Last week the chef at my mother’s care home handed me a hefty tome entitled The Arctic Convoys, 1941-1945 (a man of eclectic tastes he has previously lent me a DVD of Cream at the Albert Hall). As a keen reader of naval history, he had spotted a Jauncey in the story and wondered if it was a relative and if I would be interested in borrowing the book.
I’ve always known that my paternal grandfather served with distinction on the Arctic Convoys, specifically the ill-fated convoy PQ17; that the circumstances of the convoy’s destruction were highly controversial; and that he was one of a number of officers who were defamed in a subsequent book about it by the revisionist historian and Holocaust-denier, David Irving. But as is so often the case with family stories, I only know what I remember from conversations around the dinner table. I gratefully took the book.
In the summer of 1941 the Germans began their assault on Soviet Russia. Lacking the raw materials and manufacturing capacity to produce the vital matériel – tanks, guns, vehicles, ammunition, aircraft – needed to withstand and ultimately repel Hitler’s advance, Stalin was quick to seek Churchill’s support, which he duly gave. The only way to deliver these supplies was by ship, around the north of Nazi-occupied Norway, then east through the Barents Sea to the Russian ports of Murmansk, on the Kola inlet, and Archangel, on the White Sea.
Between 1941 and 1945, 40 convoys steamed north from Scapa Flow or Iceland. Each convoy sailed in strict formation, protected by an escort of Royal Naval cruisers, destroyers, submarines, minesweepers and anti-aircraft vessels. Over the four-year period a total of 811 merchant ships undertook the voyage, 753 of them reached their destination, the Russian struggle was greatly assisted and the operation was generally considered a success.
The conditions were nevertheless harsh and perilous in the extreme. In addition to the constant threat of attack, sailing in the winter months meant darkness, severe weather, an encroaching ice shelf, the danger of capsizing under the weight of accumulated ice on the ship’s superstructure, and almost instant death on entering the water. In the round-the-clock daylight of summer, the slow-moving convoys were a sitting target for German aircraft and U-boats, to which the heavily armed Royal Naval escort was the only deterrent.
Born in 1889, Grampa Jauncey was already 50 at the outbreak of WWII. He had served in WWI, been ‘axed’ in the naval cuts of the early 1930s, and spent the rest of the decade pursuing his passion as an antiquarian horologist, with his own clock shop in London’s Beauchamp Place. Now he was called out of retirement as acting captain, in command of HMS Palomares, a fast and manoeuvrable former merchant fruit-carrier that had been converted to an anti-aircraft ship.
I remember him in his final retirement as small, fastidious and smiling, bent over his work bench with a jeweler’s eyepiece examining the minute brass workings of some clock or watch, or firing up one of the model steam engines with which he delighted in entertaining us and occasionally, to my grandmother’s fury, setting fire to the sitting room carpet.
He died of cancer when I was nine (the headmaster of my prep school instructed me to write a letter of condolence to my father; I didn’t know where to begin) so my memories of him are those of a child observing a civilian. But would I have known he had spent most of his career as a naval officer? I might have done. The sea was all around me. My maternal grandfather was also a career sailor, as had been three of my four great-grandfathers.
There was something precise and orderly about Grampa Jauncey and although he was physically slight, in his bearing and voice he had the authority of someone who has held others’ lives in his hand, and his gaze had that steady, penetrating quality that comes from spending much time at sea. Of the inner man, though, I knew nothing at all. I’ve heard that he was charming and amusing, also that he could be fierce – ‘I wouldn’t have liked to have been on his ship,’ said my mother not that long ago. And towards the end of his life I remember him being ill and irritable and being told not to make noise around him.
But what intrigues me most now is what the family legend fails to reveal, which is how this small, refined, peaceable and, by the standards of peacetime service, elderly man survived one of the great naval disasters of the Second World War. What carried him through and earned him a gallantry award? Was it simply discipline and a sense of duty? What resources did he draw on in the lethal chaos that was to ensue in those high latitudes? And underlying those questions, the other more personal one: how would I have reacted in those circumstances? To be continued …