Vladimir Kroupnik


(OCTOBER 2003)


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


I was born in West Kirby in Cheshire in 1922. As a boy I wanted to join the Navy and my father was against it. When the war started I was on the way but my father refused to let me (refused to sign the paper). As soon as I was 18 I volunteered in Liverpool to be a telegraphist. I was not called up till July 1941 and then was sent to a former holiday camp at Skegnes Mess (HMS Royal Arthur). We did six weeks of seamanship and drill and then I was sent down to London. I was put to live in a private hotel and we did the first part of our wireless training at a commercial wireless school in Highgate, North London.


After that when we moved up to HMS Scotia which was located at Ayrshire (west coast Scotland). We finished our training there and went down to barracks in Portsmouth. Then I was drafted – it was a big draft - and went on a special train to Scotland and we pulled in Greennock on the River Clyde where the Scylla was moored. She was a brand new ship with a brand new crew and she did some of the working up and speed trials and all that. Then we went to Scapa Flow and did our sea trial. We were to go on what we knew as a foreign operation…


In early September we set out and went to Loch-Ewe (NW of Scotland) which was an assembly point for the Russian convoys, and from there we went to Iceland where a conference of the senior officers was held. When the convoy was already on its way we went up to join it. Before we joined we went with a number of destroyers to Spitzbergen, refueled and on Sunday the 13th September 1942 which was the day I will always remember we were coming up behind the convoy. I was on the frequency 500 kilocycles which was the commercial frequency and I picked up during the course of the watch three signals from merchant ships reporting periscope sightings. When we reached the convoy three merchant ships were missing…


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?



Before the war we knew what was happening in Germany, our politicians felt it was of no consequence, we had Moseley – a man in black shirt – people treated him as just a bit queer. Anyway, the war started, we knew that we had to fight them. I don’t think any of us really had any bad feelings towards the German people, but we did have it against Hitler because he was kind of a mad man, he wanted control over all Europe and then it would have been the world, wouldn’t it? And we were not happy about Nazis.


As to my experience, I felt that the German servicemen were very courageous. Their airmen attacked our ships and really had a go… I suppose ours were the same, but – you know - I felt admiration for them.  


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?


Russia was somewhat an unknown quantity, really. We knew it was a communist country and there were all sorts of stories about communism. I never had an opinion about her (Russia - VK) because I did not know enough about her. There were bad feelings about communists. There was a chap nearby who was a postman. He was a communist and went over to Spain to fight [against fascism – VK].


Did you know him personally? What kind of a man was he?


He was kind of withdrawn, did not mix with people at all. He seemed rather strange to us, but I never really had any kind of opinion about him. His children went to the same school as I did but he withdrew from people. He came back all right, he was not killed. We knew that the German aircraft were supporting them [the fascists – VK] in Spain, but we never got the full story.


I always tried to keep an open mind on things, you know… Although we called Stalin “Uncle Joe”, I suppose he murdered tremendous amount of people – terrible thing. Life is far too precious… 


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


I served on the Russian convoys on a light cruiser Scylla (Dido class), 5500 tons. Pretty high speed – she had four propellers. Once we did 43 knots, which was not that bad for the ship. The Dido class main armament consisted of 4 twin 114-mm guns plus two 4-barrel Pom-Poms and 8 20-mm Oerlikons. She was primarily an antiaircraft cruiser. She was a great ship: I never served in a better one and I never served with a better skipper – he was really brilliant. My duty when I first joined her was an ordinary telegraphist.


After PQ-18 we took part in the North African landings. Then, when we were in Algiers I took my next step telegraphist exam on the cruiser Aurora. We did various jobs in Mediterranean and got a lot of sprung plates because it all was riveted: near-misses had a lot to do with it and we had to go into dock. We left Algiers in late December 1942 and on the 1st of January 1943 we sank a merchant ship on the way back in the Bay of Biscay (it was German blockade runner  "Rhakotis" (6753 т displacement) on its way back from Japan - VK). We went into dock for four weeks and after that we sailed back to Scapa Flow. Out of there the ship joined JW53 which was another Russian convoy. It was very quiet – it was not too bad.


