A Kilmarnock World War Two veteran has shared his incredible story of bravery to mark Remembrance Day.
Former Merchant Navy sailor, David Craig received the King’s Commendation for helping to dispose of an unexploded bomb that had crashed through the deck of his ship during an attack in Russia, 1943.
David had joined the Dover Hill merchant ship as third radio officer. Loaded with weapons, military vehicles and explosives, the ship formed part of a 28-vessel- strong convoy sailing from Scotland to Murmansk, Russia on 15 February 1943.
Battered by freezing conditions and storms at sea, the Dover Hill miraculously survived the onslaught of attacks from the German Luftwaffe on their journey. On arrival in Murmansk, David’s ship dropped off its cargo amidst frequent bombings, fighting off German planes and again surviving unscathed.
But anchored in the Kola inlet, the Dover Hill came under attack once again on 4 April 1943 – and a then 18-year-old David was blown across deck as the bombs fell.
David, originally of Nairn, said: “Four 500-pound bombs exploded at one side of the ship and one 1000-pound bomb exploded at the side nearest me. I was blown off my feet.
“I wasn’t conscious of this at the time but it blew me right across the ship and I landed on the steel deck with a whollop. Well, I think it knocked sense into me because I came to and I was starting to get up when one of the gunners who had seen me came running down onto the deck shouting ‘Are you alright, Sparks?’
“I looked behind me and there was a nice hole through the steel deck where another 1000-pound bomb had gone right through. It had gone right through the deck below it and into the coal bunkers.”
With an unexploded bomb on board, the crew were called for dinner – much to David’s amusement – after which the Captain ordered him to signal the British Naval Officer to Murmansk to ask whether any bomb disposal personnel were available.
None were available, so the crew had to make the call on how to deal with the life-threatening situation alone.
“Although the Dover Hill was only a battered old merchantman, she was our home and no German was going to make us leave her while she was still afloat,” said David.
“The Captain gave everyone three choices: Take a lifeboat to shore for safety, stay aboard and work the ship, or volunteer to get the bomb out of the bunker. Now, I was 18 years of age and I knew it was a bit of a stupid thing to do, so I hesitated for a minute, but the officer next to me who had a wife and two kids stepped forward, so what could I do but also join the squad.
“19 of us volunteered. If the bomb had exploded I would have been blown to bits, but you see I believe that there is always a time to be born and a time to die and I knew my time hadn’t come.”
David and his fellow volunteers had no equipment or bomb disposal experience between them – but nonetheless they began their mission to dig out the bomb.
He said: “We only had a few shovels borrowed from our stokehold and 19 stout hearts when we started digging back the coal trying to find the bomb. We didn’t know we’d have 22 feet to dig before we got to it!
“About 10 feet down into the coal we found the tail fins and, by their size, decided our bomb must be a 1000-pound one. Unfortunately, the Germans discovered what we were up to and bombed us again, hoping to set off the bomb we were digging for.
“Due to the bomb explosions and the concussion of our own guns the coal fell back into the space where we were digging and things got difficult at times.
“I was ordered to stay with the Captain as the Royal Navy had sent a Minesweeper, M.M.S. Jasan down the river to anchor about half a mile away from us, with orders to render assistance if the bomb were to explode. In other words, come and pick up the pieces.”
After two days and nights of hard work, the team finally got the bomb up on deck. David fondly remembers how the brave squad even precariously inscribed their names on the bomb before the disposal began.
“One of the sailors came running up to tell me that everyone who volunteered had written their name on the bomb apart from me, so they weren’t letting anyone touch it until I had my name on it too,” he said.
“They had all written their names so big there was no room. I couldn’t roll the bomb over in case I set it off, so I wrote my name using chalk around the detonator after carefully cleaning all the muck off.
“Most of the crew were Scottish or Londoners – and the Londoners like a cup of tea before they do anything – so, as we had the bomb on deck and had all written our names, we went for a cup of tea in the officers’ mess before we did anything else.”
David was one of three volunteers to put themselves forward to support a Russian Red Air Force Officer who had opted to help them remove the detonator.
He explained: “We said, ‘We’re British Merchant Navy Officers so we’re not leaving the Russian alone to take the detonator out.’ Not that we could help him.
“He started with a big extractor to unscrew the detonator but it stuck after a few turns. He had his foot up against the bomb and was swearing at it. It wouldn’t move. He started to hammer the side of the detonator. Every time he hit it, the hairs on my neck stood up straight against my duffle coat.
“He got it moving and unscrewed it and said the bomb was safe, so we dumped it over the side into the Kola inlet, where it probably lies to this day.”
Enduring yet more attacks, the damaged Dover Hill left the Kola inlet in May, where they spent months in the White Sea before reaching London in December 1943, suffering from malnutrition.
Five Senior Officers were awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and 14 sailors, including David, received the King’s Commendation for brave conduct.
David worked his way up to Chief Radio Officer and sailed all over the world for the rest of the war. He settled in Kilmarnock, working in the knitwear industry after leaving the Merchant Navy.
The grandfather-of-four and great grandfather-of-10 now lives with very poor sight due to eye condition macular degeneration, but is supported by Sight Scotland Veterans. The charity have provided him with a vision impairment-friendly tablet that helps him keep in touch with his family and friends in Russia. He still remembers his time at sea vividly.
“When I was in Russia, I never thought of being courageous,” he said. “All we wanted to do was to stay alive and stay in one bit.”
Sight Scotland Veterans gives free support to former servicemen and women of all ages, no matter if they lost their sight during or after service.
Find out more or call 0800 035 6409 to refer a veteran to the charity.