Vladimir Kroupnik




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


My name is John Hughes – it’s a Welsh name, but I was born in the south of England in 1920. I left school when I was 13 and half and I worked two or three jobs before I went to a sea training school in Liverpool. I was there for nine months before I joined the Royal Navy and I signed for twelve years. I traveled the world: I left England before the war in 1938 on a two year commission. We were based in Ceylon when the war broke out and we went to the Mediterranean to cover convoys to Malta


I finished in the Royal Navy in 1946 and re-joined the New Zealand Navy in 1948 for a three year contract. When I finished my contract with the New Zealand Navy the dockers in Auckland were on strike and they called in the Army, Navy and Air Force to the docks. When it was over they locked the old wharfies out and started a new water front and I stayed there for thirty eight years right up until the time I retired.


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


I was on the cruiser called “Liverpool” as an Oerlikon gunner. I started my Russian convoys in about April… May or June 1942 and I did four trips to Russia. On the fifth trip we were just about to sail to Murmansk but were recalled for a convoy to Malta


The worst enemy to contend with on the Russian convoys was the weather because we used to go up to the Arctic Circle before we had a run to Archangel. During one trip to Russia and back – it would take about four weeks - we had a shower only three or four times. Each morning all the bulkheads and deck were covered by ice – the ship was like an iceberg. At the time we came to Archangel it was night and we woke up in the morning we were frozen in and had to wait for a Russian icebreaker to let us out!


I only went to Archangel once and Murmansk three times. Once in Murmansk we lost four of our crew after going ashore and drinking too much vodka. It was extremely cold, they collapsed and froze to death!


Were any measures taken to prevent it?


After that we were not allowed ashore.


After the Russian convoys we also went to Canada and it was just as bad because we still had to go up to the Arctic Circle. (John shows a photo taken in icy waters of the North Atlantic – VK).


Who did the unlucky sailors drink with?


With the local blokes. I went ashore myself but didn’t get drunk that much.


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?


I didn’t have much to do with the Germans. I disliked them. They were a very arrogant race. Same with the Japanese. I was in the Navy in 1938 when they had the crisis and the Prime Minister of England (Chamberlain) came home saying ‘no worry, don’t trouble, peace in our time’. But we knew that a war would break out soon, we didn’t believe him…     


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?


I did not really know much about Russia and I had no feelings about Russians. After the war started I became very sympathetic with them. Actually, in late 1939 we visited Vladivostok and stayed there for a couple of days. The atmosphere of the visit was fine, we went ashore, socialized a bit with the locals and they were very friendly to us.


OK, but during the war? Were you aware of the situation on the Eastern Front?


I don’t remember, I didn’t even think about it, really…


Do you remember any attacks of Stukas?


Most of the air raids on the Russian runs were high level ones. The Stukas were coming over when we were not far from Murmansk and it was quite terrifying. We didn’t have aircraft carriers during Russian convoys then. We had merchant ships with catapults to launch a Hurricane or a Spitfire. It would go up, shoot a couple of planes down and when it would run out of fuel or ammunition the pilot had to bail out. It happened a couple of times when I was, actually, in the boat crew. We picked the pilots up after seeing them coming down. The first one we got alive after we’d pulled him out, the second one was dead, probably, because of cold...


We were torpedoed on the big Malta convoy not far from Sicily. We had to carry to seaplanes and the tanks fuel for them exploded and blew off the whole bows. (John shows the photo – VK). After that we could do only four knots and it took us five days to get to Gibraltar. For three days they never left us alone. We had U-boats, we had Stukas, we had torpedo-bombers. How we managed to get back I don’t know… On the stern of the ship I saw a torpedo going past and it missed by that much (John shows a distance between his thumb and forefinger – VK).


Did you shoot down any of the attacking aircraft?


Yes, I did… Only once.


Did you feel any hatred towards the Germans at that time?


Well, it was a war and they were just our enemy… When I was on the HMS Lulworth – an ex-American coastal cutter - we damaged a German submarine off the Azores on the way to Cape-Town. It pulled up and we had a gun battle with her! We finally sank them and out of the whole crew there were fourteen survivors. We took them to South Africa and tried to get rid of them but they didn’t want to know as they didn’t have the facilities to hold them. We had to bring them all the way back to Northern Ireland to Londonderry.


Did you have a chance to talk to any of them?


To start with there were some real Nazis amongst them. We pulled them out of the water on deck and they saluted us ‘Hail Hitler’ (John shows the Nazi salute – VK). What we did then – we pushed them back in the water! When we took them on board again one us said: “You salute this way (John showed normal way of army saluting – VK), not that way”. We had them under lock and key for about two or three days and brought them up by two at a time to exercise and at the finish they were really good!


When we came to Aberfoyle at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning the army came aboard to take them and they wanted to blindfold them. We said: “No, forget about it! They may think they’re gonna be shot!” (John laughs – VK).


Did you have a chance to talk to those Germans?


Only through the interpreter…


What was that about?


You know – mainly families, where they lived in Germany


John, you, obviously, were coming back to England from time to time, you saw bombed cities, found out about casualties among civilians? Did your feelings towards the Germans change?


Oh, yes. Not only that. We found out about atrocities in occupied countries, not only to the Jews but to other people. They would shoot half a dozen civilians for one killed German soldier in retaliation. Personally now I hate their guts, I have no time for them… Same for the Japanese. We took over the surrender of the Japanese in Hong Kong and I saw the POWs, mainly British. I was on the submarine parent ship and we took nearly 500 of them to Fremantle (Seaport near Perth, Western Australia – VK). They were in a shocking state – they couldn’t walk.


