John Mackay – Chorlton Arctic Convoy Veteran

John Mackay – another Chorlton Arctic Convoy Veteran

We have been running a campaign to enable Arctic Convoy veteran Bob Cowan to receive an Arctic Convoy World War 2 Campaign medal that the Russian Government wishes to award all those  who supported the Russian war effort in this way.  This Ushakov medal is still being blocked by UK government as “being against the rules”. However, the Prime Minister announced just before Christmas that they will be awarding a UK Arctic Convoy campaign medal.

We are holding a Chorlton Good Neighbours History group event on Thursday Feb 7th at 1.30pm to celebrate our own WW2 veterans including Bob Cowan. We are also inviting to this event,  John Mackay, who we recently discovered, is another Arctic Convoy veteran who lives in Chorlton. I interviewed him earlier this month and here is a video of some of that interview where he talks about his experiences on HMS Keppel in the Arctic Convoys

One of his memories is of the  of the Sinking of HMS Kite on the 21st Aug 1944 l. This was published in a book about WW2 naval disasters [1].

“I was asleep in my hammock when I was woken by an explosion, shortly followed by a second. I was up and into my boots as action stations sounded. I already had my duffel coat on as we were ordered by the captain to sleep fully clothed in case we ourselves were hit by a U-Boat torpedo. I made my way onto the upper deck and headed for my action station, HMS Kite was astern of our position and sinking fast. Within no more than a minute of me reaching the upper deck HMS Kite was fully submerged. I made my way to the bridge, where my action station was, and carried out a sweep of the surrounding area but could not pick up a contact with the U-Boat. The Keppel circled the survivors as we continued to look for the U-Boat responsible for sinking HMS Kite until support arrived. When both HMS Mermaid and Peacock arrived the Keppel then drifted amongst the survivors who were scattered far apart. I had been ordered to go to the foc’sle with a hard line, where I saw a large number of the men covered in thick oil and clinging to carley rafts or bits of wreckage.

I was stood alongside AB Pritchard when a carley raft with two men on it came towards us. AB Pritchard threw his line out to the men but it fell short. One of the men on the raft shouted ‘are you too old to throw a line’. As both AB Pritchard and myself were a lot older than the rest of our crew it was not uncommon for our own shipmates to comment on our age. The men in the carley raft must have been wondering who had been sent to rescue them as they drifted aft where they were eventually hauled on board. Many of the survivors on wreckage tried to swim to the Keppel and I saw several seamen drown as they did not have the energy to make it to us. I still believe that a lot more would have made it if they had held onto whatever wreckage they were clinging to and waited until we could launch our own whaler. I suppose panic and fear take control of you in such an awful situation

hms kite survivors001.

After we had collected all the remaining survivors we headed back towards the protection of the fleet and I went below to our mess. One of the survivors was in our mess telling us of his ordeal. I remember some of the Keppel crew members trying to make light of what had happened to him by asking him how it was he had only got his feet wet. He told us that he had jumped from the deck of the sinking Kite straight into a carley raft. We gave him the nickname of ‘CAT’. It was not long before we were given our orders to leave the fleet again and search for the u-boat that had sunk HMS Kite.

Unfortunately not all that were rescued by us from the icy waters of the North Atlantic survived and both myself and AB Pritchard, being older members of the crew, were detailed to prepare the dead seamen for burial. This entailed wrapping their bodies in canvas, putting weights at their feet and sewing up the canvas putting the last stitch through the nose (old navy superstition).

My duty at the burial service was to place the dead seamen one at a time on a sloping board and cover them with the Royal Navy flag. We held onto the body and flag whist a short service was carried out. The officer leading the service would then give us the signal to release the body into the sea and to their grave. Each individual received the same service whether they were an officer or not. Only a few of our crew attended these services as our new orders were to search for the u-boat that had sunk HMS Kite and the Keppel had to be fully manned”.

Bernard Leach

Update in July 2015: John Mackay passed away, age 95, on June 21st 2015


[1] On a Sailor’s Grave  (No Roses Grow) Maritime Disasters of the Second World War, Mike Kemble,   Woodfield  Publishing , 2005 pp153-154

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