68 years after the end of the Second World War, the unsung heroes of the brutal Arctic Convoys are to be officially recognised with a medal. Emma McKinney speaks to one Birmingham veteran.
Bitterly cold and terrified, Birmingham war hero Stan Southall was staring death in the face as his battlecruiser dodged torpedoes and bombs as it frantically tried to protect vital convoys.
But rather than ducking for cover, the brave sailor instead picked up his camera and captured the action as the vessel was constantly attacked as she made her way along her perilous journey to Russia.
Now the 94-year-old, from Northfield, has shared his amazing photo album with the Birmingham Post – revealing a fascinating insight into the horrific and bloody Arctic convoys that former Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “the worst journey in the world”.
Aged just 20, Stan was a Leading Signalman in the Royal Navy when he captured the images aboard HMS Renown – one of the ships tasked with delivering vital supplies to Russia through the icy waters of the Norwegian Sea.
There were 78 voyages made in what proved to be one of the most dangerous, miserable and under-appreciated campaigns of the Second World War.
More than 3,000 men lost their lives, while 18 Royal Navy warships and 87 merchant fleet ships were sunk – yet the convoys have often been overlooked.
Now the brave survivors, including Stan, are this month finally set to be recognised with an Arctic Star medal from The Ministry of Defence. Sadly few of the men will be celebrating the milestone moment with Stan, with just 200 of the 66,000 who took part in the Arctic convoys believed to be alive today.
For Stan, who completed three convoys between 1941 and 1942, the memories of those gruelling journeys will live with him forever.
“It was without doubt the most terrifying time of my life,” says Stan, who was born and raised in Selly Oak before moving to Kings Norton in 1938 shortly before the war broke out. “It was 1,500 miles there, and 1,500 back and during every inch of that journey we were being torpedoed and bombed.
“I honestly felt as though I was never going to make it back alive, and sadly many of my comrades didn’t.”
But his abiding memory is that of the bitter, unrelenting cold. With temperatures plunging to as low as -40C, Stan would have to sleep fully clothed and in his life jacket just to keep warm.
“I was up on the bridge, the highest part of the ship, and by the end of a four-hour shift I would have an inch-thick layer of ice over my back,” he said.
“In winter it was dark for about 23 of every 24 hours and ice would have to be hacked off the decks of ships.
“It was a terrible time and it seemed like an eternity, I felt as though I was waiting to die.”
But to keep himself entertained, Stan would use his beloved Kodak Brownie camera to document the action as it unfolded.
“I bought the camera just before the war,” he said. “I decided to take it with me when I went to sea because I thought it would be good to take pictures as I travelled around the world.
“I don’t think I was supposed to have it on the ship, I smuggled it on and took pictures while no one was looking.
“I often look at the pictures and think back to those times and to all those who lost their lives.”
Stan, who was an apprentice paintbrush maker at Stirchley firm CH Ling & Sons before volunteering to serve in the navy, said he did not enjoy being a seaman.
“If you paid me £100,000 to go on a cruise now I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I chose to join the navy but when I got to sea I felt like it was a wasted life spent looking out at the ocean.”
For the pensioner, the Arctic Star medal will be a welcome addition to his four other medals won for his bravery during the war.
“I have three medals from the Russian Embassy but just a small pin for a button hole from the British government,” said Stan. “I was quite insulted by the pin and I’ve always refused to wear it.”
As well as the Arctic convoys, Stan fought in campaigns in Malta and North Africa before ending up in Japan where he remained until the war was declared over and he finally returned home in 1946.
Stan, who met his wife Jean just two days before he was shipped off to serve his country in 1939, said thoughts of his family back home kept him going through the dark times.
“Jean and I used to write to each other all the time,” he added. “It was her letters that gave me hope.”
The couple were married by Thomas the Tank Engine author Reverend Wilbert Awdry at St Nicholas’ Church in Kings Norton while Stan was on leave in 1942.
When Stan returned from the war the couple went on to have daughter Rachel Driscoll, now 50, who is married and lives in Bromsgrove with sons Tom, 23, and Jack, 21.
“My family are very proud that I am getting this medal,” said Stan, who returned from the war to complete his apprenticeship and went on to work for LG Harris in Stoke Prior before running his own general stores S&B in Walsall and Morris’s in Northfield. He retired aged 63. “At my age I don’t think I’m up for gallivanting around London to get it, but I will certainly be honoured to receive it.”