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Felixstowe: War convoy veteran recalls the worst journey in the world

PUBLISHED: 08:00 13 January 2013

Archie Mayes talks about his time in the Russian Convoys during WWII. Archie is pictured with old photographs from that period.

Archie Mayes talks about his time in the Russian Convoys during WWII. Archie is pictured with old photographs from that period.

Archant

Scores of ships and thousands of lives were lost as the Arctic Convoys provided vital war time supplies to the Soviet Union. Reporter MATT BUNN met veteran Archie Mayes to find out more about the convoys.

Mission was a success despite cost

If just 50 per cent make it through, that will be a victory.

Those were the words ringing in the ears of the people who served on Arctic Convoy mission PQ16, which included Archie Mayes.

The mission took place in May 1942, at a time when the convoys were coming under increasing pressure from German bombardment.

During the missions, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin recognised the work that the people on the convoys did and he recognised the sacrifices they made.

Despite the loss of life, they were seen as essential to enable the Union to fight Germany on the Eastern front.

They supplied tanks, ammunition, food and other war-related goods.

PQ16 consisted of 35 merchant ships and, despite the loss of eight merchant ships, was considered a success.

The joy was short-lived, however, for the next mission, PQ17, saw 24 of its 35 merchant ships lost, due to air attacks.

WINSTON Churchill described it as the worst journey in the world.

And yet when the stories of heroism, bravery and horror during the Second World War are told, tales of the Arctic Convoys are rarely heard.

Thousands died and scores of ships were lost as those who transported key supplies to the Soviet Union by sea took part in their missions.

They had to endure freezing temperatures and attacks by air and sea during the day and night.

Arctic convoys

■ The convoys took place between 1941 and 1945.

■ About 3,000 merchant and navy sailors died during the missions.

■ Four million tons of goods arrived in the Soviet Union thanks to the Convoys.

■ The good which arrived included about 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 aircraft.

It is now nearly 70 years since the last mission took place – but the horrors still live with Felixstowe man Archie Mayes, 92.

Archie, of Exeter Road in Felixstowe, served as the sick berth attendant on two convoys, providing vital medical help.

“I wouldn’t say that I was scared,” he said.

“One day we had 300 attacks but it is always the same when you are young – you don’t always realise the dangers.

“You knew there was a faint chance of coming out of it.”

More than 100 ships were lost during the missions.

Archie, who served in the Royal Naval Sick Berth Reserve, witnessed other battles including Dunkirk.

The memories of the injuries he saw and the situations he endured are still vivid in his mind.

But one of the most vivid is the Arctic Convoy mission, PQ16, which left Hvalfjord in Iceland on May 21, bound for Murmansk and Archangel.

The convoy was subjected to furious bombardment and several ships were lost during the trip.

Archie said: “Our losses were tremendous.

“That week was the worst of the war for me – it was hell. You had bombings all the time.

“I was on my own there because there was no medical officer so I had a bit of privacy in a way.

“Eventually we ended up in Murmansk and they were still bombing us there.

“We lost a lot of men and if you were in the water for two minutes – you were dead. I couldn’t do anything – if the person got too badly hurt, they were dead and that is just the way it was.”

Despite huge losses, the mission was declared a success due to the sheer amount of supplies which arrived in the Soviet Union.

Last month, in recognition of their sacrifice, Prime Minister David Cameron, announced that those who served in the convoys should receive an Arctic Convoy Star medal.

Archie, one of only 200 veterans still alive today, will be in line for the accolade – but he is keen that his daughter, Denise, will inherit it.

He said: “I am not worried myself because it’s history.

“It is nice to be remembered. It is a long while since it all happened and thousands of them (veterans) are dead now. But I would like her (Denise) to have it.”

Archie was 20 when he was called up and he still says that he was one of the lucky ones to survive.

“I saw some horrible things,” he said as we trawled through his diary and looked at the pictures of the ship he served on, Starwort, and his comrades.

Naturally, when looking in to what those who served on the convoys suffered, the losses and the hardships endured are the issues that people will always be drawn to.

And while those days are still etched in his mind, Archie does still like to look at the positives.

“When you look back at those days, what is the first thing you always remember?” I asked Archie as we finished our conversation.

His answer was simple – “Comradeship.”

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