Unfortunately, in May 1943 with me having passed to a higher rate I was relieved by an ordinary telegraphist and I went back to barracks. Then I joined a little French ship – a small destroyer “Laflore” based in the Holy Loch on the Clyde to work with ASDIC ratings doing their final training. There was no enemy action. We used to pull out of the Clyde estuary every day, do exercises with submarines and then back to the moorings. I was up there for 12 months – I was a senior telegraphist.  


How did you communicate with the Frenchmen? Did you know French?


There were only two French engine room artificers in the crew. It was an ex-French ship incorporated into the Royal Navy. Amazing but I met one of them here in Australia only two years ago.


How did you get along with French? Did you feel any resent because they had pulled out of the war too early?


I think the French were still fighting Napoleonic Wars (George laughs –VK). They would go against anything if Britain was involved. We tolerated them, you know, but they were rather anti-British. I had certain feelings but not to these two. You know, they joined the Royal Navy and this particular one stayed with the Royal Navy for quite some time after the war, married an English woman and now they live over here (in Australia – VK). He is a nice little bloke - Gil Maury. But, you know, we took De Gaulle in and fitted out his Free French troops and all the rest of it and after that he was so damned arrogant! When he went back to France after the war he was said to be the Liberator of France. He was a very arrogant and self-opinionated man and when he became the President of France he would do anything against Britain.


So, there was a classroom built on the forecastle – two long benches with ASDIC repeaters on and thirty boys on at a time. We played war games. Each trainee was given a term in finding himself a submarine, getting a repeater signal and calling the ship onto the target. They would throw hand grenades over the stern and then the skipper of a submarine would report how many “hits” they had had.  


The signalman and I were recommended for leading rate. We went down to Portsmouth barracks and on the eve of D-day I joined an American-built frigate “Lawford”. After the landings on D-day we went on patrol leaving out at dusk and returning to anchorage at dawn. We did it the first night, we did it the second night and on the way back the pilot of a rocket-firing Typhoon aircraft thought we were an enemy ship and put two rockets into the starboard side and strafed us with his cannons…


We had to wake up for watch a person one rotated with as there was not enough room for accommodation onboard. I was late on watch because I was sleeping and they could not find me. They found me at about 4.30. I left my wallet, left everything behind and went quickly, took over and at 5 o’clock it happened.  All the lights went out, of course and sub-lieutenant in-charge said: “Switch the emergency lights on”. They came on. The wireless office door was twisted and jammed, so we had to go through the escape hatch. There were about twenty of us. We formed a queue and I don’t know how we did it but we did. Someone asked me afterwards that how I felt standing in that queue: “Were you afraid?” – “No”. – “What were you thinking about?” – “I was wondering how I would notify my mother that I was all right before she heard that my ship was sunk”.          


After the invasion I went back to signal school, did my Leading Hand course and got drafted to Colombo in Ceylon where I joined the destroyer depot ship HMS Tyne and came out here to the Pacific.


Did you take part in any anti-Japanese operations?


We did not get into any action. We went to the Leyte Gulf. There we had sentries all around the deck because the Japanese frogmen were still operating: swimming, trying to stick mines to the sides of the ships. The lads were given rifles and hand grenades and were told that if they saw anything moving in the water to shoot at it or throw grenades on it. During the night periodically you would here metallic bangs and the sentries did not hesitate to throw grenades into the water! It was amusing!


