday camp was taken over by the Navy where 1 did the usual training, like learning to row in the swimming pool!  I was trained as a telegraphist and my first ship was a trawler based at Lowestoft and used for mine sweeping. There was no sleeping accommodation on board so we were billeted in an empty hotel - the only meals we had were spam and chips which we had three times daily! I can still eat it - believe it or not!


I was then transferred to Kyle of Loch Alsh in Scotland, a beaut­iful place to join one of the 50 Yankee lease-lend destroyers re­named H.M.S. Wells. As a telegraphist, the higher the grade you obtained qualified you to a smaller ship where there were greater responsibilities, we were to escort two minelayers the 1st mine-laying squadron - and we laid mines in the Denmark Straights from Greenland down to Iceland in the Arctic.

This was my first trip into the Arctic and as a consequence of the atrocious violent and freezing weather, I was very sea-sick. An old hand gave me good advice to get up on the upper deck and in order to dodge the heavy seas coming in-board I had my meals under the tor­pedo tubes.  We were glad of the long underwear - real passion kill­ers - to keep us warm - the temperature being 50 below zero and the waves 80-90 feet high. You were cold and wet most of the time. After laying the mines, the two mine-sweeping cruisers left at high speed to return to base. Due to the heavy weather and our slower speed we arrived at the base two days later.

As the ship was due for a boiler-clean I was transferred to a V & W destroyer H.M.S. Wrestler. This was an old ship built about 1918. We saw service in the Mediterranean and returned to the U.K in Dec­ember for our first convoy to Russia. These were an absolute night­mare because of the high seas, freezing temperatures, U-boats and constant air-attacks. One of the big problems was the icing up of the guns and equipment on the upper deck - the spray coming in-board turning to ice which had to be constantly chipped away to prevent the balance of the ship being upset.  I took part in seven convoys to Russia - another shipmate did twenty-one!

We came eventually to D-day. Most of the destroyers including the "Wrestler" which had taken part in the Russian convoys took part in that invasion on the 6th June 1944. Later on that date we hit a mine and took no further part. After being picked up I returned to Ports­mouth and was drafted on a new frigate - H.M.S. Loch Achray and joined the East Indies Fleet until the end of the war, returning to base in the U.K, prior to discharge.

What was your feeling about Germany back then and was there an anti-Nazy sentiment?

We were very young men back then, only 18. We knew that Hitler and Germany wanted to take over Europe and so forth. Neville Chamberlain the Prime Minister, was the kind of individual who could be described as a weak sort of man, easily manipulated. It was a good thing they replaced him with Churchill. Without Churchill England would have gone under.  It was his leadership, his determination, his speeches, that kept Britain going at that time.

Germany?  I didn't have much against Germans. Their leaders were the problem and the regime that was in Germany at that time. Ideological anti-Nazi feelings? I was not aware of them that much,  but in 1937-38 we began to get concerned, all those marches were taking place – and it became obvious that something was going to happen. It eventually did and our feeling changed then very much to the anti-Nazy


What did we think about Russia before the war?


We did not have much information about Russia. We new that Stalin was a hard sort of lad in Russia at that time. It was relief to us to find out that Germany invaded Russia. It had a great effect on the result of the war and it also brought Britain and Russia together, and it was the start of the Russian convoys.


What kind of relationships did you have with the Russians?


We were on small ships. We never went past Polyarnoe and there was not much to see. We only had a few hours ashore just to have a look around the place. We were not welcomed all that well by the local people. They were seemingly mistrustful of us. We never talked to each other – there was no provision made. We were not invited to their homes, we were not allowed to go out of the area – there could be a trouble with the army, with the guards… I can remember a later visit when things had changed since the earlier days. The decided to get on a little bit better with us… There was a concert party. We did have an aircraft carrier with us, on of the ones converted from merchant ships. The concert was held in a hangar of the carrier and we were allowed to send two people from each mess. We had about 10 messes onboard, so about 20 blokes went on that ship.  I never got there so I have no idea what happened. I know that when the concert was over the blokes began to clap their hands and whistle they did not know it was a sign of misappreciation in Russia.


How did we get along with the Russians? We did to a degree, but it was very difficult because of the language. When you meet somebody in the street what do you say? But once we did bring some Russian seamen with us, and that was very interesting. Two of them were placed into each mess of the destroyer. By the end of the trip we were able to speak quite a bit of Russian, and he – of English and we found it very entertaining. I gave one of them my hammock billet. We found them very amusing blokes. We got along very well together.


What was the aim of their trip to England?


They were going to UK to bring back another ship. An American battleship was handed over to the Russians… I was on watch that particular day when they took the Russians onboard to give them an idea. They were on the way back and I was watching them and noticed that they were moving too fast. I felt there was going to be some trouble. They slowed down at the very last moment but hit the jetty and there was timber flowing all the way around! I never saw that ship again but that was very amusing.


