INTERVIEW WITH GEOFF TAYLOR,
Arctic Convoy Veterans Association,
Please tell a bit about yourself, how and why did you become a naval seaman?
I was born in
I was then transferred to
Kyle of Loch Alsh in
This was my first trip
As the ship was due for a
boiler-clean I was transferred to a V & W destroyer H.M.S. Wrestler. This was an old ship built
about 1918. We saw service in the
We came eventually to
D-day. Most of the destroyers including the "Wrestler" which
had taken part in the Russian convoys took part in that
What was your feeling about
We were very young
men back then, only 18. We knew that Hitler and
What did we think
We did not have much information about
What kind of relationships did you have with the Russians?
We were on small ships. We never went past Polyarnoe and there was not much to see. We only had a few
hours ashore just to have a look around the place. We were not welcomed all
that well by the local people. They were seemingly mistrustful of us. We never
talked to each other – there was no provision made. We were not invited to
their homes, we were not allowed to go out of the area – there could be a
trouble with the army, with the guards… I can remember a later visit when
things had changed since the earlier days. The decided to get on a little bit
better with us… There was a concert party. We did have an aircraft carrier with
us, on of the ones converted from merchant ships. The concert was held in a
hangar of the carrier and we were allowed to send two people from each mess. We
had about 10 messes onboard, so about 20 blokes went on that ship. I never got there so I have no idea what
happened. I know that when the concert was over the blokes began to clap their
hands and whistle they did not know it was a sign of misappreciation
How did we get along with the Russians? We did to a degree, but it was very difficult because of the language. When you meet somebody in the street what do you say? But once we did bring some Russian seamen with us, and that was very interesting. Two of them were placed into each mess of the destroyer. By the end of the trip we were able to speak quite a bit of Russian, and he – of English and we found it very entertaining. I gave one of them my hammock billet. We found them very amusing blokes. We got along very well together.
What was the aim of
their trip to
They were going to
Which day of the war you remember the most?
There were, probably, several of them. I will always remember the first day of the war when Chamberlain said, “This country is at war”. We were only young then and no one knew what was to come and how long it was going to last. ..
The other one was, probably, the first Russian convoy… The next one – D-Day. Then we hit a mine and that was the end of it and I didn’t see anymore of the invasion.
Did you like the books
I quite liked them. There is a little bit of exaggeration, but unless you’ve experienced these hardships yourself… I remember seas 80 foot high and our ship coming up and literally falling down like this (Geoff showed it falling forward nearly vertically – VK)… Three of us had to wash the mess – one held the bucket, another – the mop, and another one was washing the floor… There was exhaustion, very little sleep. A little bit is overdone, but not really, it’s true. I don’t say that relationships between the captain and the crew was that terribly close, we knew each other, but you don’t see much of the captain, you’ve got your own job, you’ve got your own officers, not that much of supervision – you do what you’ve got to do.
“The Cruel Sea”. I think sometimes it would have happened, I think, you mean those survivors in the water… The submarine was more important. It was only at that war. It may have happened…
But those seamen were foreigners, and, if you remember, it was emphasized in the movie… Do you remember foreigners in the convoys? Were there any foreigners in your crew? What was their nationality?
There were a few of them. I remember Norwegians.
We had French and Polish ships working with us. We had crews to help the language problems.
Yes, two or three on our destroyer. It was quite common.
Did you have a chance any of your former enemies or allies after the war?
No, I did not.
I went back to
I worked in the East End of London which was a rough place
at that time. I was not lucky enough to get a job in A, B or C division which
worked in all those glamour parts of
Dulstone was a place a couple of miles away, and there used to be political meetings there. It was held there since it was a Jewish section. A lot of Jews lived there. It was a rough place to start with. This bloke, Oswald Mosely’s right hand man and his name was Geoffrey Ham. I will never forget this bloke. I remember him saying in one of his speeches: There isn’t such a thing as a British Jew, an Eskimo Jew or a German Jew. There is one Jew who is a Jewish Jew and we don’t like him!” And then the crowd erupted, fighting was going on… I said to a bloke who was standing next to me, a little Jewish bloke, “Get out of here. Look, there’s going to be a big upheaval here. Get out before I’ve chucked you out!” I told him two or three times, then I grabbed that silly idiot but he hit kicked me on the shins. Eventually he got 4 months of jail for that, for the assault on police…
Please tell whatever you want about your experience?
