December 2010

10th December 2010 by Des Cox

I am more than a little behind in writing a news letter, but I have a very good excuse. I have actually spent the past three years making a video documentary titled "The Worst Journey in the World", which tells the remarkable story of those notorious WW2 Arctic Convoys to Russia.

What I find remarkable is that this documentary, which has been made both for TV and DVD release, is the only one ever to have been made, totally dedicated to telling the story of those convoys and the horrendous conditions the brave young men and even teenage boys, had to face against not only the almost endless onslaught of the German air and sea forces, but also an horrendous weather cocktail of mountainous seas and sub-zero arctic temperatures, with just the occasional cup of lukewarm tea and a thin, 1940s duffle-coat to protect you from the biting, freezing winds that tore their pain deep into the living nightmare these brave seafarers lived with. 

It's a story that for some reason, despite its huge importance in bringing about the final victory, just seems to have almost slipped away into obscurity, together with the stories of the daily battles those young men and boys had to confront. 

Yes, I think I'm not being a coward when I say, that I really wouldn't have been in the front row way back in 1941, to volunteer for duty on one of those Arctic bound convoys, so how dare I not recognise how much we owe those brave young men, which is why I have gone to so much trouble to produce this documentary do the whole world might know their story.

Little did I know that when I embarked on this production it would take me three-years before it would be finally ready to be viewed; I don't think even "Gone with the Wind" took that long to make!

Let me explain.  When I first started the production I, full of mad enthusiasm, immediately set about trying to make contact with the Governments and armed forces of various nations that were involved with those convoys, including the Russians of course, Norwegians, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indian, South African and even our own UK people, but would you believe, not one responded to my many attempts to interest them in the project.

Another great difficulty was in trying to trace surviving veterans from those convoys; The Arctic Convoy Association has been recently disbanded through dying numbers and even when I did manage to make contact, there was little or no interest in what I was trying to do.  It was almost as if, after some seventy-years, these men had all but given up on ever being able to tell their stories.

Added to this was the major problem that not one TV Broadcaster responded to my letters, emails or phone calls either, which meant that without proper funding, it really would be all but impossible for me to take on such a huge, filming task.

In the end I decided that perhaps this time, I had taken on too much and that it just wouldn't be possible for me to make such a documentary.  Then something very strange and surreal happened that would change everything...

Whilst on one of our Maritime Memory voyages, we docked in Sorrento and in the company of David Hutchins, (that well know maritime author and historian) we found ourselves sightseeing in Palermo, taking the usual touristy photographs... it was just another one of those touristy days.

Amongst the pictures we took were ones of a statue of San Antonino (The patron Saint of lost things and navigators) in the village square, which was a little difficult as the sun was behind the statue, leaving its front, including his face, heavily shaded and barely recognisable.

It was all very normal stuff, but later in the day when we returned to our ship the MV "Discovery", we downloaded the shots we had taken and were absolutely astonished to see that in a still shot, the head of the statue was bathed in a strange warm light, almost a glow and instead of being in dark shadow, which was the case when the picture was taken, its face was lit almost as if by a trained spotlight and its face had taken on an almost live, human appearance.

There was no natural explanation for this strange phenomenon and later we had the photograph checked out at digital laboratories for confirmation that the image had not been in any way retouched.

We quickly almost forgot about this strange photograph but, as the ship left Palermo, suddenly strange things began to happen, things that would take the convoy project out of the bottom draw and put it back on track in the most bizarre way.

A woman approached me on the ship.  Her husband, who was also aboard, was a convoy veteran – Stan Colvin.  Not only was Stan a convoy veteran but, amazingly, he had sailed in 1941 on the very first Arctic Convoy of them all, taking two squadrons of RAF pilots, their crews and their Hurricane fighters to Russia to help them defend Leningrad and Murmansk.

This was my first major breakthrough in trying to put this convoy programme together but unfortunately, all I had to hand was my personal, not professional, video camera.  The other thing that really didn't help was the fact that we were sailing through warm blue seas, without a cloud in sight and so far removed from the icy, cold grey of an arctic sea, which is where I had planned to interview my veterans if I possibly could.  But, Stan was keen for me to try to capture his story, which at the tender young age of ninety, was a good reason to tell his story now, so one way or the other, even if it meant using inadequate equipment, I was determined to seize this rare opportunity.

The following morning I sat on deck jotting down questions I wanted to put to our elderly convoy veteran.  It was going to be a tough assignment, not only because of the lack of proper equipment but, to make matters worse, Stan found it difficult to walk unaided and when he spoke, it was barely a whisper, which meant that I would have to be far too close to him in order to stand a chance of picking up the sound of his voice on my camera.

Then, when I felt I had enough questions jotted down, I went up to the boat deck where I had arranged to interview him.  The sky and sea were blue and the sub beating down, but nothing was going to stop me from doing this so important interview.  Then something else very, very strange happened. 

Just as I met with Stan and was preparing to go for it, suddenly the weather went through a dramatic change as a heavy fog shrouded the sun.  The thick, chill grey and the poor visibility immediately conjured up conditions more familiar to the sort of cold, grey seas encountered on those Arctic Convoys.

Then, as Stan stood against the ship's railings, looking out into the misty grey, he began to tell me the story of that very first convoy, but what was even more amazing, he straightened his body and at the same time, his voice became much clearer and full of confidence.

