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Feature: Arctic Convoy veteran Gordon Copson, of Hornchurch, on life as a wartime codebreaker

16:56 20 November 2012

Gordon Copson served with the Arctic Convoys

Gordon Copson served with the Arctic Convoys

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“If you look in someone’s face and watch them die, you never forget it.”

Gordon Copson, aged 19Gordon Copson, aged 19

Those are the words of wartime codebreaker Gordon Copson, one of Britain’s 800 ex-servicemen recently denied a bravery medal for their help keeping open supply lines during the Second World War.

Staring death in the face is just one of the shocking realities Mr Copson had to square up to during his service. The Recorder found out more about the local hero the Foreign Office says can’t be decorated because his conflict was too long ago.

Born in Holloway, Mr Copson was a teenager when he joined the navy in 1943. He soon found himself at the telegraphists’ desk of the Destroyer Kepple as a “huff-duff” – a high-frequency direction-finder.

The job saw him tracking enemy U-boat signals and learning German Morse code.

Gordon Copson's medals (l-r): 1914 Star, Atlantic Star, Defence Medal, War MedalGordon Copson's medals (l-r): 1914 Star, Atlantic Star, Defence Medal, War Medal

It was delicate work – “I wasn’t allowed to do anything physical because we used Morse keys and we couldn’t damage our hands,” he explained – but that didn’t mean it was comfortable.

“My office was roughly the size of a public toilet,” he said. “It was rather sparse and for a large part of the year it was dark – so you were groping your way around on deck.

“I had to come from the fore part of the ship right to the stern in the dark to get to the office, and if it was icy it wasn’t that clever.

“But being young – I was only 19 at the time – you don’t worry about that.”

One thing, however, did stick with the young Mr Copson. In August 1944, a sloop in his convoy called Kite was hit by enemy fire while several miles ahead of the other ships. Isolated, the crew of the Kepple couldn’t stop until the convoy caught up for fear of being torpedoed themselves.

“There were people bobbing about in the water for the best part of 40 minutes,” he remembered.

“Two hundred and seventeen people were killed. We picked up 14 of them but five died on board. There were nine survivors.

“You just don’t forget these things.”

The rest of Mr Copson’s war saw him learning Japanese Morse in Sri Lanka, but what he’d seen that day never left him.

After the war, Mr Copson returned home – first to his family’s hotel in Folkestone, and then back to London. Married to Dorothy 65 years ago, he moved to Hornchurch in 1956, eventually joining a construction firm as a safety advisor.

But recently, memories of his Naval days have been catching up with him again.

“I’ve thought about the war more in the last few years,” he said. “And it always gets a bit emotional when you get round to Remembrance Day.”

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