Interview: Ilkeston Royal Navy veteran tells his story

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Ilkeston war veteran Harold Straw has always found it hard to talk about his time in the Royal Navy during World War Two .

The 94-year-old rarely discussed, with his family, his years serving on convoys. That was until five years ago when his nephew Tony, who lives with him, encouraged him to write down his experiences.

This led to him publishing a book called Unsung Heroes which details his time aboard a number of fleets after joining the navy at the age of 19.

“I married Doris on the Saturday and was in the navy by Monday” said Harold, who has just received his seventh war medal . The Ushakov - from the Russian Government, recognises the ‘invaluable contribution that seamen made to defeating Nazi Germany while onboard ships in the stormy waters of the arctic ocean, under threat of being attacked by German boats and aircraft.’ The medal marks the 70th anniversary of the victory in the great patriotic war.

Harold is one of 35 veterans in Derbyshire to receive the medal. “It brought it back to me when the medal came, he said, ‘it took me back on the ship. I had to get a friend to read the letter.”

Two years ago he received the arctic star medal for surviving what Winston Churchill called ‘the worst journey in the world’ in the soviet union.

When Harold left the navy in 1946 he worked at the Charnos factory: “Someone didn’t even know I had been in the navy at all. My mum, dad and wife didn’t know a thing, sometimes I wish I had told them. The book all came about when Tony was watching TV and something about Borneo was on. I said ‘I’ve been there’. When I started talking about it Tony said I should write a book so I started writing everything down. It took almost two years.”

After joining up Harold excelled in gunlayer (firing guns) training but when he was asked to head up a crew of six he refused. He said: “Unbeknownst to me they tried to get me to go to Bristol for a gunlayers course. I was sent to see an officer and he knew I’d been on the convoy. I told him I wouldn’t do it - I just wanted to be one of the lads, I didn’t want to tell people what to do. Promotion was very rapid in the navy.”

Harold spent Christmas day in 1944 in the Mediterranean sea, where he served for 12 months. He served aboard five ships during his time in the Navy and saw much of the world including five weeks inCanada and five weeks in New York.

Harold admits that whenever they docked on British shores he would find a way to get back home to Ilkeston. He said: “As soon as I saw a train station I went home. This resulted in me getting chucked off one ship, then I was put on a ship to Russia.

“Another time about 50 of us where going to the Far East so we were sent to South Shields for inoculations . They gave us 14 days leave. I came home and then spent three days in bed with yellow fever. At the end I was having a drink with my father-in-law, who said I best go back. I said ‘no.’ I had to go and see the top brass after that, I told him I’d been ill and got away with it. That’s when I joined the Baron Elgin.

“I once got a telegraph telling me to ‘go back at once’ after a marine had been put in charge and told the officer I had gone to Nottingham.”

When the war was declared over Harold was one of just two men aboard the HMS Baron Elgin. He said “We had been to Canada and were ready to be de-mobbed but I hated being in barracks so we set sail to Cyprus and our job was to throw all the shells and every bit of ammunition over the side.

“In Canada there was a French ship taking British prisoners of war home. I never knew but my sister’s husband was on there.”

By May 1945 the Artic route had claimed 104 merchant and 16 military vessels.