A war grave in Tromso, a doomed arctic convoy, a mysterious body, a tragic fishing accident, a dream of a dead relative, a grandchild’s hug
Part 1: the Ghost of David Rae
In 2002, I was invited to visit Tromso for a conference. Before I flew off, I phoned my Dad telling him where I was going.
“I think your Mum has an uncle buried there,” he told me.
“Really?” I asked.
George Jackson, my great uncle, was aboard the S.S. Chulmleigh when it sank of the coast of Svalbard during World War Two.
“If you check with the commonwealth war graves, you should be able to find it,” Dad said.
After the conference, I had a few hours before my flight home, so I decided to visit the grave. Stopping on the way, I bought a cheap pot of primroses to put on his grave. I felt a little guilty. Is a pot of primroses really all that our family can give him after giving up his life in the war? I’m a practical person; I doubt flowers will make any difference to him now.
It is late April, and the ground is still covered with snow. When I get to the graveyard, all of the graves are in a little square. Each gravestone is plastered in snow; I will have to brush the snow off them to read the names. I start at the top and work my way down. There are only about thirty graves.
The very first grave that I brushed the snow from reads, ‘DAVID RAE,’ my name. Who is this? It was one of those surreal moments that when you describe later, all you can say is; it was shocking, or it was weird. The hairs did not stand up on the back of my neck, at least not literally. It was as if I stood on my own grave.
Eventually, I find George Jackson’s grave a bit lower down the slope. But, as I stood at my great uncle’s grave; my mind and my eye kept slipping up to the grave marked with my own name.
My Great Uncle was a fire-tender and Stoker aboard the SS Chulmleigh. The ship was part of the arctic convoy FB carrying “government stores” to Archangel in Russia, in the winter of 1942. The word convoy can only loosely be applied to this operation. Thirteen ships sailed in total, with no armed escort. Instead, the ships dispersed – hoping for the best. Of the thirteen ships that set out; three turned back, five arrived safely and five were sunk.
It is not a U-boat that found the SS Chulmleigh – it is a bomber, a Junkers Ju88. Bombs damage the steering and hole the hull. The ship starts sinking and is run aground. The ship is crewed by twenty seamen and has an extra compliment of thirty gunners. They might be able to shelter in the hull of the Chulmleigh until the Royal Navy can rescue them. A U-boat turns up, and a short firefight occurs with the gunners and the U-boat exchanging shots. Eventually, the U-boat torpedoes the grounded merchant ship causing it to explode; only scant provisions are saved. The crew are stranded on Svalbard in the middle of the Arctic Winter with few provisions.
Stay put, or travel to the nearest settlement – that is the dilemma. Ordinarily, the answer is simple; wait to be rescued, but they have scant provisions and meagre shelter. The ship failed to get a radio message out before being destroyed. No one knows that they are stranded or where. No one is looking for them.
In the winter, Svalbard is covered in snow and ice. It is possible to survive there, and for many centuries hunters have overwintered in wooden cabins to collect the precious white furs of the arctic fox, and polar bear. They survive by hunting seals and ptarmigan; supplementing their diet with stores packed away during the summer or tinned provisions bought on the mainland. It is not an easy life. But it a life that some are drawn to, and even during the war, there are a number of hunters and trappers on the islands.
The crew of the Chulmleigh do not have these advantages. They have no stores of food, no warm hut, no stock of coal or local knowledge. They begin to fashion shelters and organise stores. The U-boat does not return. Perhaps the U-boat captain considers his work done. Let the Arctic Winter deal with any survivors.
The survivors know where the nearest garrison is, Barentsburg. It is over two hundred and fifty miles away; longer, much longer, if you stick to the coast. The best thing to do is send a crew with one of the lifeboats to reach help while the others stay put.