One thing that really came back to mind was one in the
Atlantic convoy. I never got as far as
The conditions onboard were absolutely dreadful. Overcrowding was one of the biggest problems we had on destroyers. They had double the crew they had at the normal peace time. We were on 4 hours on, 4 hours off roster, and 4 hours was the maximum amount of sleep you would possibly get. The first ship I joined was the American destroyer HMS Wells, a very good destroyer. Depending how long you’ve been on board of the ship you’d progress to a position for sleep. If you were only new you’d sleep in a hammock. The next bone slept on the lockers. The next one slept on the table. The next one slept on the deck. When the first rain came in and I was wet through. It all came through the hatch… I spent nearly a year on that ship and graduated to the lockers…
The other problem we had on American destroyers was amount of sulfur sucked down the air vents (there was no air-conditioning). We woke up ill because of the bad design of those ships. The design was bad and the conditions were dreadful.
On destroyers there was only one cook for 180 men. We received certain foods from the stores like flour, sultana, tea, coffee, sugar. You would prepare it and bring it to the galley and it would be cooked for you. By the end of each month we received a mass bill – the amount of money you had spent on food. If you had spent less there would be mess savings. Believe you or not at the end of the month we would get mess savings. But the food was actually dreadful onboard of those ships.
How did you eat compared to the British civil population – better or worse?
A lot worse.
We used to take bread at ports – Scottish ports like
Some ships, particularly cruisers would bake bread and some was given to the destroyers. But we were in about seven miles from the cruisers and we never got any bread from them.
The food was dreadful, and if you wanted to eat extra variety you would buy it in N.A.F.F.I. It was particularly dreadful in the early days, towards the end it improved. Our daily allowance for meals was 1.11 ½ per day.
What about alcohol?
We had a rum tot at every morning. Only a little – about 50 grams. They poured water in it to break it down. The reason for it was that after that you couldn’t keep it. It was the only thing which was worth living for. Believe you or not but in the morning was the highlight of the day!
The most sleep you could get was only three hours. We had
problems in getting water. I remember – this was actually in the
Was it justified, what do you think?
I’ll tell you what – it was a nightmare. I should not have done it. I knew it was a wrong thing to do. That’s how severe the conditions were! No way on earth there would be any ships today with shortage of drinking water. There were too many people on board – much more than it was built for to start with. We were on two watches – 4 hours on, for hours off and 3 hours was that amount you could sleep.
Can you tell me about any action against, say, enemy airplanes or U-boats?
The first what comes to mind is the invasion of
Another funny one I remember was during the first Russian convoy. We all brought onboard our long underwear. One of the stokers used to be a jockey - a very small guy. When he got issued with his long johns he standing on the mess table managed to button the waist above his head. And there were howls of laughter from the rest of the crew!
The moral was very high but some officers who had come from RNVR (particularly the first lieutenant) were very inflexible, they would get upset about minor things that were irrelevant like chips of paint missing, etc.
We used to have problems with German long range aircrafts which were circling the convoys out of the range of our AA guns. They were reporting our position to the U-boats. And once a senior officer said to me: ‘Signal the bastard to circle it in the other direction – it makes me dizzy’. And the German did it! It was quite amusing.
On one occasion we came back to
You would here about other destroyers in other convoys being sunk and you look at the hull of the ship next to you and you would think that there is only one quarter of an inch of plate between you and a next torpedo. The only thing stopping you dwelling on being killed was the activities of the mess deck.
We were issued with chocolate which had lumps of white fat in it. Each sailor had a knife he had to carry and we would shave the chocolate with the knives to make a hot drink. It was my turn to go down to the galley to get boiling water and as I got to the bottom to the stairs to the galley the ship rolled badly. I grabbed the stanchion at the base of the stairs to brace myself. When I got back with the boiling water one of my shipmates asked where from all the blood came from. It happened because the palm of my hand had got frozen to the stanchion and because I was not wearing gloves. And I could not go and get treatment as I should have carried gloves…
Icing was a big problem. We would have to chip it off every 4 hours and traverse the guns to stop the mechanism freezing. There were records of smaller ships capsizing and once a Russian destroyer with too much ice on her superstructure went down as well. On one trip we had a scientist onboard who was experimenting with anti-freeze grease. By the time he recovered from sea sickness all the grease he had smeared over the guns had been washed away and so he was unable to observe the effects of his experiment. Ice did not effect bigger vessels – cruisers and larger were not effected so badly…
In Polarnoye when we on watch at night we had to patrol the wharf around the ship. And one night I noticed a bloody great bear amongst the crates. I went to get some friends to deal with it but when we returned we saw the Russians leading the bear away on board of a Russian destroyer because it was their mascot!