Wigan author brings out memoirs of seaman's incredible World War Two tales

A writer from the borough has made the shift from fiction to fact to bring a veteran's extraordinary tales of dangerous missions to the page.

Monday, 5th July 2021, 9:42 am
Updated Monday, 5th July 2021, 9:44 am
John McKay with his latest book
John McKay with his latest book

John McKay, from Hindley Green, has written Surviving the Arctic Convoys - The Wartime Memoir of Leading Seaman Charlie Erswell.

John, who has a string of novels to his name and particularly enjoys writing historical fiction, wrote The Worst Journey In The World which was set among the lethal missions to keep Russia supplied during World War Two.

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WW2 veteran Leading Seaman Charlie Erswell holding a copy of his memoirs

As a young man he had served on 10 convoy trips through the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean and wanted to praise the novelist for the accuracy of his depictions of the conflict.

John went to visit him at his home in Wakefield and listened to the incredible tales of Mr Erswell and his fellow servicemen in the Royal Navy putting their lives on the line for their country.

Eventually it was suggested that these stories should not be lost and John would type them up into book form, resulting in the latest addition to his biography.

John said: “I got this email out of the blue from this old gentleman who said he was on the convoys and he had really enjoyed my book because it was very authentic.

“That was a massive thing that I had got it right. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy and can’t have anything in my fiction that wouldn’t have happened.

“He said if I was ever passing to pop in for a cup of tea so I did. He was very enthusiastic and had got all his medals out and photos of them on the ships during the war.

“He was telling me all these stories and anecdotes and when I got back I asked if he’d be interested in putting them all in a book.”

Mr Erswell was brought up on the coast in Berwick upon Tweed and joined the Royal Navy at the first possible opportunity on his 18th birthday.

He did five trips to Russia and five back and shared stories of the incredible risks and dangers they faced carrying out their task.

John said that being able to publish the memoirs is a source of great pride for him and also taught him even more about the Arctic convoys than he had known when making it the subject of his novel.

He said: “This is a very special one for me, emotionally and personally. It’s for him. I think he didn’t want his stories to die with him.

“The Arctic Convoys have been neglected over the past 80 or so years. They’ve largely been ignored, they only got their campaign medals very recently.

“A lot of them were very young, only 18, 19 or 20, and the very first one he was on was the most heavily attacked convoy in the war. It was a baptism of fire.

“One thing that stood out was that the runways on the aircraft carriers were very small, so once they had catapulted the Sea Hurricanes into the sky they weren’t able to land them again.

“They had to ditch as close to the rescue ships as possible so they could get fished out before they froze. It was madness and they went up into the air knowing that was what they would have to do.”

Mr Erswell’s reminiscences about his time on the convoys was mainly drawn from his experiences operating one of the gun turrets aimed towards German aircraft.

John then added to these accounts with background research about the wider strategic importance of the convoys and adding more detail about the missions.

The resulting book has now been brought out by military history publisher Pen and Sword and has a foreword from well-known author Damien Lewis, who has written extensively about the SAS.

For more information about the new book or John’s writing, visit https://johnrmckay.com/

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