A crew of eight, including my great uncle, are selected to row to Barentsburg. They are not well equipped, and the temperatures are well below freezing. Their thick merchant navy jackets will help kept them warm, but it will be a long and difficult trip. The crew have grown up on stories of Ernest Shackleton and his heroic trip to get help in the Antarctic. The boys, and that is what they are after all, like the idea of being heroes. They are boys conscripted from soft easy lives into the hard world of war. They push the boat out into the frozen sea and start rowing. They make reasonable progress, but the air temperature is -30 degrees centigrade. They stop to rest, pulling the boat into the shore and turning it upside down for cover. One by one they fall asleep and do not wake up. The boat is a few hundred yards from a trappers hut.
As for the rest, the Arctic Winter does its worst. Frostbite is the main cause of fatality amongst the survivors. Or, at least that is what is on their death certificates; more likely they have died either of hypothermia or from gangrene. Death is slow and painful.
It is two months before they are discovered by an Allied patrol from Barentsburg. In that time, all but thirteen have died.
All of the bodies in the Tromso graveyard are from the SS Chulmleigh, except one, mine. David Rae is neither assigned nor registered as being on the SS Chulmleigh. According to the War Graves Commission, he is assigned to HMS Quebec which is a training base in Scotland, some two thousand miles away. Originally, this grave was marked as UNKNOWN, but this is later changed. David Rae died in 1943, some months after the rescue of the Chulmleigh’s crew. His place of death is given as Barentsburg. It is likely that he died during a shelling attack by the German ships Scharnhorst and Tirpitz in September of that year.
But questions still remain; how did he get to Barentsburg, what was he doing there, was he part of the SS Chulmleigh’s crew? HMS Quebec is the training base for the Royal Commandos. You would have thought that he would have been assigned to a commando operation? Was the Chulmleigh involved in some sort of secret commando raid; was it normal to have an additional compliment of thirty gunners on a merchant navy ship? Why was David Rae originally unidentified; the records suggest that Barentsburg was garrisoned entirely by Norwegian soldiers and that the crew of the Chulmleigh would have been evacuated to the mainland by the time of David Rae’s death? It seems even in the official papers, he remains a mystery, little more than a shadow.
Later, I told my Dad all about David Rae.
He laughed at me, “What, do you think, David, that you’re buried in that grave? David Rae is not such an uncommon name.”
I admit that he is right.
“Still, it is odd,” I told him.
“It was wartime, there were lots of odd things happening then,” he said.
Part 2: Seeing Things
“Have you ever seen a ghost?” Dad asked.
“I’m not sure,” I answered.
“How can you not be sure?” asked Dad.
“Well, I could have seen a ghost and not know it,” I replied, “Maybe ghosts look just like us, and they could walk right past without you knowing it, or maybe you could see something that looks like a ghost and it’s not, perhaps it’s a reflection in a shop window, or someone lighting a cigarette in the dark.”
“Well, have you seen something that looks like a ghost then?” Dad continued.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Go on,” Dad said.
“There’s not much to say really. It happened a few years back. We were going to stay on Islay for a few days. We were running late. Normally, the ferry gets in about 5pm, and we can get to the cottage by 6pm, but this time there had been an accident on the road, so the ferry waited for everyone to get there. It was about 8pm before we got off the ferry, and it was much later before we got to the cottage.”
“Normally, we go straight to the cottage, unpack, and then head down to the rocks to watch the sun go down. Sunsets are very beautiful there – looking out over the ocean. Because we were late when we saw the sun setting, and we had not reached the cottage, we stopped at a place called French Man’s Rocks.”
“We got out of the car and headed down to the rocks to watch the fading sunset. When we got to the rocks, the sun dropped down below the ocean. We waited a few moments as the dusk thickened.”
“What has this to do with ghosts?” Dad said.
“Nothing really,” I continued, “except that on the way back up, it was really dark. We’d never stopped at French Man’s Rocks before, so we were not certain of the way. The lighthouse does not shine on that side of the island, and there was no moon, so it was really dark. The ground was rocky, and it was quite a difficult climb.”
“We saw something; I’m not sure what. Joy said it was a ghost. It was quite scary. There was something white on the cliffs below us. It seemed to appear and then disappear. It kept fading in and out of view. We got out of there as quick as we could.”
“So, you think that was a ghost that you saw?” Dad asked.
“No, not really; later when we got to the cottage and got unpacked, we went to visit Joy’s Aunt Ester; she lives just round from the cottage. She welcomed us in as usual, and we sat talking for a bit. We told her about the apparition. We expected Ester to tell us stories of Islay ghosts, but instead, she laughed at us, and insisted there was no such thing as ghosts. I asked her if she had ever seen a ghost. ‘Never,” she said, and she was quite adamant. ‘There was one time when I was younger,’ she told us, ‘it was on French Man’s Rocks too. I was coming back from Marit’s house; she lived up on the cliff top. I’d been taking some potatoes up to her, and we’d got talking, and so I ended up having to make my way back in the dark. I decided to take a short cut over French Man’s Rocks. They are called that because a French Man drowned there, or so they say. Who knows what to believe? It’s all a lot of nonsense. I kept thinking about the French Man and how his drowned body was found on the rocks where I was walking. My mind was going like clockwork and then I saw a white shape down on the rocks. It gave me the fright of my life, but I couldn’t run away because the rocks were so tricky to walk on. I headed back up to the road as quick as I could. I never looked back, until I got up onto the road. Once I got there, I felt a bit braver, and I turned and looked, and the white thing was still there. I decided that there was no such thing as ghosts, except the Holy Ghost in the Bible, that’s what the Minister had taught us. So if it the white shape wasn’t a ghost then what was it? I decided to march right down to it and find out.’ Ester laughed, ‘Well, wouldn’t you know it; it was a cow, a black and white cow. She was moving about on the rocks feeding, and when it turned one way you could see the white patches. That’ll be what you saw; a cow, or maybe a bird.’ We had to admit that Ester was probably right. After all, neither of us really believed in ghosts, not even Joy.”
Dad said, “So, you never saw a ghost after all?”
“Well, I don’t know,” I continued, “when we got up the next day, we went into the village to get shopping. We stopped at Ester’s to see if she wanted us to get her anything, or to take her into the village, but she had been into Bowmore all ready. She had gone in on the bus and was back now. She teased us a bit about being so late up. I suppose she was right, but we were on holiday. As we were leaving, the woman next door came in. She was in a bit of distress. Her boys had been out fishing last night. The fishing is best when there is no moon. Anyway, they had not come home yet. Ester told her not to worry, ‘Most likely they’ve taken the catch round to the port and sold it there. Come to think of it, I’m sure I saw the two of them in Bowmore this morning. They were down by the harbour drinking lager.’ That made sense, and it cheered up the neighbour. We said goodbye, and headed off to Bowmore to buy food.
“When we got back, we stopped by Ester’s. The neighbour was in again. This time, there was no comforting her; the boys had been found. They had drowned and washed up on shore. The bodies had been found on French Man’s Rocks. We immediately thought that must have been what we saw the previous night. But the boys hadn’t gone out until after the sun had gone down, so it couldn’t have been. We didn’t ask too many questions. It really wasn’t important when a woman has just lost her sons.”
“Do you think you saw a ghost after all? Or that Ester saw a ghost?” Dad said.
“That depends,” I said. “What is a ghost?”
Dad didn’t answer, we sat in silence for five minutes, perhaps it was less; time is so difficult to judge.
Eventually, I asked, “Tell me why you asked me about ghosts?”
“No reason,” said Dad.
Part 3: Gently Haunted
My Granddaughter sat on my knee looking up at me.
“Grampa,” she asked, “when you die, will you come back as a ghost?”
The question took me by surprise. I had not really thought about my death. But perhaps my Granddaughter was right. Maybe, it was important to think about these things. I have a firm and unshakable belief in the afterlife, but I had never really considered what I would during that time. I had assumed that I’d meet up with family now departed and be introduced to those I’d never met in this life. I was not sure that I would be able to come back as a ghost, even if I wanted to; after all, none of my Grandparents had come back to visit me after they had passed on.
