NEARNESS OF ICE: Arctic Convoys — interview with Kate Newmann

About 1,400 merchant ships delivered essential supplies to the Soviet Union in 1941-1945 under the Lend-Lease program, escorted by ships of British Navy. Eighty-five merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were lost. The convoys demonstrated the Allies’ commitment to helping the Soviet Union, prior to the opening of a second front, and tied up a substantial part of Germany’s naval and air forces.

Many Irish men joined the Brirish Navy at the time of WW2, many of them served at Arctic convoys. In 2016 Kate Newmann, a writer from Northern Ireland published the book «Nearness of Ice: Arctic Convoys», which collected stories of Irish survivors.

Kate, what motivated you to write a book about Irish participants of Arctic convoys?

I was approached by the Duchess of Abercorn, Honorary Consul for the Russian Federation in Northern Ireland, when the Northern Ireland survivors of the Arctic Convoys were presented with the Ushakov Medal. Sacha felt that since most of the men were in their early 90s it seemed appropriate and fitting to record what they had to say.

How long did it take you to gather the information?

To begin with, I was given the names and addresses of seventeen people and I began tentatively to make telephone calls and appointments. It wasn’t an easy task. I understood the reticence of some men to revisit their past, and there were some who had medical problems, and some who were appalled at the thought of being interviewed – even though we always kept the conversation on an informal basis: I never used a tape-recorder, which can be very off-putting, and took the minimum of notes while I was with them.

It was strange to see men find memorabilia and photographs and newspaper cuttings that often their families didn’t understand.

I grew very fond of the men, and the more they saw how valuable their contribution was to a book that wouldn’t happen unless they told me, they were eager for the project to come about.

I did promise that there would be a lunchtime celebration with wine and good food, and that they were the ones who would be honoured – that there would be TV cameras and newspaper reporters. Having involved us all in this fantasy, the onus was on to see that it did materialise – and materialise it did.

The timing of the project was dictated by the urgency and it was all completed – including the publication of the book – within a year.

The veterans were all resident in Northern Ireland, but some had come to Northern Ireland and married, settled and had families. They considered it their home.

What stories impressed or shocked you the most? 

Each of the men impressed me in their own way. The stories made me conscious of ICE and how it dictated everything – that and the fear of torpedoes and strafing from German troops on the Norwegian coast.

They were very very young men when they underwent this gruelling and life-forming challenge. They had seen their pals being killed. They had lived with perpetual uncertainty as to their own lives. And there was a residual feeling that compared to all the other military participants, they had been undervalued.

They weren’t undervalued by the time the book was finished.

Perhaps the words that resound are those of the young man in the sea who could hear his mates shrieking from inside a hatch that wouldn’t open.

Is there anything in common in all stories of convoys participants?

Strangely, because of the structures of command, there are differences in the situations of the men. There were a few who served on warships, while some of the others were merchant seamen on vessels such as fishing boats that had been requisitioned and hastily recommissioned for the war. Among this group of men, there was the horror of the warships which flanked the small boats on convoys, being told to return to harbour.

Some of the men had had quite a lot of contact with Russian people in Archangel and Murmansk, while others had not been permitted to go ashore.

How, do you think, the experience of participation in Arctic convoys, WW2, affected people’s life in Ireland/Northern Ireland, the life of participants themselves?

It is difficult to ascertain what affects a life, and how major events impact on people, but among some sections of the community it was not popular to have served the British cause. So their return to normality was far from normal, and they did not speak of their experiences.

There were remarkable details – one man became a dentist and had actually invented an artificial palate for children with a cleft palate, so that the infant could feed. Another of the men – I have spoken to him very recently – has just had his 98th birthday. He amazes me with his perceptivity, intelligence and lucidity.

There were men who sorrowed on their return, because there had been drastic changes in their own families – like the death of a parent or a sibling.

The men did not seem to blame anybody for having sent them into such an impossible situation. They were deeply relieved that they had survived and they all had a distinct lack of hatred.

Stories of veterans:

Thomas Jess

«Where we were in Russia was more of a village. A lot of ships. I remember a lot of women working, whereas the men would be doing the jobs here, there’d be women doing them there — operating cranes and all there, taking the stuff off the merchant ships.

… But I noticed we never were attacked as much coming back as we were attacked going. They tried to stop the supply line going to Russia.»

Robert David McCullough

«Those female Russian pilots — all good looking girls — good pilots. I don’t know how many women… They knew how to live, anyway. There was this big hangar — that was their digs — they had entertainment. There was a man with megaphones would give instruction…. In Polyarny they put up on a show — they got a seaman up to dance — you have to kneel down and fold your arms, and he just keeled over on his ass — he couldn’t make it. The Russians were very friendly and very thankful.»