Which day of the war you remember the most?


There were, probably, several of them. I will always remember the first day of the war when Chamberlain said, “This country is at war”. We were only young then and no one knew what was to come and how long it was going to last. ..


The other one was, probably, the first Russian convoy… The next one – D-Day. Then we hit a mine and that was the end of it and I didn’t see anymore of the invasion. 


Did you like the books “The Cruel Sea” and “HMS Ulysses” and wasn’t there a bit of exaggeration in them?


I quite liked them. There is a little bit of exaggeration, but unless you’ve experienced these hardships yourself… I remember seas 80 foot high and our ship coming up and literally falling down like this (Geoff showed it falling forward nearly vertically – VK)… Three of us had to wash the mess – one held the bucket, another – the mop, and another one was washing the floor… There was exhaustion, very little sleep. A little bit is overdone, but not really, it’s true. I don’t say that relationships between the captain and the crew was that terribly close, we knew each other, but you don’t see much of the captain, you’ve got your own job, you’ve got your own officers, not  that much of supervision – you do what you’ve got to do.


“The Cruel Sea”.  I think sometimes it would have happened, I think, you mean those survivors in the water… The submarine was more important. It was only at that war. It may have happened…


But those seamen were foreigners, and, if you remember, it was emphasized in the movie… Do you remember foreigners in the convoys? Were there any foreigners in your crew? What was their nationality?


There were a few of them. I remember Norwegians.


French? Polish?


We had French and Polish ships working with us. We had crews to help the language problems.


In “The Cruel Sea” there were Australians mentioned. Do you remember any Australians in your crew?


Yes, two or three on our destroyer. It was quite common.


Did you have a chance any of your former enemies or allies after the war?


No, I did not.


I went back to England and joined the police force there. Jobs were not easy to come by. A lot of people were looking for a job at that time, jobs, which were no longer required. Jobs on ammunition factories, all that kind. Many factories were bombed, car factories and alike. Eventually I came to Australia in 1946. I resigned from the metropolitan police in London and joined the police force here. I couldn’t see much future there.


I worked in the East End of London which was a rough place at that time. I was not lucky enough to get a job in A, B or C division which worked in all those glamour parts of London.


Dulstone was a place a couple of miles away, and there used to be political meetings there. It was held there since it was a Jewish section. A lot of Jews lived there. It was a rough place to start with. This bloke, Oswald Mosely’s right hand man and his name was Geoffrey Ham. I will never forget this bloke. I remember him saying in one of his speeches: There isn’t such a thing as a British Jew, an Eskimo Jew or a German Jew. There is one Jew who is a Jewish Jew and we don’t like him!” And then the crowd erupted, fighting was going on… I said to a bloke who was standing next to me, a little Jewish bloke, “Get out of here. Look, there’s going to be a big upheaval here. Get out before I’ve chucked you out!” I told him two or three times, then I grabbed that silly idiot but he hit kicked me on the shins. Eventually he got 4 months of jail for that, for the assault on police…


Please tell whatever you want about your experience?


One thing that really came back to mind was one in the Atlantic convoy. I never got as far as America… We would go half way and then turned around. One occasion stuck in mind till the rest of my life. A merchant ship was torpedoed, we picked up the crew and shortly afterwards I spoke to one of the crew. He was from Liverpool and the convoy was going that way. It was pay and that sort of thing we were talking about and he said that the moment his torpedoed ship went down his pay stopped. I could not believe, but then I asked many others and it was in their contracts. That fellow lost everything, and I never forgot it. What a rotten system we must have had that would do that…


The conditions onboard were absolutely dreadful. Overcrowding was one of the biggest problems we had on destroyers.  They had double the crew they had at the normal peace time. We were on 4 hours on, 4 hours off roster, and 4 hours was the maximum amount of sleep you would possibly get. The first ship I joined was the American destroyer HMS Wells, a very good destroyer. Depending how long you’ve been on board of the ship you’d progress to a position for sleep. If you were only new you’d sleep in a hammock. The next bone slept on the lockers. The next one slept on the table. The next one slept on the deck. When the first rain came in and I was wet through. It all came through the hatch… I spent nearly a year on that ship and graduated to the lockers…


The other problem we had on American destroyers was amount of sulfur sucked down the air vents (there was no air-conditioning). We woke up ill because of the bad design of those ships. The design was bad and the conditions were dreadful.


On destroyers there was only one cook for 180 men. We received certain foods from the stores like flour, sultana, tea, coffee, sugar. You would prepare it and bring it to the galley and it would be cooked for you. By the end of each month we received a mass bill – the amount of money you had spent on food. If you had spent less there would be mess savings. Believe you or not at the end of the month we would get mess savings. But the food was actually dreadful onboard of those ships.


