VIDEO: Brave submariner from Northampton recounts the notorious ‘worst journey in the world’

  • Eric Wills of HMS P614 spent most of the time on the surface, giving away the submarine’s key advantage
  • Churchill called it ‘the worst journey in the world’ because of the minus 50 degrees Celsius temperatures
  • Nineteen-day journeys to Russia saw them harried day and night by U-boats and German planes
  • Anyone falling in the water would be dead in three minutes

Everything was against the crew of HMS P614.

For some of the 30-plus crew members, like Eric Wills from Northampton, they had joined the Royal Navy submarine fresh from training.

All submariners had to want to spend weeks on end living in cramped conditions beneath the wavs and all of them were volunteers.

What they didn’t know, however, was what they were signing up to.

After some initial missions elsewhere, Eric - armed with his ‘Parma’ camera - and his fellow sailors were assigned to the freezing, perilous convoys that slowly sailed past Scandanavia and on to Russia, which Winston Churchill described as ‘the worst journey in the world’.

Not only that but P614 would travel. at the speed of agonising pace of the slowest merchant ship, on the surface of the ice-filled sea, surrendering the biggest advantage a sub had over enemy vessels and aircraft - its stealth.

Eric Wills being presented with the Ushakov medal

Eric Wills being presented with the Ushakov medal

“It was an unusual job for a submarine,” says Eric.

‘We didn’t like it, it was bad enough normally in a submarine.

‘You had to wait on the surface until they came out from the Norwegian lairs, then you dived.”

So highly-trained was the P614’s crew that they could be completely submerged in 45 seconds.

But they were sometimes caught in the open and the danger to the crews was obvious what with bombs, bullets and torpedoes not to mention the treacherously icy water.

The sea spray of the huge, battering waves could quickly become a heavy coating of ice on conning tower deck and rails, upsetting the delicate balance of the vessel.

And if somebody fell overboard then it was a rule of thumb that any man swallowed by the Arctic Ocean would be dead inside three minutes.

Nevertheless, the eccentricities of the captain, Lt. J Beckley, meant P614 on occasion flirted with danger more than its sailors would perhaps have liked.

Eric, with his Parma, was sometimes at the centre of the action.

“As soon as the attack started,” he recalls of one encounter, “the Captain shouted: ‘On the bridge Wills,’ and I went up there and there was planes all over the bleedin’ place.

“They were coming down the lanes but I managed to get a few shots and there was some real gems amongst them.

“The skipper kept shouting: ‘Over there, Wills, over there!’.

“This one was coming down and I could see he was heading for the aircraft carrier astern of us.

“I could see him in the cockpit only a few feet above the water and a couple of seconds later the destroyers blew him up - gone.

“He was just sitting there all normal; you had to admire him.

“But I never got that photo back.”

That particular attack was in September 1942 near Iceland when the submarine was tasked with the close escort of the aircraft carrier HMS Avenger.

“I remember that our crew were not too happy because they felt that, when an attack came, Avenger would be a prime target,”

Eric says.

However, as unlikely as it seems, most submarine sailors enjoyed their work not least because of their vessel’s almost iconic sense of mystery.

“I had always been fascinated by them. You went through the school and when you saw all you had to remember, I thought I’d never learn it all but I did.

“Sometimes I have dreams about the sub.

“One time I were dreaming I was on the boat and I was working the valves.

“In all those years I knew where they were. It was fantastic.”

That is not to say that it wasn’t hard work, and under terrible conditions.

All the Arctic Convoys - including the disastrous one P614 took part in in July 1942, codenamed PQ17 - saw conditions that, many experts agree, were the worst of the war.

Even when not exposed or under attack, cramped conditions were endured for hours under the sea, with dives on recycled air lasting up to 17 hours.

And when on the surface, anyone going on deck could only let slits of their eyes and nostrils be exposed for risk of frostbite and one of the convoy sailors’ first lessons was to never, ever go to the toilet in the open.

If that wasn’t enough they were on constant duty, four hours on four off on a journey that, in the case of the PQ18 mission, took 19 days to arrive with its precious supplies in Archangel.

Eric, with his diving station near the periscope allowing him a front seat, recalls that his submarine was never far from danger - sometimes without warning.

He said: “One time there was a snowstorm and the skipper said we had to get down below.

“I’d just gone off watch and I was in my bunk and the night alarm went off.

“I dashed to my diving station in the pump room.

“The skipper said ‘up periscope’ and there was a pack of five U-boats shooting after the convoy. One was 4,000 yards and on the surface and one was 7,000 yards.”

Lt Beckley, aged about 23, very young for a submarine captain, showed the kind of bravado that preserves him perfectly in the memory of Mr Wills 73-years-later.

“I remember the skipper said to us: ‘I can see them on the conning [command] tower. They’re cold, but they’ll be a whole lot colder in a minute.’

“He came to the attack periscope and started the attack and we sank the first U-boat.

“Me being down in the pump room, I can hear her breaking up.”

Despite Beckley’s swagger, however, he was no fool.

After the other enemy had scattered some of the officers were keen to show mercy to their stricken German counterparts. But Beckley’s first concern was for his own boat and crew.

Eric said: “The first lieutenant said: ‘Should we surface for survivors, sir?’ The skipper said don’t be a -.”

But it was a symbiotic relationship between the crew and capatin, operating one of the most important vessels in the home fleet like the different body parts of a deadly sea beast.

“The captain was the eyes and we were the fingers,” said Eric.

“You couldn’t afford any mistakes.”

It was for their constant vigilance in the face of appalling weather and stubborn adherence to their mission that the Russian Government have always held the Convoy veterans in the highest regard.

Not only have four anniversary medals been forthcoming but the recent award of the Ushakov bravery medal - named after an undefeated admiral - has now placed these British veterans on par with Russian-born servicemen who have defended the Motherland at sea.

Like many British sailors Eric, of Whiston Road, served in all theatres, finishing in the Far East and operating out of what is now Sri Lanka in 1944 and helping in the eventual defeat of the Japanese.

“There are so many memories so many ships we sunk; merchant ships, enemy ships”, he says.

“We were the silent service. We didn’t know where we were going until we opened sealed orders.”

But it is his missions in the Arctic that will forever define Eric’s service and it is that which ranks his experience as among the most extreme of any war.

It is why, more than seven decades later, the Arctic Convoy veterans are thought of by Russia with almost unparalleled affection.

The feeling is also mutual. For too long left in the cold by their own Government with regard to recognising their almost unimaginable trials, the Convoy survivors have always been feted by the country they were helped stay alive against the threat of starvation.

Medals flowed from Moscow while Whitehall, until 2013, stayed silent on the most extraordinary endurance of its own servicemen.

The appreciation is most certainly appreciated, albeit in the modest British way, Every new decoration, you can be assured, is treasured.

Eric Wills, now aged 94, sits proudly holding the latest silver medal with the official citation that had been solemnly read out in his own kitchen by a Russian Consul not too busy to drive up from the embassy in London to personally place a bravery medal in the hand of one of the survivors of the convoys that lost 3,000 men but saved his country from destruction.

Gesturing to his collection of Russian honours that is now starting to rival the broad strip of his British campaign medals, he says with a mischievous grin: “I thought of re-naming myself Wills-ski,” before adding more solemnly, “They never forget us, the Russians.”