The Americans never acknowledged what we did in the war. They entered it two years late because the Japanese dragged them into it… We did quite a lot out here but nothing was said about it. Our aircraft carriers were involved in the raids on various islands. We had a fleet in the Indian Ocean tackling the Japanese… When we held our Memorial ceremony on the Monument Hill our chairman of the Royal Naval Association said that either through lack of information or ignorance most of Australians don’t even know we were out here. But over 500 British warships and about 25000 men served here. We had a submarine base in Fremantle, but, anyway it’s all beside it…


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


On JW53 which left early February 1943 we hit one of the worst gales which ever happened in the Iceland area. The Sheffield had the roof of one of the gun turrets folded back! We lost the aircraft carrier – she had to go back for repairs. Really apart from that it was reasonably quiet. There were a few Condors which came over to spot us. We pulled in Polyarnoe and anchored there. On the return one - RA53 – once we were out of range enemy aircraft – we were told that there were wolf packs waiting for us. I was on watch on the bridge and saw a Condor circling the convoy well out of range of the guns. He would dip and come up again. The skipper was speculating what he was doing and one suggestion was that he was dropping mines. As we kept on sailing and keeping an eye on him there was a merchant ship sailing immediately behind us and her guns opened up. We looked out and saw them shooting into the water! And then – puff! There was a circling torpedo and it still hit the ship – it sank. 


That was the only time I got to Russia. We did not go ashore in Polyarnoe and I had no chance to mix with the Russians at all. It was a bit disappointing but I heard that the conditions on shore were really bad as the German airfields were only in about 14 miles away from Murmansk. It was bombed constantly. It was rock bottom in regards to accommodation and all those sort of things. Those who had to go into makeshift hospitals were sleeping on boards with very little covering. Hospital staff was very much overworked. I only heard that from some of the guys who went ashore.


We had a Russian oiler which came alongside and it was crewed by women!


And what then?


Nothing (George laughs – VK)! Actually they were very tough-looking women and I should imagine their occupation had made them big and strong, you know. I don’t think they were allowed to communicate with us. Some of the guys would probably have tried but I wouldn’t.


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


It was September the 13th 1942 when the torpedo bombers came in and the 8th of June 1944 when we were sunk.


Were there any casualties when you were sunk?


I think it was about 80 lost – half of the crew. When we got back to the combined operations base we got four days leave and we were wondering what happened to the other half of communication group. The Wrens (Women Royal Naval Service) which were part of the staff came in the courtyard of this old country mansion. They were crying, saying how happy they were that we were alive (we only lost one of about 20 of the communication staff). It appeared that the rest of them had come up earlier and gone on leave and we got back later. We all met in Southampton when we came back off leave, went to the pub and had a good session.


I had an uncle in Portsmouth and one of the blokes knew him and told him: “I don’t think George made it” and put him very quickly out of nerve. I had to let him know soon that I was all right.


We were kitted out and mastered in the courtyard and the Captain (he was in charge of Group 1 Force J which was covering Juno Beach) stood there, walked up and down telling how fine men we were, how proud he was to serve with us and all the rest of it. He said: “I’m going back and want you to come with me. If any of you feel that you would rather not – don’t worry I won’t hold it against you – just take one step forward – I will understand”. We all knew we were going anyway and we all took a step forward – we were bloody well going whether we liked it or not! We had a laugh.


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


Yes, I read both books and I liked them. When I read HMS Ulysses I thought it was about the Scylla.


And the conditions during the Arctic convoys were really as bad as described in the Ulysses?


When we were within the range of the aircraft the attacks were really constant and as communication staff we could not drop down to the second rate of readiness. We got really tired as we had only half an hour off watch each day. Somebody would bring food from the galley, it usually consisted of baked beans on toast with a cup of hot chocolate. Outside the main office there was a big open area what we called a “flat” and there were cramped lobbies with very minor space to sleep. As soon as you close your eyes somebody would wake you up and say: “Come on. Back to watch”. We were like zombies after nearly a week of this. But we were not wet as opposed to the destroyers which really had hard times. Although we had condensation ice on the ceilings and walls and it was cold in the living quarters.


