Sunk twice and reliving the tale

By Jon Moreno

Friday, January 31, 2014

 

Sunk twice and reliving the tale

Ian Gordon, 88, of Alverstone Garden Village, with a picture of himself during his war service. Picture by Patrick Eden.

WIGHT LIVING ROYAL Navy veteran Ian Gordon is probably one of a select few able to share his tales of survival after he served on two ships that were sunk during the Second World War.

The Islander, a hero of the D-Day landings and the Arctic convoys, is to make an emotional journey back to Norway this summer, thanks to a cash award from the Big Lottery’s Heroes Return 2 fund.

The fund helps veterans and their families to cover the cost of making trips to places across the world where they served, or to make a commemorative visit in the UK.

The 88 year old, of Alverstone Garden Village, recently received the Arctic Star from the Island’s Lord Lieutenant in recognition of the extraordinary bravery he and fellow servicemen showed on the convoys, which Churchill famously dubbed "the worst journey in the world".

Accompanied by his wife, Joan, Ian will be going on a Baltic cruise that will conclude in Oslo, Norway’s capital, where Ian will meet the daughter of Tony Andersen, a Norwegian telegraphist who saved him from certain drowning.

In December 1944, Ian served on the Norwegian corvette Tunsberg Castle — part of a convoy that delivered supplies to Polyarnoe, near Murmansk, Russia.

A few days later, the Tunsberg, with another corvette and two minesweepers, were ordered to proceed to Batsfjord, a small community on a narrow fjord on the Varanger peninsula, in Finnmark, Norway, where a radio station was to be established.

Ian recalled: "The fjord was a sort of no man’s land between the Germans and the Russians. The people there were starving and we were taking food and supplies.

"We were the leading ship. We got into the entrance of the fjord, where we sighted a merchant ship. My action station was the auxiliary wireless transmitter, housed in the ship’s carpenter’s tiny cabin-workshop, shared with Tony.

"We hadn’t been closed up long before we felt the vibration as the ship increased speed, then almost immediately afterwards, there was a loud explosion. We had hit a mine.

"The steel quarterdeck came up beneath us and we were both sent sprawling. The steel door that provided our only means of escape was jammed tight shut."

As the black water rose and in pitch darkness, Manchester-born Ian, just 19, did not expect to see his 20th birthday.

"We knew the ship was sinking and we were really struggling for a while but, thanks to Tony, who was much stronger than I was, we eventually forced the door open just enough for us to get through.

"I really thought we’d had it. It was the most frightening experience of my life."

Ian was rescued by the escort corvette Eglantine, which took off the survivors before Tunsberg slipped beneath the icy waters.

With the Tunsberg lost and five men killed, the operation was abandoned and Ian went back to Polyarny.

Ian was given two weeks’ survivor’s leave and took passage back to the UK in a British frigate.

Before he had volunteered to go on Arctic convoy duty, Ian saw action during the D-Day assault.

He had been conscripted into the Royal Navy as a naval communications coder, deciphering Morse code transmissions, in July 1943.

He was posted to Devonport to prepare for the D-Day assault on Juno Beach and served aboard the frigate HMS Lawford, headquarters ship for Assault Group 1, Force 1.

"At the beginning of June 1944, we joined Lawford, off Cowes, amid a big concentration of ships and landing craft.

"We weighed anchor at about 9pm on June 5 and slipped out through the Spithead channel to lead our flotilla of assault landing craft, heading south for Normandy, to land the Canadians."

Anchored off Juno beach on June 8 — 'D-Day plus two’ — Lawford was bombed and sunk by enemy aircraft in the early hours.

"After the initial assault on Juno, I was off watch and asleep in the after mess deck when two 500lb bombs struck us amidships.

"Up on deck, I saw some men in the water, no doubt having been blown there by the explosion, and the ship listed severely to starboard. It was not long before the order came to abandon ship.

"Our small group was in the water clinging to a rolled-up scrambling net before we were picked up by the minesweeper, HMS Pique.

"Some survivors had broken bones and one guy was wrapped up in cotton wool, badly scalded.

"Lawford never came back. She’s still there, lying 30 metres deep off Arromanches with 26 of my shipmates who didn’t make it."

For the remainder of the war, Ian served in the Far East, including Singapore, before returning home on HMS Manxman in August 1946.

Looking back, he said: "I was extremely lucky. There were times when I really thought I’d had it."

Reporter: jonm@iwcpmail.co.uk

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