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Sailor recalls ‘convoy to hell’ war mission

PUBLISHED: 18:00 04 March 2012

Jack Lester was in the merchant navy in the 'convoy to hell' which suffered heavy losses in 1942.- photographed at home in Upminster with his medals

Jack Lester was in the merchant navy in the 'convoy to hell' which suffered heavy losses in 1942.- photographed at home in Upminster with his medals

Archant

»As the fate of the Second World War hung in the balance, a convoy of Allied Merchant Navy ships set off to deliver vital supplied to the Soviet Union to help prop up the defence against the Nazi invasion.

After a pause in Iceland, 38 ships set off to Russia – in a mission codenamed PQ17 –but following a devastating German attack – only six made it home.

As the 70th anniversary of the mission approaches Jack Lester, 92, of River Drive, Upminster, told the Recorder this week that he hasn’t forgotten that fateful time.

“It happened a long time ago, PQ17 – the convoy to hell,” Jack, who was a 22-year-old junior engineer at the time, said.

“We waited in Iceland for quite some time for American ships to join and we had a (Royal) naval force join us.”

‘Sitting ducks’

But the journey didn’t go to plan. As word spread that German ships were heading to meet the convoy, the Royal Navy ships were ordered to leave the convoy it was thought they were protecting.

“We were sitting ducks,” recalls Jack. “On July 4 we suffered a tremendous attack of submarines and planes.”

“Radar was the thing that saved us without a doubt, because we could see the U-boats that were on the surface.

“The attack just came in and that was it. I was in the engine room at the time and I came up to see what was going on. Everybody was running around, some were shouting.”

“We moved out of the way, but personally you just had to wait and see what happened, there wasn’t a lot you could do.”

The ship had just one gun at the back, which wouldn’t have been much use against the mass of opposition weapons, and the Empire Tide struggled on, saved by the pioneering technology it had on board.

“We lost some ships but we still had to get to Russia,” Jack said. “Even though we were still sitting ducks we carried on as best we could.”

Return

They eventually arrived at the island Navaya Zemlya, north of Russia and were escorted by a Russian destroyer to the port of Archangel where they delivered the vital supplies.

After eventually coming home from the PQ17 mission, he found out that loved ones hadn’t been told details of what happened to the convoy.

“I don’t say they (the government) wanted to hush it up, but they didn’t want to know anything about it.”


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