Did you to chip ice off the deck?


I didn’t. It was seaman’s work. I was in communications and we worked only in our department. If we were on the punishment we had to do duties.


If we return to “The Cruel Sea” and to the situation when a U-boat was depth-charged and the survivors in the water died, do you reckon it was justified?


You’ve got to know all the circumstances. As it was depicted in the film – yes, not so much you could do because that submarine was a menace, and there were occasions during the war when life was sacrificed.


During our convoy duty in the Mediterranean we were attacked in 80 miles from Tunicia, they used to bomb hell out of us – Stukas and high-level bombers. And on one convoy – I think we were leaving Bone – we were attacked and lost a sloop. We were not allowed to stop to pick up survivors because you put you ship in jeopardy. We went back there with a destroyer which was either the Meteor or the Milne. We started pulling the survivors aboard. They’d been in the water for 5 -6 hours, maybe. And when they saw us they started to sing a song or a ballad, cheering as best as they could since they were very weak. While we were pulling them aboard Jerry came over. They dropped flares and we were a sitting duck and our skipper ordered us away. And as we left they called all the “rotten bastards” sort of things. I’ve never found out what happened to them.


When we came to Gibraltar we came across the Americans straight out from the States and asked: When are you guys going to do something in this war? The war had dragged on for two years before they came in.


So, you had some bad feelings towards the Yanks?


Yes, we were nor very happy about them. They came to England, they took over. Same things happened here (in Australia). You go to a dance, ask a girl for a dance: “Oh, no, sorry”. And next thing she would with an American.


So, the girls were after the Yanks?


Yes. Money talks. Unfortunately, we had a few little rows with them. But I met some very nice blokes as well. You can’t paint all with the same brush.


Were you aware of the situation on the Eastern front during the war?


Well, when it happened Russia became an ally. We all were very conscious of what was happening there and we wanted the Germans out…


Did you have a chance to see your former enemies and allies after the war? If yes, what kind of atmosphere did it occur in?


I have met one or two Germans after the war, we never discussed it. They were very nice blokes. There was just one here in Perth who used to brag about having been in the Hitler Youth. He left his wife and lived with a young women. He was obviously that way inclined, you know. Once we had a drink and a chat and the next day he came to my place and said: “George, you have a very nice daughter, but she’s very naïve. I think I’ll take her out for a night to show what it is all about. I told him: Bill, do you see my hands (George showed his pretty big hands – VK)”. – “Yes”. – “If I catch you looking sideways of my daughter they will take you apart. When I finish with you won’t be interested in women”.


When I watch some documentaries it seems to me that some of the Germans still regret that they did not win the war. They say: It’s a pity we didn’t take Cairo… It’s a pity we didn’t sever this British-Russian link…


Quite a few of them do.


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


I enjoyed my time in the Navy. There were some bad times but I remember mainly the good times which were more frequent. War is no good to anybody. Nobody wins. Russia was devastated, Britain was virtually bankrupt after the war, France would not be much better off and Germany either. Money that could be spent on people’s welfare had been wasted and that I do not agree with. I would rather see no wars. But again Hitler would annex a country and then say: No further claims in Europe. Then after a while he would annex another country. It was an ongoing thing. Chamberlain came back on one occasion with a piece of paper saying that it will bring peace in our time. But all that was not going to be stopped by appeasement. After a while they would take another country. Something had to be done. There are times you have to go to war. God knows what would have happened to the world had they won.


The Japanese made a big mistake – they attacked Pearl Harbor. The Americans were dragged into the war. They made a lot of money out of that war. They sold supplies, weapons and materials to people at war. I have heard that they were selling weapons to Germany at the early stages of the last war. But America would be the final target if Germany took control over Russia and Europe.


War is senseless. But if you have a situation like we had with Germany and Japan you have to fight. What’s the use of turning another cheek? I used to do it when I was a kid and got the other one slapped too…


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