“THE worst journey in the world” was Winston Churchill’s description of the Arctic Convoys. These flotillas of merchant ships, and their Royal Naval escorts, sailed the savage waters of the North Atlantic, the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea en route for the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel, carrying vital supplies to aid Russia, our then ally, in its bitter fight against Nazi Germany.
'We cruised on the mirror-like waters of the fjords, watching the bows of the ship break the surface sending gentle ripples to the rocky shore. We gazed at 2,000-metre peaks, snow-topped still, and cliffs sweeping down to the water’s edge'
These brave men were in constant danger from enemy attack, hunted by deadly U-boat ‘wolfpacks’, surface vessels and enemy planes flying from bases in occupied Norway.
In winter they sailed in constant darkness in temperatures so low that skin was flayed from bare hands if they so much as touched the ship’s rails.
We followed the route of the convoys safe and secure in the comfort of the Marco Polo, not the biggest or most flashy of cruise ships, but certainly one of the friendliest sailing from the UK. So different from the conditions suffered by the sailors of the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy who passed this way between August 1941 and May 1945. I, and many of my fellow passengers chose this cruise to pay our respects to the bravery of the men who manned the convoy ships and in memory of the more than 3,000 who never returned.
It was humbling to have on board the Marco Polo three veterans of these convoys all sprightly despite a combined age of 270 plus years. They were able to join the cruise with the help of The National Lottery and its ‘Heroes Return Fund’.
Convoy veteran Eric Ridding ‘Heroes Return 2’ provides Lottery funding to help World War Two veterans who saw active service and are resident in the UK or Republic of Ireland to take part in commemorative visits within the UK and overseas to mark the anniversary of events that led to the end of the conflict. Eric Ridding of Oakham, Rutland, now 90, saw active service on convoy escort duty. “I was nobody special, an ordinary rating doing my job,” he said with touching modesty. These ‘ordinary men’ showed true courage and achieved great things. It is good to know that there is funding now available for them to revisit the scenes from their younger days.
The wartime voyages these indomitable men made over the tip of Norway were a battle for survival. A battle fought not only against the Nazi enemy but also the ferocious seas, ice, snow and sub-zero temperatures – bitter, unrelenting foes that showed no mercy to man or ship.
Long honoured for their bravery by the Russians, it took the British Government nearly 70 years to officially recognise the veterans’ vital contribution to the war effort. But now, at last, they have been granted a campaign medal of their own – the Arctic Star. How sad that so few now survive to wear it, but those that can remember their shipmates who never returned home from the cold, northern waters.
Murmansk, a grim forbidding city, has been for 100 years a base for the Russian Navy. The Germans tried to take and destroy this vital port, but never succeeded. It remained defiant and a symbol of the Russian spirit in its resistance during ‘the Great Patriotic War’, as the Russians call the Second World War.
The Murmansk Museum of the Northern Fleet tells us the story of the Russian Navy and the Arctic Convoys. The Russian people have a continuing gratitude and respect for the men who showed such heroism and suffered many hardships to bring them essential supplies.
We visited the graves of the British and Commonwealth sailors to pay our respects. Sadly most of the fallen have no graves, only the icy Arctic waters that took them.
The 78 convoys delivered 4.5 million tons of supplies, more than 7,000 aircraft, 5,000 tanks, fuel, medicines, metals and other raw materials. These supplies helped the Russians to keep fighting on the Eastern Front. Without this the full weight of the Nazi military power could then have been directed to the west – with potentially disastrous results for Great Britain.
On our return voyage sailing once again past the North Cape, the most northern tip of Europe, we still had many ports of call in Norway to visit
Norway, and the famed beauty of the fjords must be on many people’s ‘bucket list’ of places to visit. We have seen the photographs, but these images can only give a tiny impression of the real thing.
We cruised on the mirror-like waters of the fjords, watching the bows of the ship break the surface sending gentle ripples to the rocky shore. We gazed at 2,000-metre peaks, snow-topped still, and cliffs sweeping down to the water’s edge.
We saw waterfalls cascading down vertical cliffs, verdant meadows and villages clinging perilously between water and mountain.
The World Heritage Site of Geiranger was one our destinations. At the end of the 16-kilometre fjord that takes its name, our visit was truly memorable. The ship’s tenders ferried us ashore to waiting tour buses, or for some it was just a peaceful day to explore this small community, eating and drinking in the atmosphere.
Another highlight of the cruise was the Lofoten Islands. Remote and beautiful basking in sunshine and 24 hours of daylight, but what must these islands be like in the depths of winter in the unrelenting Arctic darkness?
The hardy folk here have, for centuries, made their living from the sea, fishing cod, herring and even whaling, while keeping up the traditions of their Viking ancestors. A visit to the fishing village of Nusfjord is also a must. Another World Heritage Site, it evokes a strong echo of yesteryear
We were fortunate to visit many fascinating ports of call during our cruise – Kirkenes in the far north; Tromso, the ‘Capital of Northern Norway’; Honniingsvaag for visits to the North Cape; Andalsnes and Bergen. Each port of call offered us a different glimpse of this beautiful country.
At the end of each day, it was back to our floating hotel for drinks, dinner and a show as we sailed home through the complex beauty of the fjords. And, before heading to our cabin, a chance to stand on deck and enjoy the midnight sun reflecting on the waters
Sailing back to Newcastle and enjoying the peace that only a day at sea can bring gave me time to reflect on the voyage. It was one of discovery in many ways, and another tick on my ‘bucket list’.
And certainly not “The worst journey in the world” for me!
At SeaJim Pybus travelled from Newcastle with Cruise and Maritime Voyages on the Marco Polo.
CMV are offering four cruising holidays from Newcastle in 2015:
Baltic Cities & St. Petersburg, 13 nights, May 12 2015
Iceland & Northern Isles, 12 nights, May 25 2015
Baltic Cities & St. Petersburg, 12 nights, June 6 2015
Summertime Fjordland, 6 nights, June 18 2015
Prices start for the 6-night cruise from just £709 for the first passenger, with the second passenger half price. Offer subject to availability and must be booked by October 31 2014.
More cruises to Norway are available with CMV from London Tilbury, Bristol Avonmouth and Hull.
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