OBITUARY: Arctic veteran Tommy Jess, 92, swam from carnage to survive

Tommy Jess
Tommy Jess

The odds were heavily against Tommy Jess when the Nazis set their sights on his ship.

He survived a subsequent near-drowning in freezing waters, and went on to live to the age of 92.

Tommy with the five other ultimate survivors from his emergency craft, pictured shortly after rescue. He is the second from the left, back row. The other gentlemen's identities are not known

Tommy with the five other ultimate survivors from his emergency craft, pictured shortly after rescue. He is the second from the left, back row. The other gentlemen's identities are not known

Born on March 9, 1923, in the townland of Ballykeel near Dromore, Co Down, he was the son of farmer William George Jess and his wife Mathilda (who, by co-incidence, already had the surname Jess before she married).

Tommy went to primary school in Ballykeel, and left education in his early teens.

He worked for engineering firm Mackie’s in Belfast, and grand-daughter Laura Graham-Brown said he entered the forces in 1942, choosing the Royal Navy simply “because he liked the uniform”.

He went on to serve on the Arctic Convoys; the supply ships which made the treacherous trip from western Europe to northern Russia to supply the Soviet Union.

Ice covered much of the ship during the trips, and Laura said the crew were “terrified” of calm conditions – because this was when U-boats were most likely to strike.

While aboard HMS Lapwing on March 20, 1945, a Nazi submarine torpedoed the vessel as it sailed in waters to the north-west of Russia.

In an interview with an Anglican diocese magazine called ‘Connor Connections’, published last summer, he was quoted as saying: “I remember being blown down the deck, but all I got were skinned knuckles... The last order given was ‘Every man for himself.’ The bow was rising and I must have jumped 40ft into the water,

“I did not come up for ages and I swallowed a lot of oil.”

He swam to a small craft, which had more than 15 men on board, and awaited rescue.

The magazine says they waited around two hours, then he recalled: “I remember seeing a ship coming out of the haze of snow and saying ‘My goodness,’ because I realised we were going to be saved.”

Of all those on board his small craft, only seven made it to the rescue ship alive – and even then, one of them died. Tommy had to go and give the news to the man’s next of kin when he got back to the UK.

A number of sources (including the BBC and a webpage for the Friends of HMS Lapwing) state there were 61 survivors and 158 deaths.

Upon returning to the Province, Tommy initially got a job shovelling snow, and then went on to work variously as a bus conductor and driver, an employee at a Ford car factory, and as a caretaker at Wallace High School.

He had lived in south Lisburn for around the last 50 years of his life.

He was a member of both the Orange and Black institutions, a churchgoer at the city’s Anglican Christ Church, a keen bowls player, gardener, and avid News Letter reader.

He had rarely talked about his war experiences initially, and Laura said: “He was always so modest. He always struck me as someone who had survivor’s guilt. He felt so guilty he had such a long life when people he served beside died when they were 20.”

About 10 years ago he started attending meetings of the HMS Lapwing Association.

He was belatedly honoured by both the Russians and British government.

About two years ago he received the Arctic Star medal, instituted in 2012 to honour veterans of the convoys, which arrived through post, in a brown envelope.

Laura said he was more impressed with the presentation offered by the Russian government, which last year accorded him and other convoy survivors the Ushakov medal, presented at the Belfast Harbour Commissioner’s office by envoy Alexander Vladimirovich Yakovenk.

Tommy developed prostate cancer which spread, and since April this year his health had been in decline.

He died on September 19 in a nursing home in Lisburn where he had been staying for a two week respite spell.

His funeral service was on September 21 in Christ Church, Lisburn, and he was buried in Blaris Cemetery.

He is survived by widow Sarah (also known as Sadie, and to whom he had been married for 65 years), as well as daughters Pauline, Doreen, Margaret, Jennifer and son Wilfred, 13 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren.