History & Learning

Convoys Remembered

John Adam Paterson MacDonald


Written by John Adam Paterson MacDonald (parts in italics by Rowan MacDonald, grandson)

John Adam Paterson MacDonald was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 15th May, 1923.

I simply knew him, as Grandpa.

He passed away on 7th October 2006 – yet remains a constant source of inspiration to me. Three years before he passed, he sat down to write about his life. This included his participation during World War II; notably serving on HMS Foresight during the Arctic Convoys (PQ14 and QP11). The following depicts his war experience, in his own words, except when noted in italics.

The narrative begins in 1941. In a seven-month period, John had lost his father, sister and dog, Sandy. He would soon enlist; saying goodbye to his mother, younger brother, Frank, and love of his life, Ella.

The government announced that nineteen-year-olds were to be called-up. I felt that eighteen-year-olds would soon follow. As I was seventeen, I thought I would have to volunteer or I would have no choice, and would finish up in the army.

I cannot remember talking to my mother about this, but I am sure I would have, as the two deaths in our family had the remaining three very close. I am afraid I was only thinking of myself, and not the effect that my departure would mean to my mother.

I went to the Music Hall in George Street and said I wanted to join up. I could not go until I was eighteen. The Sgt of Marines said I would be taken quicker if I went into signals, so that was what I chose.

The week I turned eighteen I received my papers and left for the training base, HMS Royal Arthur at Skegness, Lincolnshire on 3rd June, 1941.

Prior to this, Ella and I had not been together so much. This was all my fault as I had been chasing after two other girls. The thought of going away must have brought me to my senses! I made up with Ella and coaxed her away from her boyfriend.

Ella promised to see me off at the station but unfortunately was directed to the wrong platform and arrived too late. I remember my mother, Frank, Mrs Gray and others all there to see me off.

When I arrived in Lincolnshire I was amazed at the flatness of the country. We eventually reached HMS Royal Arthur which was originally one of Butlin’s Holiday Camps.

We were issued with uniforms plus hat boxes, shoe brushes, etc all marked with our names. When it came to the weekend and we were confined to barracks, I suddenly realised I was no longer a free man.

There were about thirty in my group. They were mostly nineteen-year-olds from England, a few Scots and a couple of Irish. I completed the four months basic training which included learning Morse and learning to read semaphore and flashing light messages.

As the end of our course approached, we were asked to nominate our home port from the three ports – Chatham, Devonport, and Portsmouth. I chose Portsmouth and was given my official number: P/JX 269321.

Instead of going to the main barracks, I was sent to the Signal School. This was a large estate belonging to Lady Peel near Haslemere. After a week or two, my draft came and I was sent to the naval base at Scapa Flow with two lads – Sam Ferguson from Lancashire and Harry Johnson from Perth, Scotland.

The part of the base which we were sent to was known as the Central Communications Office (C.C.O). The Admiral in charge of the base was known as A.C.O.S – Admiral Commanding the Orkneys and Shetlands. The C.C.O only contained communication people – signalmen, wireless operators, and coders. They were a very fine bunch of men.

We were accommodated in long Nissen huts with fuel stoves at regular intervals. We were divided into watches (as on a ship) and worked a continuous system which usually meant four hours on, eight hours off, day and night. I was given a bed with a very nice group, one of whom was Jim Orrington and another, Arthur Lowe.

I was rather disappointed that I had been sent to a naval base and not to a ship. However, I was told I could not do anything about that for six months. At the end of the six months, I requested permission to see the Signal Commander. When he asked my reason for wanting a transfer, I told him I had not joined the Navy to be put ashore. The Commander told me, “You joined the Navy to do what you are told.”

A day or so later, I was told to pack up my gear and join HMS Foresight. I found that the Foresight was to join a convoy leaving that night!

As I stood on the signal deck, below the bridge going through the boom defence, I felt that at last, I was in the real Navy. It was Spring 1942.


We joined other ships and headed towards Iceland to meet the convoy coming from Canada. I was seasick, but the Yeoman of Signals gave me some dry biscuits and that helped settle me. We put in at a place called Seidis Fiord and waited there until the rest arrived.

Once we cleared the coast of Iceland, we found we were being observed by a German Focke-Wulf plane. I was told this plane would be relaying all our details to submarines patrolling in the area. This soon proved to be true, as our ASDIC operators started to pick up signals from submarines. Although we followed the ASDIC signals and released depth charges, there were no sightings.

The weather became colder and we often had to alter course to avoid icebergs and icefields. The icefields even forced us north of Bear Island taking us into the Arctic Circle.

