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Veterans of the Arctic Convoys 1941 - 1945


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From retiring President, Chris King.

Driving out of Wellington and along the Kapiti coast road with drizzling rain and strong wind gusts, Kapiti Island hardly visible through the mist. The sea looked like a day back in 1942 when my little ship was detailed off to escort eighteen Russian fishing vessels from the Dvina river below Archangel up to the islands of Nova Zemblya. Not rough but small lumpy waves that threw the fishing boats around and gave our ship, at six or seven knots, the usual rock and roll motion. But that was seventy three years ago – although still so easily remembered – now on the 26th November 2015 Pen Moore and I were heading for Otaki and our pre-Christmas lunch meeting of Convoy Club members and families at the home of Admiral David Ledson and Barbara Devery. All preparations had been made thanks to our hosts’ untiring efforts (I think the ‘un’ part is quite wrong, so much time had been freely given).

Meeting and Christmas Lunch

We held our formal meeting with twenty nine attendees under a solid awning erected next to the sunroom while in the house a wonderful lunch was being prepared and set out.

As always my one regret on Thursday was that our members from the South Island and further North, Napier, Tauranga and beyond, could not be present for what really was a special day and that’s the reason I am trying to paint a fairly detailed picture for everyone in this newsletter (No Bill, and thank you for your friendly phone calls from Tauranga, there isn’t really any picture, it’s just an expression). In fact we did have Gavin Baker (Auckland) with us. He had called in on his way back from Queenstown and a stopover in Wellington. I was also particularly grateful to Bill Pitt and Elizabeth Fisher who arranged to bring our youngest associate member, Jack Gradwell, along with them from Wellington.

The very slight drizzle which I suppose we must have brought up from Wellington stopped and the day turned into one of sun and a bright blue sky.

Newsletter : Christmas 2015

It was to be my last day as Club President but with the concurrence of President-Elect, Derek Whitwam, I dealt with the welcomes and apologies and various other matters, giving the Club’s veteran numbers now as 31, associate members, wives and widows at 37 and our Roll of Honour list now with 64 names. The latest addition, sadly, to the Roll of Honour list is that of Ron Hancock who passed away in October. Ron was a good and loyal shipmate and like those others before him will always be remembered.

Four of us, Derek, myself, Syd Wells and Frank Jones (not in any special order) attended Ron’s funeral and were privileged to be asked to act as pall bearers. It was a well attended but ‘homely’ Service and I was asked to speak and also to recite the Ode, after the playing of The Last Post. Ron’s daughter, Gail, sent me a very kind message with gratitude for our help and support and Gail, with husband Warren, have now become associate members of our Convoy Club. They are both very welcome.

During our Thursday meeting at Otaki I took the opportunity to thank Derek’s son David, and my own son Patrick, who although both very busy business people are always ready to help in our Club’s activities. David, in Hong Kong, keeps our website flourishing world-wide and I commented that there were probably more ‘hits’ from India and Iceland than from our own membership. The website is full of interest on matters we can all relate to and many good pictures – and it is really worth looking at on a regular basis for those of us with computer facilities.

My own son Patrick is always ready to help me with my computer complexities as well as listening to my many problems and making sure the newsletter is readable. Incidentally he again provided the magnificent Christmas cake for our Otaki meeting. My granddaughter Melika was also present at our meeting, with husband David, and again she has been so supportive and partnered me to many Navy and Russian functions. It is good to have this help and support from younger family members and there are a number in our Club as associate members. Their interest is appreciated.

Commemoration in Russia

Hamish Cooper, New Zealand’s Ambassador in Moscow, sent me details, in time for our Otaki meeting, of the ceremony held in Murmansk to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. The British Embassy in Moscow offered to include New Zealand, Australia and Canadian Embassy representatives in the day long commemorative ceremonies held on 16th November. Wreaths were laid at each of the First and Second World War Commonwealth cemeteries in Murmansk and also at the cemetery in Severomorsk where the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet is based. Next year there will be special commemorative activities to mark the 75th anniversary of the departure/arrival of the first of the Arctic convoys (August 1941) and in this regard the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow looks forward to staying in touch with our Convoy Club in New Zealand. Hamish sent warm greetings from the Embassy in Moscow to all Club members with best wishes for the festive season and for a happy 2016. I have responded and thanked Hamish for his message.

Appreciation from the Ambassador

Our three special guests at Otaki, the Russian Ambassador Valery Tereshchenko, Captain Jon Finderup RNZN representing the Chief of Navy and Lt Col Mike Teffery-Kingdom representing the British High Commissioner in Wellington, were introduced and each addressed the gathering. The Russian Ambassador spoke of the warm friendship enjoyed by him with Convoy Club members and then presented me with a special Diploma outlining the help and support I had always given to promote friendship between Russia and her wartime allies. He also presented me with a special decorative piece of Russian chinaware filled with vodka. In thanking Valery I said how successive Ambassadors and the Russian Embassy staff had always cooperated with our Club and we had enjoyed very friendly relations over the years.

Rear Admiral Jack Steer is relinquishing his Chief of Navy command as from November and I asked Capt Finderup to deliver a message I had prepared on behalf of our Club, thanking Admiral Steer for his support and cooperation and wishing him well in whatever the future holds for him.

Retiring President

At this point I asked Derek to take over as our new President so that I could quietly step aside but first George Billing led those present with a – to me flattering chorus – of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. A very kindly gesture.

