Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Medal recognises Frank’s Arctic service in the Royal Merchant Navy.
As 30ft Arctic waves crash down on the ship, a young Frank Scanlon endures them head-on, two pairs of sodden socks tightly wrapped around his hands.
Torpedo fire and sea spray stings the air and acrid smoke of sunken naval ships stings his eyes but he continues onwards, through the haze of destruction to deliver the supplies they so desperately need…
Now, the same Frank Scanlon is a ninety-four year old naval veteran and owner of several medals, including his recently-awarded Arctic Star.
Currently living in Seaton, Frank has opened up his life to the Midweek Herald, allowing a truly astonishing, and inspiring, insight into his career at sea.
Frank started working on boats at just 15 years old, after leaving school.
“I worked in several factories,” he remembers. “But it wasn’t the job I was looking to pursue, so I decided to try the shipping companies for work.
“I landed a boy steward’s job in one of the River Thames pleasure boats which I thought was ideal.”
Frank worked on the pleasure boats in the summer, and when the season ended, was sent deep sea on one of the company’s cargo ships.
For Frank, this was the beginning of his life at sea, and he decided it was the kind of life he’d like to live.
“My first big ship was with the Union Castle Shipping Line on a ship called ‘The Winchester Castle’, and I held the saloon steward’s position
“The passengers were of the highest class; royalties, film stars, politicians and more.”
Frank worked on the boats for six years, and for a young man of his age, was doing very well indeed.
However, in 1938, a twist would await him which would change his life forever.
“I was working on London pleasure boats,” he recalls. “They were evacuating London children to their future wartime homes.
“While I was on duty, the top brass of the Royal Navy boarded and started talking to us.
“One of the officers said to me: “I want to talk to you boy! There’s a big chance there’s going to be a war next year, are aware of this?
“I told him I had heard such rumours about it. He told me they weren’t rumours – they were fact and that by next year, I would be working for the Royal Navy and if I accepted now, I’d get the position of my choosing.”
“However, if I didn’t accept, I’d be enrolled regardless and be given a low ranking job.”
Frank refused both options.
“I said to him: “But, that’s blackmail!” and he confirmed it was. “Now,” he said. “Are you going to join?
Of course I still flatly refused which caught them a bit off guard,” Frank laughs. “After that, they came back and sweet-talked me into it, and confirmed I could still choose my position.”
Frank was subsequently drafted into the Royal Navy as a seaman gunner.
“I was given the finest training you could be given,” he smiles. “Nowadays, you have to learn the process of holding a rifle, the fancy show flicks when marching etc, but in those days, they just chucked a rifle at me and told me to shoot at targets.”
Frank blossomed in his role, earning himself the title of a ‘First Class Marksman.’
On September 3, 1939, the war was announced and Frank was still in the Royal Navy.
However, he soon filed a request to rejoin the Merchant Navy.
Frank was then drafted into DEMS (Defensively Armed Merchant Ships) and drafted to a merchant ship which delivered supplies back and forth across the world.
After spending some time with the crew, Frank taught the entire team how to shoot a rifle and soon had them shooting pennies off the bow of the ship.
Then, in 1940, Frank changed ships and in turn, faced his most difficult and risky mistress – the Arctic.
Boarded on a boat certainly not designed for Arctic conditions, Frank and his crew battled every second to keep going through the ice and elements.
“The ship we were on was crunching through the thick sea ice,” he says. “There were almighty scrapes and bangs as we ploughed through.
“It’s weird to think it but the ice was actually saving us in a way. There was no way the German U-Boats would risk wasting torpedoes if they could potentially hit the ice.
“They daren’t waste any ammunition so they targeted ships which they were certain they could get a clean hit on.”
Ships were blown up next to him and bodies littered the ocean, but his ship carried on through the thick, slushy ocean terrain.
“The worst thing was that we couldn’t save the survivors,” he recalls sadly. “If we stopped and tried to save them, we were instantly a target.
“The supplies we carried on board were, horribly so, considered more important than human lives.”
However, at one point when Frank’s convoy came under attack from enemy U-boats, he managed to save the life of fellow comrade struggling in the water.
The man’s ship had been hit and was sinking fast, but Frank’s vessel managed to get to the wreck so the crew could try to save those stranded in the wreckage.
“Our ship stood by while we successfully pulled all the survivors on board. I grabbed the man’s hand and managed to pull him up.
“My comrade was so grateful, he presented me with a pair of binoculars as way of thanks – I still have them now!”
Frank survived the Arctic years thanks to a steely determination and level-headedness that only the most elite sailors could have.
At a time where men could go mad just from the unfathomable weather, he saw sights no man should ever see and for that, should be rightly saluted for his brave and outstanding years of service.
As one of the ever decreasing number of surviving veterans of all the forces, Frank still marches annually in remembrance of, and with a deeply felt sense of loss and respect for his fallen comrades.
As he sits reminiscing, Frank Scanlon may not know how much he contributed towards our current day living.
In his own opinion, he was just ‘following orders.’
For us, his actions were key for saving our futures.