We were ordered to go to the assistance of the cruiser HMS Edinburgh. She had been hit by a torpedo fired from a German submarine. The torpedo had hit her stern and her steering gear was badly damaged. This prevented her from steering a steady course.

The Forester secured a cable to her bows and the Foresight had a cable to the stern. The idea was to try and pull Edinburgh back on course when she strayed. This proved unsuccessful!

We were then alerted to news that three German destroyers were heading for the area to take advantage of the situation. We left the Edinburgh to try and intercept the destroyers.

It was snowing and misty, but we could see the flashes of their guns. It is natural to crouch down when you know shells are being fired at you, and you can see the splashes in the water not far away. I can remember the captain calling out: “Watch for torpedo tracks!”

Our sister ship, Forester, received a hit on the bridge and was in a bad way. We made smoke between the Forester and the Germans, but turning away we were hit more than once. Most of our guns were put out of action. We were stationary and an easy target but one gun kept firing. The order was given: “Prepare to abandon ship.”

I suddenly realised that my time had probably come, and that those I love would not know what happened to me. Anyway, we got up steam again and wreckage was cleared away.

My grandfather had good reason to believe his time had come. The Lieutenant-Commander of HMS Foresight wondered why the enemy had not finished them off. He then proceeded to the chart house to collect the secret books and codes, which were to be dumped overboard the moment a ship seemed doomed.

Dead sailors were given a quick funeral. Our First Lt, who had been badly wounded, was among the dead.

These sea burials on HMS Foresight were described in the book, Stalin’s Gold by Barrie Penrose: “Watching the ceremony were a bunch of frozen, grimy, unshaven spectators… all eyes remained fixed on the swirl of water where the body had sunk until the last ripple had gone.

It was realised that the German destroyers had departed and we thought one had blown up. We now returned to help the Edinburgh. As there were no doubt several submarines in the area, the decision was made to sink the Edinburgh.

The Foresight sank the Edinburgh with her last torpedo. Our Torpedo Officer was from Edinburgh! We then headed slowly to Kola Inlet.

When we were in that dangerous situation, I had the feeling that if I made it to my nineteenth birthday, then I would survive the war.

Years after the war, the wreck of HMS Edinburgh was located. The gold bullion was recovered and given to the Russians. It had been gold being paid for tanks and planes.

We did feel a bit safer in harbour but even then, there would be trouble. I was on watch one day when Russian planes were making practice attacks on ships in the harbour. Suddenly, bombs were dropped and I rushed to sound the alarm signal. German planes had joined in!

Steel plates were welded over the holes in our superstructure. This job seemed to be done by women and young lads.

I went ashore once, although there was not much to see. There was snow all over the place. We met two girls who were carrying buckets of water. Being a bit bold, I spoke to them and indicated that my friend and I would help carry the buckets. They laughed and gave us the buckets and led us to one of the houses.

There were several people there; including Red Army soldiers, a nurse and other men and women. I indicated that I would like to exchange some of our money for Russian money. The elderly woman tipped out a whole tin of coins for me and I gave them some of mine.

A Red Army soldier gave me a Red Star from his cap and the nurse pinned a Russian Red Cross badge on my coat. She then sang a song to us and played on a balalaika.

It is a time I shall always remember. The people were so kind!

On the return trip, we ran into more trouble and were attacked by submarines and low-level torpedo bombers.

The cruiser, HMS Trinidad, was struck by a torpedo and the destroyers, including the Foresight, went alongside and took off survivors. Sadly, many men were trapped below decks. In the end, the Trinidad was sunk by a torpedo from the destroyer, HMS Matchless.

We then headed back to Iceland and I can remember the surprise when I saw how the snow was melting in an even line on the mountains there.

We eventually landed back at the port of Hull where the Foresight was to be repaired. I phoned my Aunt Mabel and she and my cousin, Betty, met me at York Station for a wee while. It was so good to get home to my mother, brother, Frank, and Ella. I can remember, whenever there was a sudden noise, I would jump!

I had a few days with them, then had to return to Scapa Flow. I got quite a welcome from the chaps there who wanted to know all about my trip. I continued at Scapa Flow having leave about every four months.

On one occasion, I was sent to act as signalman on a tug called the Imperious. We had to go to the Shetland Isles where a damaged tanker was on the rocks. The Imperious only had a crew of about six or seven – all merchant seamen and I got on very well with them.

Eventually, the signalmen and wireless operators were replaced by W.R.N.S (female sailors) and I was returned to the Signal School at Petersfield – HMS Mercury. I was given ten days embarkation leave which I really enjoyed – being back with those I loved.

I returned to HMS Mercury and eventually heard my name called for an overseas draft. We were given the weekend off so I thought I would go to London and stay at the Y.M.C.A as there was not enough time to go home again. However, one of the young nineteen-year-olds, who had just joined, invited me to go home with him to London. He was a red-haired lad and his family made me very welcome. This was a very generous offer as he was going overseas too. It was the last time he would ever be with his family.

I received a letter from his sister to tell me he had been sent to Colombo and had died of sunstroke. I shall always remember his kindness to me.

I was ordered to report to the Master-at-Arms and found that I had been appointed signalman for our ship. I had been allocated three young coders to assist me on the flag deck. We were given accommodation up near the bridge and were told that we were not required to queue at meal times as we were watch keepers.

I thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Alexandria (Egypt) and found the three young coders very keen and able lads.

The trip was uneventful and I finished up at a transit camp at Sidi Bishr. There was very little to do and time dragged, so I volunteered to guard prisoners. I thought it was just for one day, but I had to move all my gear to the hospital where the prisoners were held. They were naval defaulters (not POWs), but had to be kept under guard twenty-four hours a day. We were on duty for four hours, then off for twelve, so I was able to go into Alexandria and have a look around.

This job did not last for long before I was posted to a Greek destroyer, HHMS Spetsai in Alexandria harbour. I was kitted out with khaki army shirts and shorts with Royal Navy shoulder tabs.

There were about twelve ratings in the Liaison Staff with one officer. There were signalmen, wireless operators, and coders, most of them younger than me. We had an interpreter – John Vitiades – a Greek from Alexandria who spoke Greek, English, French and Arabic.

We eventually sailed from Alexandria to Patras in the Gulf of Corinth via Tobruk. Tobruk Harbour was full of half-sunken ships but I managed to enjoy a swim.

We ran into a bit of wild weather after we left Tobruk and more than half the crew were affected by sea sickness. I was OK this time.

When we reached Patras, we tied up alongside the jetty and there was great rejoicing with the crew of Spetsai and the citizens of Patras. It was a great homecoming for them.

After some time, we were transferred to accommodation in a large hotel overlooking the harbour. It had a flat roof and this was to be our signal station. The Liaison Staff were given one large room on the top floor for sleeping quarters and a small dining room. We were also given the services of a Greek woman to do our cooking and serve meals. Her name was Anna.

In summer, the weather was quite hot but we were able to enjoy swimming in the Gulf. We also went for walks in the country around Patras and enjoyed the grapes and oranges grown in the area. I made good friends with two of the young Greek signalmen – Nicholas Plucille and Jim Condomathios. They had escaped from different Greek islands when the Germans came and had gone to Alexandria.

On one occasion, I had to act as signalman between a Motor Torpedo Boat (M.T.B.) and a tank column. I was taken to a school up the coast where the 4th Indian Division was stationed. A Sikh Officer found me accommodation for the night in a classroom occupied by Indian soldiers. They were all surprised to see me in the morning but made me welcome. I remember wakening and seeing them all sitting cross-legged combing their long hair.

After some tea, I was taken to one of the tanks and found a seat inside. The idea was for the M.T.B. to go ahead up the Gulf and signal back to me when they saw any bridges blown up by the Germans (or other road problems).

I enjoyed being in the turret but it was not so good down below. We made good progress up the coast and it was not necessary to deviate much.

I was in Patras when the war finished and enjoyed firing off some of our rocket flares to celebrate.

At last, I received word that my demob number had come up and I had to return to the barracks in Alexandria. My next move was in a ship to Malta where I had a couple of days and bought presents to take home. I was then sent on another ship to Marseilles, then by train across France to Dieppe, then on to Portsmouth.

I remember going round the huge shed where you were allowed to select civilian clothes after you had handed in your uniform. It was rather a rush job, as I had to get from Portsmouth to Kings Cross Station in London to catch my train to Edinburgh.

I cannot remember what time it was when I arrived home, but I think it was very early morning, about 5am. It was just so wonderful to be home and see Mum and Frank. I had been in the Royal Navy four years and ten months – almost five years!

I can remember Ella coming over to see me and that was great, though we were both a little nervous. It was a strange feeling to think that I would not have to go away again.

John married Ella in 1947. Soon after, they emigrated from Scotland to Australia. They remain very loved by all their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Thank you, Grandpa, for everything.


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