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Performance honours Convoy PQ 17: two-thirds of ships were destroyed

The Russia-bound convoy known by the code name PQ 17 has long been acknowledged as one of the worst maritime disasters of the Second World War.

The Russia-bound convoy known by the code name PQ 17 has long been acknowledged as one of the worst maritime disasters of the Second World War.

Sir Winston Churchill in his history The Second World War called it “one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the whole of the war.” The U.S. admiral Dan Gallery was more blunt, calling it in his memoirs “a shameful page in naval history.”

Today at the University of Victoria, the Victoria Symphony Orchestra and the Victoria Philharmonic Choir and dancers will do their part to ensure memories of the sacrifice and bravery connected with the convoy are kept alive in a performance called Requiem for PQ 17.

Also, in partnership with the symphony, the Maritime Museum of B.C. has mounted a special exhibit called Convoy PQ 17: The Art of History illustrating both the event and the artistic creation of Requiem.

The history of PQ 17 is bleak. Of the 35 British and American merchant vessels carrying war supplies to what was then the Soviet Union in June and July 1942, only 11 made it through. One was damaged and forced to turn back, and 23 were sunk by U-boats or aircraft, with the loss of more than 150 merchant sailors.

Through a miscommunication, a misunderstanding or over-concern about the politics of the first Anglo-American relief effort, the Royal Navy abandoned the merchant vessels. Some intelligence reports held the heavily gunned German battleship Tirpitz had sailed to meet the convoy.

As a result of those reports, escorting warships were ordered back just past the halfway point on their way through Arctic waters. Merchant vessels were ordered to scatter and proceed. Separated and without protection, the aid-laden freighters were easy pickings for German aircraft and U-boats.

Requiem for PQ 17, a dance and music piece, has been performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Victoria. Composer and UVic associate professor Christopher Butterfield wrote the music. Toronto choreographer Bill Coleman devised the dance.

It’s a narrative piece, with dancers depicting a group of sailors as they put to sea and their hardships en route to Russia. The orchestra and choir, on stage and surrounding a ship-like structure, represent the ocean. A woman dressed as a mythic siren of the seas periodically carries off drowning men.

Both Butterfield and Coleman are sons of merchant sailors, and they see the piece as a way to honour merchant sailors denied veteran status in Canada until 1992. This despite the Second World War nickname for the merchant navy as the “fourth arm” of the fighting forces, after the army, navy and air force.

Moreover, Coleman’s father, Joe, was a sailor on the Bolton Castle, one of the merchant vessels in PQ 17. Joe’s ship was sunk and he survived several days in a lifeboat. On the return trip, in another convoy, his ship was sunk again and he suffered burns.

In a telephone interview from Toronto, Coleman, 52, said his father, always referred to as “Joe” by him and his four brothers, spoke very little about PQ 17 to his young sons.

“We always knew from the get-go that Joe had in some way been deeply traumatized by the war,” Coleman said. “There was just this vague sort of miasma that something pretty bad had happened.”

But in the 1990s, during visits, pieces of information started coming out, including the code name, PQ 17. The son filled in the details with research and had the first ideas of telling the convoy’s story with dance. But at the same time, he wanted the piece to be “life full” as opposed to a funereal remembrance.

Joe Coleman died two years ago at the age of 88. But in 2001, when Requiem for PQ 17 was first performed in St. Petersburg, his father was able to attend. He was overwhelmed by the reaction of the Russian people.

“Joe was mobbed after the show,” Coleman said. “People wanted to come to him and thank him, to touch his hand.

“He was very gracious with people and really, really moved that the Russian people still felt so strongly in their appreciation.”

Butterfield’s father, James, also now deceased, started in the war as a merchant sailor and after a few convoys he switched to the Royal Navy and sailed on escorts.

But Butterfield recalls in writing Requiem how he approached his father for certain memories, such as which song best represents the year 1942 and was told Roll Out the Barrel. So that tune made it into the piece. He also incorporated some church music and a Russian song, “which frankly, you couldn’t mistake for anything but Russian.”

Butterfield, 60, said he rarely deals in tuneful harmonies. Instead he works hard to come up with sounds to represent events or things. So for the sinking of a ship and the struggle of men to stay alive, he could imagine nothing more than discordant noise, punctuated by calm.

“There are moments of sound, moments of silence, moments of sound, moments of silence,” Butterfield said. “I just thought the violence of it, the absurdity of it and the terror of it can’t really be represented by anything comprehensible.”

And by some lucky stroke of the imagination, Butterfield believes he succeeded in conveying something of the horrors of a stricken ship.

As personal proof, he recalls once, after another performance, receiving a note from a woman writing on behalf of her husband. The man was curious to know how Butterfield had conceived to make the sound of rivets popping from steel plates as they do when a ship with a riveted hull breaks apart.

Butterfield said in devising an explosive moment, he had conceived of the percussionist smacking a drumhead with a cymbal. It made a very resonant but metallic sound.

“I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I have to make the sound of rivets popping out of steel plates,’ ” he said. “I was simply trying to convey a dramatic moment.

“But this man heard it and he heard it as a sound he had heard in some extreme moment from his own memory,” Butterfield said.

“And if I can have such an effect like that on one person, then I know I have won, I’ve been successful in conveying an image.”

Requiem for PQ 17 is at 2:30 p.m. at the UVic Centre Farquhar Auditorium. Tickets are $20, $15 for students.