Friday, 12 November 2010

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN SAIL INTO SUNSET


By Paul Myles-Kelly

THE Magnificent Seven have sailed into the sunset.
As young men, they put their lives on the line during the Second World War, and now the last surviving members of the Russian Convoy Club in South Shields have bid each other a final, fond farewell.
They were among the brave naval heroes who served on the convoys between 1941 and 1945, making their way through Scapa Flow to Murmansk and Archangel to keep Russia supplied with desperately needed materials and provisions.
About 2,800 lives were lost on the 78 convoys, and 100 allied vessels ended their journey on the bottom of the ocean – many the target of German U-boat attacks.
Some of those who survived went on to form the convoy club in 1956, which has met at the town's Mission To Seafarers ever since.
But after more than 50 years of regular get-togethers, seven remaining members of the borough branch have gathered for their last meeting.
The decision to fold has been made inevitable due to falling membership and ill-health.
Yet as they met at The Steamboat pub on the Mill Dam, the war veterans were philosophical about the end of a remarkable era.
"Everything has got to end sometime, and we've had a good run," said Bob Robertson, 89, of Mortimer Road, South Shields.
Aside from Mr Robertson, the club has two remaining members from South Tyneside – Gordon Johnson, 93, of Durham Court, Hebburn, and Charlton Innes, 92, of Central Avenue, Harton, who actually served on the Malta convoys.
The remainder are: John Clayburn, 85, of Sunderland; Harry Thirlaway, 85, from Gateshead; Alex Kirk, 84, from Hartlepool and Robert Eke, 88, of Fenham, Newcastle.
Mr Robertson added: "It's rough to be saying goodbye, but you always have to move on sometime and nothing lasts forever."
However, there are regrets.
Among them is sadness that the mission's former chaplain, the club's honorary padre, the Rev Andrew Bealing, was unable to attend the last meeting due to ill-health.
And Mr Robertson had a parting shot at the national Missions To Seafarers in London for removing the pumps at the Flying Angel Club bar at the Mill Dam mission.
It was the bar where the convoy members had gathered for decades, sharing recollections and a pint or a dram. He added: "I think it's disgraceful that the pumps have been taken out. It puts the mission in an uncertain position. It's a place where you could enjoy a pint, a tot of rum or a dram of whisky. Some of the remaining members just have a soft drink these days, but at least the club was somewhere they could enjoy a social get-together and that has been taken away from us."
There will be a farewell dinner for the last of the few at the mission on Wednesday, November 17, and a handing over of the club's standard at a later date.
Mr Robertson, secretary of the convoy club, said: "We've met up on the third Wednesday of the month for more than 50 years.
"When we first met up in 1956 we had 40 members and now we're down to less than 10. We've lost three members in the last three months alone.
"We have to face the reality of dwindling numbers and old age. We're leaving this behind with happy memories of the times we've shared."
Two members were unable to attend the meeting but plan to be at the final dinner – Steve Pearson, of Hartlepool, and Fred Jewitt, from Heddon-on-the-Wall.

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