When I posted my Saturday Sculpture last week (the Memorial to the men of the Merchant Navy who left on the Arctic convoys from Cardiff in Wales) it set me thinking of one of the poets of the Second World War, Alun Ross, whose name seldom crops up in anthologies but whose poems I feel should be more widely known.
‘Where are the war poets’, the newspapers asked on the outbreak of the Second World War. Cyril Connolly answered them with a curt “Under your nose”. And indeed they were, although the poems they were writing were very different from those written in and of The Great War. The new style was nonchalent, laconic and cool, poetry that came from disillusion, a war spawned by what Auden called ‘the low dishonest decade’.
Alas Ross, who served on the minesweepers and then the destroyers that accompanied the Arctic convoys safely through the seas to Russia, wrote poems of immense power, less well known than they should be, but then the Arctic Convoy servicemen always said they were overlooked in the war. If there is anger in them, it would appear to be anger more against nature than the human enemy but unlike the more famous World War ll poets Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, he is not laconic, nor is he nonchalant. He ended his service in Germany overseeing the break-up of the German fleet, de-nazification, the identifying of war criminals, and the Belsen Trials. We cab say that he saw the worst of everything that man could do to man.
Ross was a man of letters, a journalist, editor and publisher, and it is often said that from the detail in the poems, his journalistic roots are obvious: they paint a picture as vivid as a newspaper headline but his anger appears to be more against nature than the human enemy.
… The white faces float like refuse…. they clutch with fingers frozen into claws the lifebelts …. (Survivors) is a sentence that sear the mind, as does his longer poems describing the fears they lived with daily, the dark, heavy, seas, the perpetual cold and the fear of a torpedo attack leading to an icy grave.
On 30th December 1942 Ross was in a convoy when it was attacked by German surface raiders in an action known as the Battle of the Barents Sea. From this came the epic poem J.W.51B – Convoy, a poem that describes the horrifying minutes when Alan was trapped below decks on the destroyer HMS Onslow with only the dead bodies of his comrades for company: ‘…Heads floating like lilies/ Pulled under by the currents..’ Alan somehow survived that day. Two-hundreds and fifty of his shipmates did not. The experience haunted him until the day he died in 2001.
Here are a few lines from that poem.
‘A’ and ‘B’ Guns unable to fire, Radar destroyed, aerials ripped,
And, forward, the sea stripping The Mess decks, spilling over tables, Fire and water clinching like boxers As the ship listed, sprawling them. Tamblin, his earphones awry, like a laurel wreath Slipped on a drunken god, gargled to death In water with a noise of snoring.
To read more I would recommend his short collected poems, Open Sea (London Magazine Editions)
I think I am correct in saying that the Government has still to produce a medal for these brave men who risked so much in terrible conditions. Last I heard some years ago the Arctic Medal was still a dream in the heads of a few good men. There are only about 200 of these veterans left now. Surely it is time they were rewarded?