The story he told made the hair on the back of my head stand on end (Perhaps it was just the complete strangeness of everything that was happening!)  He told me how his ship – one of 5 in an unescorted convoy – had, on the return voyage, been spotted by a German reconnaissance plane.

They were then told that as they had now been located by the Germans, it would only be a matter of hours before they would be attacked and that there would be very little they would be able to do to defend themselves.  Every available man was put on watch, looking out for enemy aircraft and U-boats, then, the perhaps the most incredible thing of all happened.

As I looked through the lens of my video camera, capturing a moment where Stan was pointing out to sea through the mist, as if he were actually turned back the hands of time and was back in 1941 on that convoy, looking out for the enemy attack, there, right in my picture I saw the unbelievable sight of a submarine actually surfacing right in front of our very eyes! 

I almost dropped dead... how could this possibly be happening, but it was and to prove it, I had captured the whole surreal experience on video!  In all my years at sea I had never seen a submarine deep sea let alone to actually surface right alongside us... I really couldn't believe what was happening.

Then suddenly the interview was over and at that moment, the sun, blue sky and sea returned and, the submarine had completely gone from sight, as if the whole thing was a figment of my imagination... some strange, eerie dream and yet, as I say, the proof of it all was captured by my camera and is now in this amazing convoy DVD.

This then was the start of a whole chain of astonishing and poignant coincidences that really do tell an amazing story.

Stan ended his interview by telling us how he often thought about those young pilots and crew they left behind in Russia, wondering if any of them ever escaped or did they all die in the horrendous arctic fighting.  Stan's final words were that he would really like to know what happened to them if it was at all possible.

On my return to the UK, now greatly encouraged with Stan's interview under my belt, I decided to try to track down any of those RAF survivors, but that also proved to be all but impossible.  I made phone calls, wrote letters and searched the net, but drew a blank time and time again... that was when the next strange thing happened.

It was a Saturday morning and I was sort of reading a daily newspaper, although in truth, I wasn't really concentrating as my mind was still desperately trying to think of a way of finding out what happened to those men Stan had left behind in war ravaged Russia.

I was actually just turning pages over without reading them but suddenly, for some strange reason, I found myself turning back to the Reader's Letters page. There on the page was quite a large photograph of a man in RAF uniform and the heading was... I am the last of the RAF pilots that fought in the battle for Murmansk!  

My body went cold... once again I was experiencing something so very strange that my mind was having great difficulty in trying to come to terms with.  I looked at the picture and read a brief piece about this man, Eric Carter, an RAF Hurricane pilot who had managed to survive that horrendous battle.

Now as many of your will know, phoning a newspaper office, especially a national paper, and trying to ask for contact details of someone featured in their paper is almost impossible, but nevertheless I tried and to my amazement the person I got through to was so helpful and gave me Eric's telephone number.

I called Eric and he is such a wonderful man and agreed immediately to be interviewed for the programme. So, armed with proper broadcast equipment, we went to meet Eric and RAF Cosford Museum, who so kindly placed a Hurricane identical to the one flown by Eric in Russia, had our disposal and we did a great piece with him, that now, as far as the programme was concerned, edited perfectly on to the end of Stan's interview... magic!

Thereafter and for the whole of the production, strange things happened time and time again... things that have no real rational explanation such as; the Russians suddenly got in contact with me, as did the Norwegians and the RAF and Royal Navy, all of whom were suddenly very enthusiastic and keen to help in the making of this documentary.

Then there were all the strange things that kept happening during the filming, for example when the weather was too bad to film and then, at the very last moment, would suddenly change into absolutely perfect conditions and this wasn't just once or twice but time and time again.

I could honestly write a whole book about just the making of this one programme, but there really isn't time to do that now however, if you are interested and you want to discover more then I do recommend you watch the programme because it really is something quite special.

You know, it's almost as if some strange power was at work, willing for this documentary to be made.

Now there is a growing tide of enthusiasm across the country and indeed, around the world, for the programme to be shown on television and for children everywhere to see it so they will know about this story, a story when young boys often no older than them, died in icy cold oceans whilst serving on those Arctic Convoys.

In February 2011 I have been invited to a special dinner at the House of Lords, to be attended by many leading politicians and other prominent people who want to get together to find a way of making sure this story is seen and told.

Then next October, just prior to Armistice Day, we will hold a special Arctic Convoy Remembrance Day aboard an ocean liner in London, which will be our way of making sure that all those who perished whilst serving on those convoys, will never be forgotten.

We will invite as many surviving convoy veterans as we possible can, together with leaders, politicians and other prominent people from all the relevant countries, to a special occasion where we will provide a wonderful dinner, a WW2 themed cabaret and a special screening of this programme, to mark its official launch.

Well, that's a lot I written all about the making of one programme, but of course, there are so many things happening that I really want to share with you all, so I promise to do my best to write about the new programmes now in pre-production and of our attempts to bring one of the older and more classical style ocean liners into a permanent berth in the UK...

Yes, these are really exciting time, so let me thank you for all your help and support in the past and remember; copies of the convoy DVD are only available to our people through this website, because we felt you deserved to be able to view it now, rather than have to wait until next October.

Kind regards,

Des Cox