By Graham Chalmers
It was the worst journey of his life and it lingers in John Stanley Hunt’s memory to this day.
Thousands of allied seamen lost their lives in stormy seas on convoy duty to Russia during the Second World War but John was one of the lucky ones.
He survived to marry a Harrogate girl, become a stalwart employee of Harrogate electronics firm Blackburn and Swallow and make his mark locally in his beloved cricket.
But the 90-year-old former serviceman, along with other survivors, is only now receiving recognition for his heroism in what Winston Churchill himself once described as the most dangerous route in the war.
Sitting in his favourite armchair in the front room of his small house in Bilton, John is a modest man but is happy to show me his medals from his days in the Royal Navy.
“I’ve never expected any medals. It didn’t interest me so when I was given the British Arctic Star three years ago, it came out of the blue.
“But I had to apply for the Russian one that I’ve just been given. I’m quite proud of them really.”
Before war broke out in 1939, John was a teenager in a small village in Berkshire.
Keen to do his bit, he lied about his age to join the Home Guard. By 1943 aged 18, he was old enough to sign up.
At first he was posted to the relative safety of a ‘land ship’ at a Royal Navy depot in North Wales.
But a year later he found himself on a C-class destroyer, HMS Cambrian, bound from Loch Ewe in Scotland for Kola, a harbour near Murmansk in northwestern Russia.
His job was to help protect merchant ships carrying provisions for the Soviet war effort from predatory German submarines in the treacherous, icy waters of the North Sea and the Barents Sea.
It was a turn of events which surprised John himself.
“To go from being a normal village idiot to being at sea during a war was a big upturn. I’d volunteered for the navy because I knew I could swim and thought I had a chance of surviving if sunk.
“Once at sea I realised I’d made a faux pas. I’d never seen anything like it. These were the roughest seas I’d ever seen.”
As he talks to me flanked by his daughters Diane and Elaine, amid framed photographs of those days, I can see in his eyes all those memories of more than 70 years ago coming back to life.
“It took weeks to get to Russia. All you had to wear in those days was a dufflecoat and wellies and there was nowhere on board to dry yourself once you were wet. We had to chip ice off the decks.”
As well as the cold, there was the constant threat of U-boat attack. As a torpedo man, John’s job was to thwart that particular danger with depth charges and torpedoes, if necessary.
In the event, the escorts sunk two German submarines on his first Russian patrol and all 33 merchant ships made it to port safely.
But luck always plays its part in a war zone.
“There was always the risk of getting blown up, though it never happened to me. But another of the destroyers doing convoy service, HMS Kite, was sunk by torpedo only a week later.”
As the tide of war turned the Allies’ way in the West, the following year brought a new posting for John in the Far East and a dramatic change of scenery – and temperature.
“I joined another destroyer, HMS Troubridge. The weather was completely different but we got hit by a few tornados. I wasn’t sure which was worse, the North Sea or the Pacific.”
John found himself stationed off the coast of Japan when the atom bombs which finally brought the Japanese surrender in 1945 were dropped.
He wasn’t at Hiroshima or Nagasaki but he was well aware of the effect constant bombardment by American planes had already had.
“They were bombing Japan day in and day out. All the cities I saw looked a bit like Hiroshima. They were all flattened.”
After a spell escorting hospital ships to Australia, peacetime saw John returning to the UK and back to a ‘land ship’, this time at Chatham, near London.
Then luck brought another twist of fate.
Living in a cramped flat in London, a naval comrade who hailed from Harrogate showed him a photograph.
One of the figures in it was a Harrogate girl, his future wife Marjorie.
“I took one look at the photo and said I liked the look of her. My naval pal said she lived in Harrogate. There was no social media or smart phones so we became pen pals, which is what you did in those days.
“But I had to meet her and eventually she came down to London for a date – with a chaperone.”
Married at Caxton Hall on Christmas Eve 1946, the ‘honeymoon’ consisted of a visit to the cinema that night.
John left the Royal Navy in 1948, then moved north to Harrogate for a bigger house and a new future in 1950 when Marjorie was expecting.
There followed more than 60 happy years together, years of walking in the Dales as a couple, working at Blackburn and Swallow, setting up the work’s cricket team, playing in the Harrogate and District Evening League.
Sadly, Marjorie passed away three and a half years ago. John himself suffered a stroke only two years ago and was unable to collect the Medal of Ushakov in person.
Instead, it was picked up from the Russian embassy in London by his grandson Johnny Skinner.
But the outer signs of the wear and tear of age disguise a man as young at heart as anyone.
“I’ve seen a thing or two in my time but when I saw the sea on the Arctic Convoy I said to myself if I go in the water I won’t last long.”
Interestingly, his new medal came accompanied by a letter signed by the Russian ambassador on behalf of Vladimir Putin.
Positively effusive in its praise of the courage of British sailors like John, it makes this Harrogate hero one of the few ‘westerners’ still in the Russian president’s good books.