Julia Jones reviews Surviving the Arctic Convoys: the wartime memoir of Leading Seaman Charlie Elswell and shares why she chose it for Yachting Monthly's Book at Bunktime for January 2022
Surviving the Arctic Convoys: the wartime memoir of Leading Seaman Charlie Elswell
John R McKay
Pen & Sword Maritime £19.99
For a long time the men who served on the Arctic convoys – both those on the merchant ships and on the escorting Royal Navy vessels felt that the particular hardships of their service had been overlooked.
In fiction Alistair McLean’s HMS Ulysses offered a gripping account written from direct experience and, as far as I was concerned, Richard Woodman’s magisterial Arctic Convoys history was a revelation from the merchant navy perspective.
Author John R McKay had written his own novel The Worst Journey in the World using imagination and published sources so was delighted to receive a message from veteran Charlie Erswell congratulating him on his accuracy.
McKay and Erswell met and became friends. With the invaluable assistance of Erswell’s life Betty, McKay helped Charlie tell the story of his wartime experience as Surviving the Arctic Convoys.
Charlie Erswell saw this volume in print before he died, peacefully, at a care home in Wakefield on 19.10.2021 aged 97.
I’d written the following review of the book before I checked the author’s Twitter page and saw the notice of Charlie Erswell’s death.
Selecting the Book at Bunktime extract to be read around Christmas 2021 seems one small way of continuing to ensure that both the merchant seamen and the work of the Royal Navy escorts is remembered.
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The Second World War Arctic convoys, carrying UK and US aid to Russia commenced in August 1941 just weeks after Stalin had become Britain’s unexpected ally.
Steaming at the speed of the slowest, heavy-laden merchant ship either from Reykjavik, Hvalfjodur or Loch Ewe, as far into the Arctic Ocean as ice would allow, round the northernmost coast of occupied Norway and on through the Barents Sea to Murmansk – or further to Archangel on the White Sea – was an almost unimaginable ordeal.
To the ‘normal’ hazards of extreme weather (the convoys ran throughout the winter months) were added the certainties of U-boat or air attack, especially when in range of the Scandinavian coast or when finally nearing their destinations in Russia.
This book recounts the experience of Leading Seaman Charlie Erswell, as told to historical novelist John R McKay.
Clearly the ‘as told to’ aspect takes something away from the immediate authenticity of the individual voice; however it does ensure that the essential fact-checking is there so the book can be read as history as well as memoir.
Charlie Erswell was 19 when he had his first experience of the ‘Kola Run’.
He was serving on HMS Milne escorting convoy PQ18 – the immediate successor to the famously disastrous PQ17 – and his memories of that action provide a worthy centrepiece to the book.
As with most memoirs it’s the human detail that sticks in the mind: the sustaining warmth of the navy ‘kye’, the difficulty of needing a pee when sent to action stations, the extreme sadness of being sent to collect dog-tags and paybooks from dead sailors; the recurrent spells of duty chipping ice from the ship’s superstructure.
Leading Seaman Erswell’s memories naturally include anecdotes from other sea areas and other aspects of his service life, including his immediate post-war experience in the merchant navy.
He repeats the Nelsonian point that the sailors of this country have got used to being feted in times of war and forgotten in peace.
The Arctic Star was not awarded until 2012.
Two years later Erswell was among recipients of the Ushakov medal from the Russian government with a certificate signed by President Putin.
I felt this pulled his story beyond the realm of history and into current affairs.
A worthwhile read.
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