GWENT author and retired captain Bernard Edwards, 89, of Llanvaches, talks to Kath Skellon about a distinguished career at sea and pursuing his second career as a writer.

“I was one of three children born in Newport and went to St Julian’s School.

I wanted to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot like every young boy at the time but my mother stopped me.

My ancestors were mariners so when I was 17 in 1944 I joined the Merchant Navy and went to sea.

My first voyage lasted eleven months and five days which must have been very hard for my mother.

We sailed to South Africa, India, East Africa, Australia and back to India and home.

The first ship I was on was called the Clan Murdoch carrying mostly manufactured goods from the UK to South Africa, machinery, motor cars and tinned food. We normally came back with a cargo from India of tea, cotton or rubber. In those days we had a big merchant navy with about 4,000 ships. Now we are down to 120 or so.

We had ten naval gunners but it wasn’t sufficient for all the guns so the officers had to make up some of the gun crews which I was involved at times which is why I am a little deaf in one ear.

She survived the war but was very slow and only did about seven-and-a-half knots but was well-armed and had guns on board.

If you were in convoy you had a naval escort but there weren’t many of them. Sometimes you would have 40 ships in a convoy with four escorts so if you were attacked then everybody had to do their best.

I had lived in a cocoon in Newport so seeing the world opened my eyes to what life was about.

I went away as a young and very innocent lad but came back a man. I started off as a cadet and worked my way up, enjoying every minute of it.

I spent the rest of my life at sea. I did work for a few years in the Met Office after I got married but went back to sea.

I was 26 when I married my German-born wife Hildegard in St Mary’s Church on Stow Hill in 1952.

I had a week off as did Hildegard, who was a nurse, so our honeymoon was very short.

There were times at sea when we were chased by pirates, on one occasion we were in the Far East but I had a 17 ½ knots ship which they couldn’t catch which was very reassuring. You just run for it really.

I worked for British companies until 1970 when the British Merchant Navy started to disintegrate.

I was 14 years in command as Captain, when I retired after 37 years I decided I wanted to do something different so I took up writing. It’s more than a hobby it has become a bit of a full time job.

I only write about merchant ships because that is what I know about.

The thing about being at sea the moment you get away from the port you leave it all behind you and are in a different world. In those days you didn’t have television or computers. There was always something over the horizon and you never knew what it was. That was part of the attraction.

You had at least a week in a port, sometimes two, which was a great treat. So you had time to get to know the country and the people. South Africa was a favourite of mine and the people were very hospitable.

I always had a good radio with me so I could listen to the BBC. Otherwise you just socialised. We had about 16 British officers and a smoke room with a bar where you mixed and we had a good life. You had to make your own fun but most of the time you were on watch and didn’t have time to get bored.

I took up writing in the 1980’s when I took command I found I had bit of time on my hand and had always wanted to write. Since then I and have written 27 historical books.

The first was a collection of fictional short stories called ‘Masters Next to God.’

My first historical book was about Welsh merchant ships sunk during the war called ‘They Sank The Red Dragon’.

Most of the books written about the sea, particularly about the war are written about the Royal Navy. It’s very difficult to find a book that is written from the point of view of the Merchant Navy. So I wanted to put the case across for the Merchant Seaman because they went through some very hard times. They didn’t get much recognition so I feel as though I am putting the record straight.

When a ship was torpedoed the senior survivor made a report to the admiralty and all those reports are in the National Archives at Kew. I get a report on the ship and work around it using my own knowledge to enlarge on it and draw on my own experiences at sea and try to bring it to life.

It was a novelty of writing a book which made me sit down and write my first book in one voyage and took about four months.

Now a book normally takes me a year. I do it all from home and spend six months researching and six months writing it.

I was determined when I retired that I wouldn’t put my feet up and watch television and keep my brain active.

I write to a formula making notes on the typewriter and then use the laptop. There is a lot of work involved in the research and getting the sequence of events right and making it as accurate as possible.

I try to mention as many names as I can because the relatives of these people write to me as a lot of them never knew how their brother, son or husband was lost. All they ever got was a telegram from the Ministry of Defence saying they had been lost at sea. As far as possible I try to include as many names and quote as many eye-witnesses which makes it more interesting I suppose.

I find it very satisfying and feel I am giving something back for all those years I had at sea and enjoyed. No-one has done before.

A lot of men died in the British Merchant Navy –about 30,000 men were lost. Looking back what amazes me is that they went back voyage after voyage and didn’t have to as they were volunteers. No ship was ever held up for lack of a crew but what happened on the road to Russia was the worst one of all.

My book, ‘The Road to Russia: Arctic Convoys 1942’ is about the voyage of a gallant company of mainly British men with American and Norwegian ships involved, who brought their ships to Russia by the Arctic route during the Second World War to bring aid to a beleaguered ally.

The convoy assembled close to Lock Ewe on the West coast of Scotland, which I visited as part of my research, and made their way via Iceland 2,500 miles across deadly seas which took them about twelve to fourteen days. The convoy, took guns, tanks and ammunition to a struggling Soviet Russia but it was attacked by U-boats, aircraft and the big ships in atrocious weather-facing more dangers than many did in six years of war. One man in every three was lost.

The merchant men and their naval escorts suffered grievous losses. The cold was so intense that there were pitifully few survivors from the many vessels sunk in the running battles that raged. My book deals in detail with the fates of the convoys PQ13 and PQ17, as well as the Westbound convoy QP13 which were relentlessly attacked. The story of these convoys is one of the most inspiring examples of raw courage and dedication to duty to emerge from the Second World War and my book is an important addition to the bibliography of this bitterly fought campaign.

The merchant seamen were the real heroes and they were only amateurs and I intend to carry on writing about them.”

‘The Road to Russia: Arctic Convoys 1942' is published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd.