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Arctic survivor tells stories of loss and courage
Written by Administrator   
Thursday, 09 November 2006
DECEMBER 11, 1944 is a day that changed the life of 80 year old Beerwah resident Ken Groves. Able Seaman Groves, a radar operator with the Royal Navy was serving aboard the HMS Cassandra on this bleak, blustery winters day.   He was 18 years old.

HMS Cassandra was a ‘C’ class destroyer allocated to Arctic convoy duties with the 6th Destroyer Flotilla.   On December 10, she left Murmansk, escorting twenty eight ships on the return leg to the UK from Russia.   Just before six o’clock the next morning she was torpedoed by a German U-boat   That day, the HMS Cassandra lost 62 men … and Ken Groves lost 62 friends.   “Over half the crew was lost,” said Ken “And a third of the ship was gone.

“It took us four and a half days to be towed back to Russia.   We had little food, just rotten potatoes and biscuits,” remembers Ken.   After a tough and unrelenting passage the Cassandra limped along the Kola inlet.

Back in Russia, the remaining crew was hospitalised in Vianga. “I’d lost some hearing and had a crack on the nose,” said Ken.  “But there were guys much worse off than me.”

Service in the Arctic convoys carrying military supplies to Russia was probably the most arduous and unpleasant task given to any ship during the Second World War.    In appalling weather conditions, the convoys were within range of German Aircraft, surface ships and Uboats and long hours of daylight meant there was no respite from attack.   Nevertheless the convoys provided vital support to sustain the Soviet struggle against Germany on the Eastern Front, which made possible the successful Allied invasion in the West in June 1944.

“We headed out again in February for the return voyage,” said Ken “And along the way, our ships picked up civilians, forced into hiding on the island of Sorya off Norway.”   The Norwegians were among several hundred being evacuated to England.

On February 17, shortly after 3pm, the Bluebell, one of the escort ships was hit by a torpedo from a U-boat.   She blew up and sank at once with the loss of six officers, including her commander and about 80 seamen.  “I saw her ‘go’ from the deck of the HMS Opportune.   Only one man survived.”

“Throughout the voyage, we encountered heavy weather.   Seas were the highest on record, with gale force winds pushing waves up to 100 feet.”

On February 23, the Liberty Ship the SS Bacon lost touch with the convoy and was singled out by the Germans.   An aerial torpedo plunged into the hold and the Henry Bacon fought a single handed battle with 23 German torpedo planes and shot down eight to nine planes before the ship succumbed and went down.

“Two lifeboats were successfully launched, one with the refugees and a few crewmen and the other with 15 crewmen and seven gunners. “I saw incredible acts of bravery that day,” said Ken. “Crewmen were giving their lifejackets to the civilians and returning to the ship, knowing they would lose their lives in the freezing waters.   “Hanging over the side of our ship, my friend and I plucked a two-year-old girl, Sophie from the water” he said. “Miraculously she survived and to this day, still writes to my friend in Norway.”

Ken left the Navy in 1946, moved to Australia three years later and married wife Barbara in 1957.   His first job was as a Jackaroo, then he served with The Post and Telegraph (now Telstra) for 32 years working his way from clerk to Supervising Draughtsman.

Among Ken’s many medals, numerous awards and albums filled with memorabilia, one letter from the Consulate General of the Russian Federation, Sydney received in 2005, carries a particular message of hope:

“We pay tribute to everyone who gave ourselves and our decendents a future.   The lessons of the Great Patriotic War teach us to be united and to stand side by side in the fight against modern threats. Only together, only by uniting the efforts of the entire international community, can we effectively combat terrorism, discrimination, ethnic and religious intolerance and any attempts to rehabilitate ideas of hatred towards our fellow men.”

Last Updated ( Thursday, 09 November 2006 )
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