Strictly speaking that was not correct. I remembered that Grandpa had visited me in a dream, or at least I’d had a dream about Grandpa. It had seemed very real at the time.
I dreamt that I’d been walking on the patch of spare ground behind my grandparents’ old house. I’d often walked with Grandpa there when we’d been going to the shops to get sweets for me and cigarettes for him. In my dream, Grandpa approached me and asked me to tell Granny he was sorry for the way he’d treated her. His exact words were; tell Mum to ask Granny to forgive me. Granny was bedridden in a nursing home, and I had not been able to visit her very often. Mum went to visit Granny every week. She drove through after work on Friday and stayed over. I went through occasionally, but often Granny was too confused to know who I was. Granny died shortly after I had the dream, so I never did get to speak to her and tell her how sorry Grandpa was. But I did speak to Mum about the dream; she told me that Granny was very angry with Grandpa and that it would take more than an apology for her to forgive him. I supposed Mum was right; Granny had been nursing her anger with Grandpa.
However that seemed to satisfy Grandpa; no further dreams visit occurred. Whether or not my Grandparents have reconciled in the afterlife; who could say? I suppose that it was really none of my business anyway. Never intrude into another person’s marriage, living or dead.
It might not have been Grandpa in the dream. It certainly looked like him, but he was much taller than I remembered him and his hair was darker. But, if it was not Grandpa; who was it? Messages from the afterlife can be so confusing.
I could not think of another time that I’d been visited by those gone before. Even Mum, who I’d loved dearly and who had died relatively young and unexpectedly, never visited me; even when I’d been in quite a bad place and could have done with some advice, she had left me to deal with things as best I could.
My paternal Grandparents never bothered to visit me after they passed on. My paternal Grandfather had died long before I was born, and my paternal Grandmother had died a few years after I was born. I had fond memories of my paternal Grandmother, as I had of my maternal Grandparents, but no visitations; in spite of my paternal Grandparents being spiritualists. They might have come back, just to show that they had been right about the afterlife. If they had come back to end any debate, they had not come back to me. But then I had not been involved with their religious discussions, being only a child when they had gone.
Still, I was not entirely sure that I am right. Once, when out cold calling at doors as a young salesman, I had spoken with an elderly gentleman claiming to be of Gypsy decent. The elderly gentleman had not been the least bit interested in what the young salesman had been selling, but had claimed to see the spirit of a man wearing a bowler hat standing behind the young salesman watching over him.
The no-longer-young salesman, me, wasn’t sure why, but I always assumed that this was my paternal Grandfather. If it was, then my paternal Grandfather had not done a much of a job of watching over me. Is that being unfair; I’ve never been involved in a major accident or attacked on the street. I’ve never broken any bones, or slipped on ice. My health is good, and if I’d failed to climb to the top in his chosen profession, at least I’d managed to get a few rungs up the ladder – high enough to be safe and comfortable, even if it was not high enough to give me much sense of achievement.
Besides, why should my paternal Grandfather particularly want to watch over me? We had never met, nor did we share any special closeness, other than my middle name being his. I was one of over thirty grandchildren to my paternal Grandfather; why should I be a particular favourite. While I had no reason to doubt an elderly gentleman of Gypsy extraction, I had no reason to particularly believe him either. It would be unfair to blame the possibly absent ghost of my paternal Grandfather, who had thirty other grandchildren to watch over, for my own failings.
I suddenly realised that my Granddaughter was still looking up at me waiting for my answer.
“Would you like me to come back as a ghost?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she replied, “then you could play with me forever and ever.”
I could deny my Granddaughter nothing, and I agreed immediately that I would come back as a ghost. She smiled up at me in the way only a Granddaughter can and hugged me. How could these small arms feel so tight; how could they make my heart stop?
That was long ago now. My Granddaughter is all grown up with a life of her own. She is not the least bit interested in playing with me. I am rarely treated to visit or phone call, and when I visit her mother she is usually out. Still, I was haunted by that long gone smile and that heart-stopping hug.
First published in GNU Journal Winter 2017