How did you eat compared to the British civil population – better or worse?


A lot worse.


We used to take bread at ports – Scottish ports like Glasgow or Clyde – as much bread as we could. And it was mouldy in a couple of days. We used to put it into a dish and eat it with sugar and sultana. That what we used to eat.


Some ships, particularly cruisers would bake bread and some was given to the destroyers. But we were in about seven miles from the cruisers and we never got any bread from them.


The food was dreadful, and if you wanted to eat extra variety you would buy it in N.A.F.F.I. It was particularly dreadful in the early days, towards the end it improved. Our daily allowance for meals was 1.11 ½ per day.


What about alcohol?


We had a rum tot at 11 o’clock every morning. Only a little – about 50 grams. They poured water in it to break it down. The reason for it was that after that you couldn’t keep it. It was the only thing which was worth living for. Believe you or not but eleven o’clock in the morning was the highlight of the day!


The most sleep you could get was only three hours. We had problems in getting water. I remember – this was actually in the Mediterranean – down there for the invasion of Sicily. We had one water tap and it was locked. I found out possibly from somebody that if you hit it from the bottom and pumped it you would get a dribble of water out of it. It was sticky hot on this particular occasion. I was on the watch which was from 8 o’clock at night till midnight… The ship was quiet, everybody was down below. I kicked it from the bottom and pumped it, and the officer of the watch came down. “What are you doing, Taylor?” I got seven days of punishment when you do all your work in your spare time – the hardest punishment you could get on a ship – for stealing about that much water.


Was it justified, what do you think?


I’ll tell you what – it was a nightmare. I should not have done it. I knew it was a wrong thing to do. That’s how severe the conditions were! No way on earth there would be any ships today with shortage of drinking water. There were too many people on board – much more than it was built for to start with. We were on two watches – 4 hours on, for hours off and 3 hours was that amount you could sleep.


Can you tell me about any action against, say, enemy airplanes or U-boats?


The first what comes to mind is the invasion of Sicily. On of the battleships, I think, it was Warspite, started bombardment. There was tremendous noise like of coming train, noise of shells flying over the ship we were about at six hundred yards….


Another funny one I remember was during the first Russian convoy. We all brought onboard our long underwear. One of the stokers used to be a jockey - a very small guy. When he got issued with his long johns he standing on the mess table managed to button the waist above his head. And there were howls of laughter from the rest of the crew!


The moral was very high but some officers who had come from RNVR (particularly the first lieutenant) were very inflexible, they would get upset about minor things that were irrelevant like chips of paint missing, etc.


We used to have problems with German long range aircrafts which were circling the convoys out of the range of our AA guns. They were reporting our position to the U-boats. And once a senior officer said to me: ‘Signal the bastard to circle it in the other direction – it makes me dizzy’. And the German did it! It was quite amusing.


On one occasion we came back to Scapa Flow and one the shipmates found out that all his family died in a bomb shelter in London. That’s why when we were on duty no news from home was broadcast over the ship even though the communication people were able to listen to radio news from England. The reason for was not to undermine moral. The only time they would give you news was when it was a moral booster.


You would here about other destroyers in other convoys being sunk and you look at the hull of the ship next to you and you would think that there is only one quarter of an inch of plate between you and a next torpedo. The only thing stopping you dwelling on being killed was the activities of the mess deck.


We were issued with chocolate which had lumps of white fat in it. Each sailor had a knife he had to carry and we would shave the chocolate with the knives to make a hot drink. It was my turn to go down to the galley to get boiling water and as I got to the bottom to the stairs to the galley the ship rolled badly. I grabbed the stanchion at the base of the stairs to brace myself. When I got back with the boiling water one of my shipmates asked where from all the blood came from. It happened because the palm of my hand had got frozen to the stanchion and because I was not wearing gloves. And I could not go and get treatment as I should have carried gloves…


Icing was a big problem. We would have to chip it off every 4 hours and traverse the guns to stop the mechanism freezing. There were records of smaller ships capsizing and once a Russian destroyer with too much ice on her superstructure went down as well. On one trip we had a scientist onboard who was experimenting with anti-freeze grease. By the time he recovered from sea sickness all the grease he had smeared over the guns had been washed away and so he was unable to observe the effects of his experiment. Ice did not effect bigger vessels – cruisers and larger were not effected so badly…


 In Polarnoye when we on watch at night we had to patrol the wharf around the ship. And one night I noticed a bloody great bear amongst the crates. I went to get some friends to deal with it but when we returned we saw the Russians leading the bear away on board of a Russian destroyer because it was their mascot!


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