Archive for September 29, 2016

The Arctic Convoys

Posted in History with tags , on September 29, 2016 by telescoper

Today also marks a far less happy anniversary. On this day 75 years ago, on 29th September 1941, the Allied Convoy PQ 1 set sail from Hvalfjörður in Iceland; it arrived in Arkhangelsk in Northern Russia on October 11. This wasn’t the first of the Arctic convoys – that was Operation Dervish,  which set out in August 1941 , but it was the first of the most famous sequence, numbered from PQ 1 to PQ 18. The PQ sequence was terminated in September 1942, but convoys resumed in 1943 with a different numbering system (JW) for the duration of the Second World War. For every PQ convoy there was also a QP convoy making the return journey; the counterpart of the JW sequence was RA.

The Arctic convoys carried military supplies (including tanks and aircraft) to the Soviet Union after Germany invaded in the summer of 1941. Their purpose was largely political – to demonstrate the willingness of the Allies to support the Soviet Union, especially before before a second front could be opened.

Arctic Convoy

The reality of the Arctic convoys was unimaginably grim. Slow-moving merchant ships had to run the gauntlet of German U-Boats and aircraft. During the summer, when the Arctic ice retreated, the convoys took a longer route but the long daylight hours of an Arctic summer made for an exhausting journey with the constant threat of air attack. In the winter the route was shorter, but made in terrible weather conditions of biting cold and ferocious storms.


The map is taken from this site, which also gives detailed information about each convoy.

As it happens, one of my teachers at school (Mr Luke, who taught Latin), who was also an officer in the Royal Navy Reserve, served on Royal Navy escort vessel in some of the Arctic convoys in 1941.  I was interested in naval history when I was a teenager and when he told me he had first-hand experience of the Arctic convoys I asked him to tell me more. He talked about the bitter cold but about everything else he refused to speak, his eyes filling with tears. I didn’t such things understand then, I was too young, but later I saw that it was less that he wouldn’t talk about it, more that he couldn’t. Terrible experiences leave very deep scars on the survivors.

The most infamous convoy in the PQ series was PQ 17 which sailed on June 27 1942 from Reykjavik. Rumours that the German battleship Tirpitz had left its berth in Northern Norway to intercept the convoy led to the Admiralty issuing an order for the escort to withdraw and for the convoy to disperse, each vessel to make its way on its own to its destination. The unprotected merchant ships were set upon by planes and submarines, and of the 35 that had left Reykjavik, 24 were sunk. It was a catastrophe. Just a year earlier, Convoy PQ 1 had arrived at its destination unscathed.

There is a project under way to set up a museum as a lasting memorial to the brave men who served during the Arctic convoys. I think it’s well worth supporting. Although the 75th anniversary of the arrival of Dervish was commemorated earlier this year, the courage and sacrifice of those who served in this theatre is not sufficiently recognised .



Happy 70th Birthday to the “Third Programme”!

Posted in Jazz, Music, Opera, Uncategorized with tags , on September 29, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve just got time for a quick post-prandial post to mark the fact that 70 years ago today, on September 29th 1946, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) made its first radio broadcast on what was then called The BBC Third Programme. The channel changed its name in 1970 to BBC Radio 3, but I’m just about old enough to remember a time when it was called the Third Programme; I was only 6 when it changed.


It was a bold idea to launch a channel devoted to the arts in the depths of post-War austerity and it was perceived by some at the time as being “elitist”. I think some people probably think that of the current Radio 3 too. I don’t see it that way at all. Culture enriches us all, regardless of our background or education, if only we are given access to it. You don’t have to like classical music or opera or jazz, but you can only make your mind up if you have the chance to listen to it and decide for yourself.

My own relationship with Radio 3 started by accident at some point during the 1990s while I was living in London. I was used to listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 when I woke up, but one morning when my alarm switched on it was playing classical music. It turned out that there was a strike of BBC news staff so they couldn’t broadcast Today and had instead put Radio 3 on the Radio 4 frequency. I very much enjoyed it to the extent that when the strike was over and Radio 4 reappeared, I re-tuned my receiver to Radio 3. I’ve stayed with it ever since. I can’t bear the Today programme at all, in fact; almost everyone on it makes me angry, which is no way to start the day.

Over the years there have been some changes to Radio 3 that I don’t care for very much – I think there’s a bit too much chatter and too many gimmicks these days (and they should leave that to Classic FM) – but I listen most days, not only in the morning but also in the evening,  especially to the live concert performances every night during the week. Many of these concerts feature standard classical repertoire, but I particularly appreciate the number of performances of new music or otherwise unfamiliar pieces.

I also enjoy Words and Music, which is on Sunday afternoons and Opera on 3, which includes some fantastic performances Live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and which is usually on Saturday evenings. And of course the various Jazz on 3 programmes: Jazz Record Requests, Jazz Line-up, Geoffrey Smith’s Jazz, etc.

It’s not the just the music, though. I think BBC Radio 3 has a very special group of presenters who are not only friendly and pleasant to listen to, but also very knowledgeable about the music. They also have some wonderful names: Petroc Trelawny, Clemency Burton-Hill, and Sara Mohr-Pietsch, to name but a few. There’s also a newsreader whose name I thought, when I first heard it, was Porn Savage.

I feel I’ve found out about so many things through listening to Radio 3, but there’s much more to my love-affair with this channel than that. Some years ago I was quite ill, and among other things suffering very badly from insomnia. Through the Night brought me relief in the form a continuous stream of wonderful music during many long sleepless nights.

I wish everyone at BBC Radio 3 a very happy 70th birthday. Long may you broadcast!