Derek then made a presentation to our hosts Barbara and David on behalf of the Club and also presented me with a signature filled ‘Thank You’ card, also a book “The Churchill Factor: How one man made history”, with a note of appreciation from Club members inside. The book is by Boris Johnson, author and Mayor of London and was published only last year. It is a ‘must read’ and I am reluctant to get to the end, it is so well written from a completely new perspective on the late Winston Churchill, undoubtedly ‘the man for the hour’.

As his prologue in taking on the Presidency Derek read a couple of appropriate nautical poems which hopefully can be printed in an upcoming newsletter. David Ledson then chimed in with one of his own !

There was time to socialise, and vodka provided by the Russian Ambassador was served to all. There was also an opportunity to walk round the garden and grounds, so “the Admiral” escorted myself and Hector Davis from Waikanae (Normandy Vets Asscn) on a conducted tour to inspect the orchard, the vege garden with fresh strawberries, the chicken run and its young family, the woodshed built and stocked by Barbara, the dove up in the tree and the goldfish in the pond. The beautifully kept hedges, lawns and all the shrubs and flowers, the result of much loving care and attention.

Then lunchtime, everyone busy eating, with an absolute plethora of excellent food, followed by the traditional cutting of the Christmas cake, covered with green and red icing and with the Club’s logo on the top. Coffee and wine were also served and no warship’s wardroom, or the ratings mess could ever have had it so good.

For me personally it was a day I shall always remember. Twenty years as President has probably been too long, but apart from the loss of so many good friends along the way I have only good memories to dwell on – and piles of paper to sort ! Syd Wells and I will continue to look after the Club’s financial affairs and subscription invoices will be sent out before next March.

Finally home-going time and a drive back along the Kapiti coast road under a blue sky back into the drizzle of windy Wellington. But what a wonderful day. We can never thank David and Barbara enough for their generous hospitality but Barbara has told me how pleased they both were to be able to host the day for all of us.

Time for a joke!

The Usherette walks down the aisle in the Theatre stalls and finds a man sprawled across some seats. She asks him to get up but he just grunts and stays there. After several requests she fetches the Manager who also remonstrates with the man but without success. Finally the police are called and a friendly Sergeant gets out his notebook and says quietly to the man. ‘Alright sir, now what’s your name?’ ‘Fred’ grunts the man. ‘And where are you from Fred?’ asks the Sergeant. ‘The balcony’ grunts Fred looking upwards !

Special events

Two special occasions recently. One was an invitation to attend a wreath-laying by Prince Charles at the new Pukeahu War Memorial in Wellington. The ceremony was held in the Hall of Memories and when I asked the curator, Paul Riley, why there were only seven chairs provided, he said, “Well there are only seven of you”. One Air Commodore, one Air Vice Marshall, Trevor Appleton, Royal NZ Naval Association, one member each from the NZ Korean Vets Association and the NZ Vietnam Vets Association, and me. Someone else but I can’t remember who. As it happened we didn’t use the chairs but stood together in a row.

After the wreath-laying Charles and Camilla came over (picture left) and David Ledson introduced each one of us. All very friendly. Prince Charles looked at my medals and said “Some were too long in being awarded I think”. I was tempted to raise the vexed question of our Legion of Honour Award delay but the Prince had moved on. Camilla was very nice as also was John Key and his wife Bronagh, waiting to shake my hand.

Quite a crowd gathered outside as Charles walked around the new War Memorial Park but a light rain was falling so, with my trusty walking stick to aid me, I walked off up the long winding hill and home.

I did look to see what Charles had written on the card on the wreath – it said “In grateful and perpetual memory – Charles” Very nice I thought.

Derek and I also attended the Armistice Day Commemoration, again at the Hall of Memories, and were given almost front row seats. Our Convoy Club is certainly well looked after by those who organise these special occasions but I do believe that David Ledson has been mainly responsible for this recognition. I was particularly moved when two students from Wellington Girls High School came forward to lay a wreath and I spoke to them after the ceremony. They both said it had been a privilege to be there in the company of wartime veterans.

The Merchant Navy Association were to have held their Christmas meeting at Petone on Sunday, 6th December, and to include a special tribute to the late Ian Dymock. But this has now been postponed until early in 2016 to enable more Association members and others to attend.

The Flower Class Corvette Association in the UK have told me that there are now only two surviving crew members of HMS Bluebell. Both live in New Zealand. Norm Batterham in Auckland and me in Wellington. Must be the New Zealand air ! There had been about ten members originally, not on board Bluebell when she was torpedoed and sunk on 17th February 1945 with the loss of all the crew of 90, except for one survivor.

Now our Club’s loyalty and support must be with Derek. I certainly have complete confidence that the Club will continue, and progress, under Derek’s leadership

Derek tells me the next Convoy Club meeting will be at the RSA, Udy Street, Petone, on THURSDAY, 24th MARCH 2016, commencing 11 am. Make a note now in your new 2016 diary or on the frig door. Lunch as usual.

My Best Wishes for your Christmas time however you spend it and good health and happiness in the New Year. Derek I know, joins with me in wishing you all the best

Yours Aye,

Chris King
Immediate Past President
Russian Convoy Club NZ Wellington
8 December 2015

HRH Prince Charles meets Arctic Convoy veterans in Wellington, New Zealand

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