Winston Churchill was piped aboard HMS Tyne and dad after hearing him nightly on the wireless got a glimpse of their wartime leader in person. It was August 1942 and Gunner Thurlow was among the several hundred sailors expecting the pep talk to confirm the rumour that the Arctic convoys to Russia were about to begin.
Churchill reminded the young sailors that they had saved Malta, albeit at the cost of half the convoy sent to protect the island: ‘There was no flinching and no thought of giving in. By what seemed almost a miracle to those outside these Islands, we now find ourselves in a position where I say that we can be sure that we have only to persevere to conquer.’
He added: ‘These are great days – the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.’
Dad would have rankled at the word ‘stations’ but no doubt joined in the clapping and cheering. He ambled with the crew back to HMS Eskimo, the Tribal-class destroyer he had served on since changing the date on his birth certificate from 17 to 18 to join the Royal Navy in 1939. He was still only 17 when he survived the Battle of Narvik, when the bows of his ship were blown off by a German sub and his best mate Tommy Billings lost his life.
Dad had taken part on the campaign to save Malta, firing his 4.7 inch calibre Mark XII gun until he burned his hands and finally broke both wrists catching a shell as it rolled from the pile. The lieutenant in charge was mentioned in dispatches for the bravery of his young gunner.
Arctic Convoys Begin September
Two days after Churchill’s visit, the order came through that the first of the Arctic convoys to Russia would leave in September for Murmansk and Archangel. They were stationed at the Scapa Flow, the UK’s chief naval base in the Orkney Islands – a place in which dad with the Nordic name Thurlow had always felt at home. The Vikings had occupied the same sheltered waters a thousand years before.
They sailed to Iceland with the other fleet destroyers on 2 September and anchored at Hvalfiord. On 7 September, the Eskimo joined the convoy of 43 ships for what had been designated operation EV. There were two anti-aircraft ships, two oilers, four minesweepers and several tankers, a rescue ship and two submarines. Most important of all was the presence of the American-built aircraft carrier Avenger carrying three Swordfish anti-submarine planes and twelve Sea Hurricanes.
The attack they expected came on 13 September when dad saw one of the most horrifying sights of the war. Known as the ‘Golden Comb,’ forty-two Heinkel torpedo bombers flying wing tip to wing tip just above the waves and below radar cover released two torpedoes each at the same time. HMS Eskimo put the helm hard over and increased speed as the torpedo swarm sped towards the convoy. These frantic manoeuvres made it impossible for any accurate gunfire and the ship avoided being hit by barely a few feet.
Eight ships were hit and sank. On board one of them there was a gigantic explosion that sent a column of black smoke into the air and dad watched the ship vanish completely. Five German planes were shot down. The Eskimo picked up a large number of survivors and worked in constant fear as the raised periscopes of U-boats broke the surface of the sea and planes above circled like black warnings of death.
Throw Us A Line Mate
The open bridge on the Eskimo meant it was always cold, wet and cloudy – the latter a relief as the conditions were bad for aircraft. The call to action stations was frequent during the next seven days. Being so far north, the men never knew if it was day or night. They ate with the survivors on board a rationed diet of cornflakes, condensed milk, ships biscuits, bully beef and tinned pilchards. They wore balaclavas, duffel coats and sea boots.
One more ship was lost before reaching Murmansk. The supplies were docked and on 17 September the battered convoy began the journey home harassed once more by enemy planes and submarines. They lost 13 of the 43 ships going out and five more returning.
What remained vivid in dad’s memory on the Arctic convoys to Russia was ships being sunk and sailors his own age diving into the sea. They shouted out: Throw us a line, mate, throw us a line. But the order was to remain at your station, eyes peeled for the Luftwaffe and leave the ropes coiled on the deck. The ships steamed on as the boys calling for help quickly froze to death in the icy seas.
Dad survived two Arctic convoys. In 1942, he joined the Royal Navy Commandos and travelled on small boats up what he called the ‘chongs’ to rescue soldiers fleeing the Japanese advance through Burma. He could have applied for the Burma Star, medal No 7, but never bothered.
Read more on the Arctic convoys to Russia in the memoirs of Lt. Cdr John Manners who served on HMS Eskimo 1942 – 1945.
My dad would never buy a poppy – click here to read why.