“Our ship had either hit mines, been torpedoed or both. I don’t remember how it happened, but I ended up in the water. I couldn’t swim but I had my life jacket on, and it kept me afloat. I kept thinking I was going to die… men died quickly in the water.”
- Stanley McKessock (Veteran of the Arctic Convoys)
Stanley McKessock was only 18 years old when he was drafted into the Royal Navy as a gunner in 1941. Originally an army recruit, Stanley decided to switch to the Royal Navy and serve on the Arctic Convoys, saying “I thought it would be safer – how young and daft was I?”
Stanley’s is just one of many stories from the Arctic Convoys of World War Two – the topic of HMS Unicorn’s new exhibition. Working alongside the Russian Arctic Convoys Club, the exhibition tells the larger story of the convoys through the experiences of the veterans who served on board.
The Arctic Convoys started in 1941, almost two years into the Second World War. In June 1941, German forces invaded the Soviet Union and made a strategic push towards Moscow. As they progressed, the Germans blockaded Soviet ports and disrupted supply routes, leaving millions of people starving and the Soviet Union in need of aid. The Allies’ plan was for supply ships to travel from bases in Scotland and Iceland, navigate the treacherous waters of the Arctic Sea and Norwegian coast, and reach ports in the northwest of Russia.
Between 1941 and 1945, Merchant and Royal Navy ships contested with the threat of German battleships, U-boats and coastal fortifications so that the crucial supply lines could be kept open. In four years, the Allies lost over 3000 seamen and over 100 vessels as part of this effort.
HMS Unicorn’s exhibition delves into the experiences of veterans and looks at their memories of the convoys.
“I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have reached the age of 96 and be able to have contact with events which took place a lifetime ago.”
- Jimmy Baynes (Veteran of the Arctic Convoys)
The Arctic Convoys of World War Two exhibition will be displayed on board HMS Unicorn from Monday 24th February to Sunday 28th June 2020.
The exhibition has been curated by the Russian Arctic Convoys Club (RACC). If you would like to find out more about the RACC and support their work, then visit them online at www.russianconvoys.club.