Honour for heroes of convoys torpedoed by red tape

AS YOUNG men they risked their lives for freedom in a mission which Winston Churchill described as “the worst journey in the world”.

Veterans from the Arctic Convoys played a vital role in World War II transporting vital supplies through icy waters and Nazi attacks to Russia.

Thousands of seamen lost their lives as both merchant vessels and Royal Navy ships were hit.

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Now, more than 60 years on, the Russian government wants to honour the courage of the Arctic Convoy veterans by awarding them with the Ushakov Medal.

However they are being denied the honour because of British Government rules which state than any award from another state must be for a service done for that country in the past five years.

Veterans from the West Riding branch of the Russian Convoy Club were among the former British seamen who received a letter from the Russian Embassy earlier this year informing them of the intention to present them with the Ushakov medal for bravery at sea.

However because of Government rules these men, the youngest of which are in their mid 80s, were asked to demonstrate what they have done for Russia in the past five years.

This has angered veterans and their families who feel that their wartime service is being recognised by another country but not their own.

The Foreign Office has also said that medals from overseas cannot be awarded to people who have received or are set to receive a UK award for the same service.

Arctic Convoy veterans have
not been given their own campaign medal in the UK but 
are entitled to the Atlantic Star medal.

In 2006, an Arctic Emblem lapel badge was also introduced.

David Gaunt, whose 92-year-old father Cyril served in the Royal Navy on the convoys, said neither the Atlantic Star nor the lapel badge were proper recognition for the Arctic Convoy veterans.

He said: “I do feel the Government is dragging its heels. If our Government does decide to give the Arctic Convoy veterans their own service medal how long will that take?

“I am sure in the back of my father’s mind and of the other veterans is the fact that by the time this happens they might not be around to receive it.

“There is a timely opportunity now to allow these men to receive the Ushakov medal which would be of real value to them.”

Once a month, the members of the West Riding branch of the Russian Convoy Club meet at a working men’s club in Dewsbury to remember old times.

Their youngest member Don Heighton, from Dewsbury, who was a marine, is now 86.

They told the Yorkshire Post how convoys came under attack from Nazi ships, U-boats and planes and how they struggled to cope with the cold.

Charles Erswell, 88, from Horbury, said: “I was on a destroyer which had an open deck. When you were going through 40ft waves by the time the spray hit you in the face it had turned to ice.

“I will tell you how the Russian people feel about us.

“Every year in November I receive a card from the headmistress of a school in Murmansk. It says: ‘Thank you for the peaceful blue skies we enjoy.’

“The Russian people value what we did but our own Government doesn’t seem to care.”

A letter from the Russian Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko to Arctic Convoy veterans said last week: “The embassy only has to express its profound regret that while the authorities of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA have granted permission to be awarded the Ushakov Medal we are not in a position to honour in the same way the courage and sacrifice of the British heroes of the Arctic Convoys.”

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We very much appreciate the Russian government’s wish to recognise the brave and valuable service given by veterans of the Arctic Convoys.

“However, the rules on the acceptance of foreign awards clearly state that in order for permission to be given for an award to be accepted, there has to have been specific service to the country concerned and that that service should have taken place within the previous five years.”