When Arthur Sproxton did his bit for the war effort, he was – on the face of it – no different to millions of others.
All faced peril and the threat of the Nazi regime.
But he was different. He was a teenager who had his whole life ahead of him. And not just any teenager, he was a young man who had to stretch the truth to play his part.
And when the Sunderland teenager tried to sign on for Merchant Navy duty at just 16 years of age, he wasn’t going to let a skipper’s doubts get in the way.
He sailed the seas under the threat of Nazi U-boat attack.
Echo journalist Chris Cordner caught up with Trevor Thorne from the Sunderland Antiquarian Society who explains more.
Arthur’s recollections of the journey were vivid. Recalling the turmoil caused by the severe Arctic seas, he said “I have never seen so much crockery smashed in all my life!”Trevor Thorne
Arthur Sproxton was really keen to make a difference.
The Sunderland lad was just 16 years of age when he persuaded the skipper of a ship berthed in the Wear to let him serve on board as a cabin boy.
It was even more risky than usual.
The ship on which he volunteered to work was to travel alone on this occasion – in other words, without a naval escort on the journey from Sunderland to Russia.
That wasn’t how it normally worked. Ships were usually escorted by the Royal Navy, and the Merchant Marine would battle against severe weather conditions as well as the ever-constant threat from U-boats to deliver aid.
After all, it was in Britain’s interest to keep the Soviets supplied with arms and food as they fought the Germans on the Eastern Front.
During the Second World War, Russia was one of our allies against the Nazis.
Arthur and his pal Terry Carragan had pestered ships officers in the early part of 1943 to allow them to go to sea. The captain who finally allowed them to go said: “I want a volunteer crew, but you are too young. It is too dangerous.”
Arthur said: “We are old enough and are not afraid of a few Nazis.”
Perhaps not, but there was an extra threat which faced the Merchant Navy ships of the time.
Trevor explained: “During their hard winter, few Russian ports remained open, but Murmansk was one which managed to continue to operate.”
After Arthur’s persistence, the captain of the ship signed the two Wearsiders on. The ship was not named in the press for security reasons.
But sure enough, the voyage they faced had its perils.
Arthur’s recollections of the journey were vivid. He remembered the turmoil caused by the severe Arctic seas. He said: “I have never seen so much crockery smashed in all my life!”
The weather was the greatest obstacle and it wasn’t until they were docked in the Russian port that they came under fire from the Germans.
The Distinguished Service Medal was a bravery award which was mainly given to Royal and Merchant Navy seamen between 1914 and 1993 before the medal was discontinued.
And because of their actions, Arthur Sproxton and Terry Carrigan were both awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
At the time of his award Arthur was 16, although he was 17 by the time his proud family went to Buckingham Palace to see him receive his medal.
During the presentation, the King said to him: “It was a fine thing to do.”
It was indeed and it was yet another hero of Wearside going above and beyond to help others.
Arthur Sproxton was born in 1920 and the family lived in Hutton Street, which was off Hylton Road. His father was in the police service.
The young Arthur had been an Air Raid Precaution messenger before going to sea.
He was a young man with plenty about him. He used his height to pass as 16, which was the age limit for service at sea at the time.
He had started an apprenticeship at the North East Marine Works but it was his grandfather’s adventures and his stories of sailing ships which caught Arthur’s imagination.
It seemed he was destined to be sea-going all his working life.
Does anyone know of a younger winner of this award.
If so, get in touch and let us know. Email email@example.com and tell us more. And email as well if there is any aspect of Wearside history you would like us to cover.