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Forces War Records Blog

WWII MERCHANT NAVY DIARY REVEALS GAUNTLET OF ATTACKS ENCOUNTERED BY THE ARCTIC CONVOYS

Blogger: GemSen Recently uncovered by  Forces War Records is William Garden’s unpublished diaries that shed new light on the Arctic Convoy mission, touted at the time as ‘the worst journey in the world’, by Winston Churchill.

William Garden’s personal account details the various enemy attacks he experienced at sea while running the gauntlet of potential submarine, air and battleship attacks, and often in sub-zero conditions. Born in 1917 and from Newport on Tay, Fife, Scotland, William joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 18. By 1941 he was a third officer and part of an Arctic Convoy heading for the former Soviet Union. The Arctic Convoys of World War II were convoys that sailed to northern areas of the Soviet Union from the UK, Iceland, and North America. Many of those involved in the Arctic Convoys were not in the Royal Navy and were simply merchant seamen or fisherman called up for duty. The supplies and ammunition the Arctic Convoys transported were vital to the war effort, as German forces had completely blockaded any access by land. The operation was launched to help ensure vital supplies could get through to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel after Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, to ensure that the Nazis would remain occupied on the Eastern Front. Around 1400 Merchant Navy ships delivered supplies to the Soviet Union escorted by the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and the US Navy, under the Lend-Lease program. With German u-boats and aircraft fighting to stop supplies to Russia many ships were lost and the convoys, which sailed under the name Operation Dervish, cost 3,000 seamen their lives and most of the young men perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, their bodies never to be recovered. As well as Churchill recognising what a gruelling and challenging task the  Convoys were, they were also referred to as ‘the Suicide Missions’ by many of the men that sailed on them. An exert from William’s diary from April 5th 1943 details an air attack that he experienced at the time:
“3pm attack by three Messerschmitts 109, fighter bombers was made. The planes dived in singly to attack, but no direct hits were sustained. Various ships suffered near misses. Another attack was made at 5.10pm – two enemy fighters were shot down.”
William, who passed away at the age of 89 in 2006, was awarded various medals for his bravery and even survived a torpedo attack, which sank the Empire Breeze ship he was on, during 1942. William married his wife in 1947, and had two children. After the war he worked on various commercial ships and his daughter Julie, told Forces War records that: “once he had retired, my father never wanted to go abroad again”. View the diary on the Forces War Records site here:  WWII Merchant Navy Diaries of William R Garden.  Do you have any war heroes in your family?  Tell us about your ancestors and their experiences of war and let us communicate their story. Have any of your family members received medals for their actions? Forces War Records now offer a range of replica war medals  available to purchase  – what better way to remember the achievements of the war heroes in your family...
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