Page last updated at 23:27 GMT, Tuesday, 30 September 2008 00:27 UK

'Last march' of Arctic veterans

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Hurricane fighter, left, with a Spitfire
Veterans said pilots of Hurricanes, pictured left with a Spitfire, were true heroes

A Scottish veteran of the World War II Arctic convoys believes this Armistice could be the last he and fellow sailors parade together at London's Cenotaph.

Old age and ill-health have taken their toll on those who survived service on the Russian runs.

Jock Dempster said it was his personal view this November could be the final time they marched together.

But he said Scots veterans would continue to gather each year at Loch Ewe, from where several convoys left.

Sailings from the sea loch in Wester Ross, the Highlands, were made between 1942-44.

Now I am more emotional when I think of all those young lads who never experienced the love of a lady, missed the moon landings and laughing at the Two Ronnies. All the things I've enjoyed
Geoffrey Shelton
Convoy veteran
Veterans have been invited to what is expected to be a one-off event being held in honour of the Loch Ewe convoys at Pool House Hotel next Thursday.

Between 1941-45, ships also left the Clyde and ports in Iceland for the then Soviet Union to deliver supplies, weapons and ammunition.

Like other World War II veteran groups, the numbers who served on the British, American and Canadian merchant ships and their navy escorts have dwindled.

At 80, Mr Dempster, of Lothian, is the youngest of the Scottish survivors whose average age is 86.

He said: "Over the last six years 60 to 70 veterans from all over the UK marched at the Cenotaph, last year there were 13.

"I don't think we will march again after this year. That's my gut feeling.

"I wouldn't like it to end up with all sorts of relatives and people's carers - it sometimes seems there are more carers than veterans.

"I would like it for us to go out gracefully."

Instead, in the future, the convoy members may join the ranks of other groups such as Merchant Navy and Royal Navy.

However, Mr Dempster, who joined as a junior ordinary seaman, said September's pilgrimage to a monument at Loch Ewe would remain a fixture for as long as the former sailors were able.

PQ17 was the most disastrous and infamous of the convoys. In July 1942, more than 20 vessels were sunk following orders to scatter because of fears of an attack by warships including the Tirpitz
About 3,000 men lost their lives on the Russian runs. Britain, the US and Canada were involved in shipping supplies to war-ravaged Russia
The convoys' destinations included Murmansk and Archangel
They have been making the trip for the past nine years.

Meanwhile, keeping the veterans' links alive with Russia has been Edinburgh's consul general Vladimir Malygin.

Mr Dempster said the Russian official has regularly hosted receptions - even for one man unable to attend a previous gathering because of ill-health - to make sure they received medals.

Recalling his time on the convoys, Mr Dempster said: "People keep referring to us as heroes.

"There were heroes among the merchantmen, but my very, very strong feeling is the real heroes were the pilots who flew the Hurricane fighters."

The aircraft were catapulted from ships' decks to engage attacking German planes.

Mr Dempster said: "Because they were launched off there was no way of the pilots going back to the ship and they had to pitch the aircraft in the sea and hope to be picked up.

"They were all volunteers and it was marvellous they were prepared to do that."

Another veteran, Geoffrey Shelton, 83, who lives in Glasgow, served on the aircraft carrier HMS Vindex.

He said the pain of the human cost of Russian runs has become more acute with time.

The former Royal Navy seaman said: "Back in those days if you lost anybody you would say a quiet prayer for him.

"There wouldn't be any tears.

"His possessions would be sold off at inflated prices and the proceeds sent back to his relatives.

"Now I am more emotional when I think of all those young lads who never experienced the love of a lady, missed the moon landings and laughing at the Two Ronnies. All the things I've enjoyed.

"That makes me feel guilty."

Freezing conditions and atrocious weather claimed lives on what the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill called "the worst journey in the world".

Loch Ewe
Vessels sailed from Loch Ewe from 1942-44
Mr Shelton said: "It was so cold. You came off watch and went down into the mess deck to get some sleep, but there was no heating down there and you could break the icicles off the deck head.

"But sometimes you wanted the terrible cold and the weather because it kept the u-boats down below and the aircraft couldn't fly.

"In the summer there was almost 24-hour daylight - that was when you were most vulnerable to attack."

For Mr Shelton too, the actions of pilots moved him.

Aircraft used included Swordfish biplanes - nicknamed string bags - and later American Wildcats.

He said: "The Fleet Air Arm pilots were the bravest of the brave taking off and then trying to land an old string bag on a deck rising and falling 10-20-30ft.

"I watched one guy come in to land and end up in the sea alongside the carrier.

"The plane went straight down.

"The pilot had his lifejacket on and the captain put a blue search light on him, which was very dangerous because it could show us to the enemy.

"The admiral wasn't very pleased about this.

"I watched that lad calling out for help and the arm he was waving get lower and lower. By the time he was picked up 15 minutes later he was dead."

Arctic veterans to gather at loch
18 Sep 08 |  Highlands and Islands


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