Saturday, 26 March 2016

42 The Arctic Convoys in World War II

42. The Arctic Convoys - (Dai Evans, HMS Gipsy, medals, Fleet Review) - 26 March

While many Second World War operations have long been commemorated, others like the Arctic convoys were somewhat overlooked until recently.  An Abercrâf man served in these, which also involved him in a dangerous rescue mission. 

Born in the Rhondda in 1917, Dai Evans initially followed his father into coal mining, starting work aged 13 at the colliery in Ystradgynlais, before joining the Royal Navy at Devonport five years later.  He was at the Coronation Naval Fleet Review for King George VI at Spithead in May 1937 serving in a battleship; Germany was represented by the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee - just over two years later she was scuttled after the Battle of the River Plate. 

Dai Evans served in the Eastern Mediterranean in the G-class destroyer HMS Gipsy, which on the outbreak of war was transferred to Western Approaches Command at Plymouth.  On 21 November 1939 she rescued three German airmen, but that evening was patrolling the North Sea with three other destroyers when she struck a mine off Harwich and sank, with the captain among the 30 men drowned.  Petty Officer Evans was among the 115 men rescued by the other destroyers, and he recalled with gratitude the efforts of Salvation Army ladies in Harwich to wash the oil off him. 

He served in HMS Zealous, a Z-class destroyer built in 1944 by Cammell Laird, which was involved in the Arctic convoys.  These would escort merchant ships delivering essential supplies to northern parts of the Soviet Union, which demonstrated the commitment of the Allies to help Russia, as well as tying up a substantial part of Germany's Navy and Air Force.  The route passed through a narrow funnel between the Arctic ice pack and German bases in Norway, and was particularly hazardous in winter when the ice came further south.  Many of the convoys were attacked by German submarines, aircraft and warships.  Conditions were among the worst faced, with extreme cold, gales and pack ice – Churchill described it as “the worst journey in the world”.

At the request of King Haakon of Norway, exiled in London, HMS Zealous and three other destroyers undertook the rescue of 525 Norwegians who after the German occupation were hiding in caves on the snow-covered mountains of Sørøya Island, off the north coast of Norway.  For three months they could not emerge from the caves during daylight hours for fear of capture by enemy patrols, which would have meant internment in concentration camps or being used as forced labour.  Operation Open Door committed the four destroyers to a daring race 60 miles (97 km) behind enemy lines in February 1945, to evacuate the Norwegians via Murmansk in Russia to the port of Gourock in Strathclyde.  Following the cessation of hostilities, some returned to Sørøya to rebuild their community.  Dai Evans’s son, who lives in Sketty, made contact a few years ago and visited Sørøya Island, finding the efforts of his father greatly appreciated.  One elderly person marvelled that people from so far away would come and help them.  The contacts with people in Sørøya continue to the present day.

Notwithstanding the heroism of those involved, for many decades Britain did not award Arctic medals, though Dai Evans received the 1939-45 Star, the Africa Star and the Atlantic Star.  Ironically in 1985 it was Russia who awarded him a medal on the fortieth anniversary of the Arctic convoys.  Through the campaigning of former naval officer Sir Ludovic Kennedy and others, the Arctic Star was awarded from 2013, though mainly posthumously.  So now the family of Dai Evans can proudly place the Arctic Star beside his other medals, as recognition of the service of those engaged in the Arctic convoys during the Second World War.      

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