May 22 2013 Latest news:
By Kathryn Bradley
Friday, March 22, 2013
Their voyage was described by Winston Churchill as “the worst journey in the world”.
As well as a constant threat of attack by German U-boats and aircraft, the Allied Arctic convoys had to contend with severe cold, storms, thick fog and ice floes as they took supplies to Russia during the second world war.
But Andre Jean Baptiste Boucher knows just how perilous it was – as he was among those brave mariners.
Mr Boucher, of Mill Road, Mutford, near Lowestoft, who is known as Andy, spent a year serving first as a gun layer and then as an anti-aircraft gunner on board the convoy ship, The Oxlip.
And 70 years on, the service and courage shown by him and his fellow veterans has finally been recognised with a new medal and award.
Following a long campaign by veterans, their families and the media, the government agreed to present servicemen and women with the Arctic Star medal in December.
Mr Boucher, now 87, joined the Navy when he was 17 after being turned away a year earlier for being too young.
He said: “One night I was sat indoors listening to the radio. They were talking about how many ships were suffering in the Atlantic and how many had sunk. I had a much safer job working at an American camp, where they fed me as well. I thought I had better go give them a hand. I went to the recruitment office the next day and signed up there and then. My mother went berserk when I told her.”
Mr Boucher spent six weeks at the HMS Collingwood training base near Portsmouth before joining HMS Oxlip – a flower-class corvette warship. The ship and her crew joined the fight to open up a second front in Europe and took part in a convoy to Gibraltar before being assigned to the Arctic convoys until 1945.
The Oxlip’s job was to escort and protect ships carrying supplies to Russia by searching for, and destroying, German U-boats with a depth charge.
Mr Boucher had just turned 18 when he made his first voyage from Greenock, in Scotland, to Murmansk, in Russia.
It was so cold that waves washing over the ship during storms would freeze on the deck. The sailors had to chip off the thick sheets of ice to prevent the vessel becoming top heavy and capsizing.
Mr Boucher said he was often so cold and exhausted that he could not undress for bed and slept in his wet clothes.
He said the ship, originally built to carry 30 men, had been extended to take a crew of 70 and conditions were so cramped that men would swing in to one another as they slept in their hammocks.
“To me the weather was the worst bit,” he said. “It was shocking cold. “When the ship was rolling I would swing from side to side. There was a big metal stanchion on one side that would catch me in the ribs and when I went to the other side my bottom used to go across the lockers. In spite of all that, I still got to sleep.”
Mr Boucher witnessed the sinking of fellow flower-class corvette HMS Bluebell when she was hit by a torpedo. All the depth charges went off and the ship exploded, leaving only one survivor.
He said sailors would always wonder if they were going to be next. “You would be in the harbour and when you knew you were going to sea you weren’t afraid, but you were always wondering ‘are we going to come back, is this going to be my last trip?’ It was scary but I was too young to be really frightened, ”
After VE Day, Mr Boucher was assigned to HMS Glengyle in the far east where the allied forces were still fighting Japan. He said the posting was like “a big holiday cruise” compared to the convoys. Some 66,500 men sailed on the convoys, but the Ministry of Defence suggests that there are now no more than 200 survivors.
Mr Boucher, now a great-great grandfather, said although the families of the men that had died would receive the honour in their place, it would have meant more if the medal had been awarded while they were still alive. “We have been fighting ever since the war to get it,” he said. “I feel we have earned the medal. We deserve it. It is not only for myself but for all my mates – especially those that got killed.”
Some veterans collected their medals from David Cameron this week. Mr Boucher, who suffers from arthritis and is too ill to travel, will receive his by post.
The Arctic convoys carried four million tonnes of cargo, including tanks, planes, fuel and food to help Russia in its fight against the Germans.
More than 66,000 Royal Navy sailors and merchant seamen took part. More than 3,000 of them died between 1941 and 1945.
Only about 400 veterans are still alive.
More than 80 merchant ships and at least 16 Royal Navy vessels were destroyed.
Arctic convoy veterans wear white berets to signify the snow and ice.
Police in Norwich have launched an investigation after a woman claimed in a tweet she had knocked a cyclist off their bike.
max temp: 12°C
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