Continued from Part Two…
Food manufacturers learned, long ago, that small children, sitting at the morning table to have their much-needed breakfasts, eagerly consume whatever reading material is in front of them.
My mother’s favourite breakfast for us was Scott’s Porridge Oats. The figure on the packaging was dressed in Highland Games’ regalia. Quite why he is tossing the heavy ball towards the loch, below, is anyone’s guess, but the image remains in my consciousness.
Unlike, say, Cornflakes, you couldn’t have an instant breakfast with porridge. You had to wait patiently, while Mum did strange things with a cauldron-sized pan that bubbled like something from Macbeth, until the grey substance emerged onto the table in a large bowl, its top floating with milk and sugar, whose initial purpose was to cool it down to prevent small boys from scalding their mouths…
Happy memories. But there’s a serious side to this; Scotts were a clever company, driven by a Scottish ethic to educate as well as feed. During one period, the back of the pack featured dramatically illustrated images of huge ships floundering in icy seas, with under-equipped young sailors fighting for their lives in something called the ‘North Atlantic’.
Those images have stayed with me. Here, I was finally to come face to face with the reality…
I suspect most of us would fail the geography challenge. But if I asked a group of people to mark the outline of Russia on a map, (see below) we would draw the outlines of Norway and Sweden at the ‘top’, then possibly Finland, eventually moving to the north-western border of Russia. What we all tend to forget is that Russia sits over the top of all of them.
At this time of tension with Russia’s territorial aggression, that’s a terrifying piece of geography, but during WW2, Russia was allied with the West against the might of Nazi Germany. Helping Russia to win on the Eastern Front was vital to the future of a free Europe.
Britain’s part in this was to supply the Russian ports in the far north – Archangel and Murmansk (marked in red top right). To do this, Allied shipping had to brave not only the icy seas, but also the constant presence of Germany’s deadly U-boats. The Arctic convoys delivered over four million tons of vital supplies to the Soviet Union including tanks, fighter planes, food, fuel, medicines and boots.
Loch Ewe was a vital part of the war effort. It is a deep sea-loch with direct access to the north Atlantic Ocean. This made it a perfect base for the convoys. At times, up to ninety-five Merchant and Royal Navy ships anchored in the loch.
The ships were protected by anti-aircraft guns located at sites around the shore. Military personnel and local people manned lookout posts along the coastline to keep watch for enemy aircraft, submarines and ships.
The most direct route to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel was a hazardous two-week voyage. This took the ships into the Arctic Circle and east across the freezing Barents Sea. The convoys braved constant attacks by sea and air from German U-boats and aircraft flying from bases in Nazi-occupied Norway.
Each convoy was made up of Merchant ships protected by an escort of Royal Navy warships. They moved in a strict column formation and sailed only as fast as the slowest ship. Merchant ships were not designed for speed and the convoys were an easy target. They were exposed to relentless attacks from bomber aircraft during the polar summer, when the night sky was constantly light.
Fierce storms, blizzards, towering waves, gales and extreme cold were a constant threat during the long polar winters. The water was so cold that waves could turn to ice as they smashed against the ships. Men were known to freeze to death on watch. Crew had to constantly hack the ice that built up on the ships to stop it becoming so heavy that it would sink the ship. Extreme care had to be taken never to touch metal with bare hands as the skin would. literally, be torn off.
If the convoys made it to Russia, they still had to face the return journey. At the mercy of the Arctic weather and under threat of attack from above and below. More than three thousand Merchant Navy and Royal Navy sailors lost their lives.
Our rented cottage was on the very edge of Loch Ewe. Its peace today belies the violence and desperation of those times…
Loch Ewe was heavily fortified. A metal ‘boom net’ spanned the mouth of the loch and protected against enemy submarines and torpedoes. An underwater ‘Guard Loop’ laid across the entrance to the loch monitored changes in the electrical field. Controlled mines could be detonated if ships or submarines were detected.
Barrage balloons helped protect the skies from German bomber attack. They were used until storms blew most of them away – this is a volatile part of Scotland. So many were lost that a reward was posted for their return! At a time of severe rationing of food and materials, they made good hayrick covers and some even ended up as handbags and purses.
“I can remember entering Loch Ewe late on a fine evening at the end of August, It was a magnificent spectacle. The loch was crowded with merchant ships, the green fields of the crofts rose up from the shore and on the eastern horizon, the mountains of Wester Ross were outlined red in the sunset.
Reuy Clarke – Ordinary Seaman, HMS Farndale
The Scott’s Porridge Oats boxes never sought to glorify the Navy’s war. I learned a lot from my boyhood reading of them. It was unexpected and moving to come across such confirmation of the bravery they conveyed in their dramatic pictures…
©Stephen Tanham 2022
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.