William McBride

«Arkhangelsk was quite a nice place — very friendly people. As a matter of fact — we made friends with people — Russians… Suppose it was very difficult for them. They were glad to make friends.  We would have taken them up food and anything else — it wasn’t easy — no- no way. They used to be in big halls — They were all living in that. I remember some of the boys on ship used to say — «You’ll be ending up staying in Russians». They had a hard time of it too. I would have said that being warm to people kept me alive. I would have said so.»

I know, that you have visited Russia before. What is your interest in Russia? 

My mother, Joan Newmann, visited Russia with the Duchess of Abercorn and a delegation of teachers to visit St Petersburg schools, and Sacha Abercorn, being the great-great-great granddaughter of Alexander Pushkin, and also a Romanov, was treated with the most generous magnanimity and welcome. So impressed was my mother at the otherness and beauty , that she felt I should see what she had experienced, and the following year we went during the White Nights in June. We visited the Mariinsky Theatre twice – once for Aida, conducted by Placido Domingo, and once for an exquisite performance of Swan Lake. We visited Pavlovsk and Tsarkoe Selo and Dostoevsky’s house and where Anna Akhmatova lived on the Fontanka, and we read aloud Joseph Brodsky’s A Room and a Half in our room in the white night with no electric light, shadowed by St Isaac’s Dome. Russia inhabited me.

In 2005 I was invited to give poetry workshops and help establish the first Pushkin Summer Camp of the Imagination, in the Roshchino forest outside Vyborg. I was amazed by the expertise of the other facilitators: Sasha, singer and ethnomusicologist; Nadya Koryakova, a young very gifted artist and Nina Vladimirovna, a Theatre Methodologist, and by the fluency in English, their appreciation of sometimes very subtle nuances, of the students – and their joy in the participation.

When Summer Palace Press published Sacha’s book, we launched it in Pushkin’s school next to St Catherine’s Palace. It was amazingly poetic – the sky was bright blue and it was sunny and as Sacha began to read, it began to snow.

What one knows and what one is familiar with, has to move aside to co-exist with this uniqueness.

What is your impression about Russian/USSR involvement in WW2?

As I mention in the preface to the book, it was promises made by heads of state, and German expansionist policy, which led to the necessity of the Arctic Convoys to get supplies to Russia via Murmansk and Archangel, since supply lines were blocked elsewhere. When Hitler issued Criminal Orders, the soldiers had the licence to kill anyone who was Russian – and there is unbearable footage which accompanies this dreadful act of cruelty. One can only empathize.

In School 406, we were fortunate to meet a woman who had lived through that time in Leningrad, and she was remarkable. And it will always remain in our memory that our excellent guide Elena – who was by profession a professor of history, and had been taught by Lev, Akhmatova’s son – remembers her grandmother rolling her uncle’s corpse up in their best carpet before leaving him in a tram because graves could not be dug in the frozen earth.

Do you know if any of veterans are still alive, do you keep in touch with them/their families?

The men don’t keep in touch with each other. There is no organisation which embraces them, and though I do take Philip and Jackie Ball out for lunch occasionally, I don’t meet with the others.

Two of the men have died, but my residual memory is of our being gathered together and fulfilling this vision of celebration – giving each family ten copies of the book, and finding by a miracle, on the internet, a bottle of Pusser’s Rum which figured large with every one of them. Remarkably the delivery man who brought the Pusser’s Rum from Amazon to my door the night before the book launch, was amazed when I explained what it was, and told me that his father had been on the convoys and had sailed to North Russia.

Kate, please, tell us a little bit about yourself.

My father, who has recently died, was a scientist and lectured at Queen’s University, Belfast. My mother belonged to the famous Philip Hobsbaum Group in Belfast and had her first poetry publication in 1965 along with Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane and Stewart Parker.

My father would have loved me to love mathematics as much as he did, but his perpetual disappointment that I didn’t score 100% in each test, inhibited me from taking it further than GCE. I attended Friends’ School Lisburn, a Quaker School, and after my A-levels in English, Latin, History and Geography, I was accepted to study English at King’s College, Cambridge.

I have five collections of poetry (the first published in 2001) and I also compiled the Dictionary of Ulster Biography while working at the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast.

I have for many years facilitated creative writing in schools all over Ireland, with adult groups and with teachers, and I have worked with Arts Councils and Education Boards. As well as being writer-in-residence for one-and-a-half years for Arts Care in the Down Lisburn Health Trust, with psychiatric patients, young people with learning disability, children in care homes and addiction units, where I compiled a book, People Can’t Cry on the Moon, after the bomb in Omagh which killed two pupils of Scoil Iosagain, I produced a book of those children’s writings: I Am.

In all I have compiled, edited and published thirteen community books. Some of these were for schools involved in the Pushkin Trust, established by Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn.

My mother and I established a publishing house, Summer Palace Press, in 1999, and we have forty-eight titles to our credit (including Feather from the Firebird, a book of prose poems by Sacha).

For the past three years I have been a carer for my father.

Anastasia McCabe. Original interview was published in Russky Mir, N5, 2020

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