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


We didn’t have much time in the USSR. On the third run we were tied up to a buoy in Murmansk, in the river. We had a big Russian tanker coming alongside to refuel us. I was on the watch from midnight to 4 in the morning – actually, on duty on the brow – little brow going between our ship and the tanker. Every member of the crew of that tanker was female! And there was a young girl who was the sentry on the tanker, she had a rifle. I wanted to talk to her but she would point her rifle at me: she wouldn’t let me go to the tanker!


Later on I decided to make myself a hot drink and a bit of toast and so I did. On the toast I had some sardines and she could smell it. And her lips were drooling! I said: “You like some?” She nodded. I had to go to the mess deck to get some more sardines. I was due to hand it over to her, when the officer on the watch came out. She took it but afterwards that I was in trouble because I had broken the regulations. The officer on the watch (lieutenant) reported on me but I got away with it, not even with a critical comment from the commanding officer. When they finished we sent two or three cases of herring or tinned fish to the tanker – the captain ordered to do that. 


Did you hear about brothels for the Allied seamen in Murmansk or Archagel?


No, absolutely, nothing.


Please, tell me more about your drinking parties with the Russians. Were there naval seaman or civilians? What did you talk about?


They were civilians… We could not go too far from the ship, it was on the docks. In every port in every country there are pubs or bars or drinking places for seamen. The same was in Murmansk. Some of the locals could talk English. We talked about different things. It was so long ago… We were very friendly to each other. A Navy chap travels the world. He is friendly to any other chap.


Oh, I want to tell you one thing! When we were in Russia every morning they played the Russian national anthem. And we were singing as well. Let me remember: “Keep the red flag flying high…” (John sings – VK). We used to sing it, but the officers didn’t like it. They didn’t like it for a minute. Then we sang the British national anthem.


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


I guess the day the war ended. I was on the submarine parent ship here, in the Pacific, in Luzon. We had one flotilla – four submarines, and the Americans had their own flotilla and a parent ship. The submarines would come back and her crew would come on board the parent ship and relax while the so called spare crew would do the maintenance work on the submarine…


We were really happy when the war ended. There was a lot of drinking. We were lucky because they used to send a merchant ship up from Australia full of beer. We used to have a bottle of beer every night in addition to our rum issue. The Americans were dry – they didn’t have any alcohol at all, they had only coca-cola and soft drinks. They used to come aboard of our ship and we used to give them rum. We used to water it down a bit (John laughs – VK) but they loved it!


What was your impression of the Yanks?       


I didn’t have much time for them then, I have even less now. They went to Iraq when everybody said “No”, and now they want the rest of the world to help them out!


The Americans were typical blow-outs. “We are from the best country in the world, we are the best fighters…” But they had a lot of money. Say, in Hong-Kong shortly after the war finished the prices in brothels went up three times after the Yanks had come in! But many of them were decent people. When we lost our bows we went over to America to a navy dockyard up the river from San-Francisco. We were there for three or four weeks before we went back to UK and the local people couldn’t do enough for us. We were invited to the local homes, breweries, we had free beer, Once some locals dragged some of us to their cars out of the bar we were drinking in and drove us to the local music-hall to listen to the Andrews Sisters! They were wonderful people.


And it was the same when half of the crew went to New-York by train. Wherever we stopped it was the same.


Once on the HMS Versatile we went to the North Atlantic and ran into the Force 8 gale. We had a new Lieutenant-Commander then and he would not slow down. The boats were washed overboard, the depth charges were swinging around. We lost six blokes over the side. After we got back to London he (Lieutenant-Commander) was court-martialled and I was one of the chief witnesses ‘cause I was on the wheel when the Captain ordered me to turn around and go back to Ireland. The First Lieutenant said: “Disobey the order, stay where you are!” But we turned around and, actually, got back with one third of the ship flooded. I don’t know how we got back but we did it. The Lieutenant-Commander lost his command and he lost five years of seniority, in other words, he could not get promoted for five years which was really bad for an officer. And he deserved it only because he ordered to turn around instead of cutting across the rough seas.


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


I read these books and found them realistic.


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


(After a long pause John shows a photo – VK). This is an Italian destroyer we chased it and finally sank. But before that there was another one and there were survivors in the water. We were chasing this one and we never altered our course – we went through them. I suppose many people died… We could not muck about – we were after another one.


But, John, I am talking about a different situation. There were survivors from an Allied merchantman in the water and the captain ordered to depth charge a U-boat. Would you have done it yourself if you were the Captain?


It’s very-very difficult to say… I don’t know. I would not like to do it myself. But it could have happened…


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’ve never come across any Germans after the war. During my years on the docks in Auckland I worked on half a dozen Soviet ships. I had a lot of sympathy from the Russian seamen through being on the Arctic convoys…


We used to play soccer with the crews of the Russian ships which were mainly coming to load wool. We could not invite them to get together with us for coffee, tea or sandwiches. All the Russian ships had a commissar and they had to be very careful... Some of the Russians spoke English and in one case I was invited for a dinner on board of one of the Russian ships. We were sitting down and the meal was brought in, but nobody would start and I could not understand why – they wanted me to start first! They were very friendly and we had a great time.  


Was it during the Cold War?


Yes, maybe in 1951.


Obviously, it was an uneasy time for such a contact?


The Cold War was between America and Russia and I was on the Russian side.


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


It should never ever have happened, I mean World War Two. Trouble with Britain is that it’s only a little island. They had the British Empire all over the world and they didn’t have enough forces to defend it – just enough to defend the island. I joined the Navy and joined up to fight. Sometimes you didn’t like it, sometimes you did. Every day in the war was a different day whether you were in action or ashore. Sometimes it was good, sometimes – bad. Two days were never the same. I took every day of the war as it came.

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