Neil McNicholas: Sadness tinges belated medals for Arctic convoy veterans

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TWO years ago, my father was awarded the Arctic Star medal in recognition of his service in the Royal Navy in the Arctic convoys of the Second World War. Of course for him, and other veterans, the recognition was over 70 years late in coming but, presumably, was better late than never.

I say “presumably” because by then my father was beginning to suffer the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. A little earlier, when the creation of the award was first mentioned, his mind was still clear and he was aware that I had submitted an application on his behalf, but by the time the medal arrived it was difficult to gauge either his understanding of exactly what it was for, or his reaction to receiving it. Though he did
seem pleased, he was perhaps a little confused as to why he
was a “celebrity” in the local press.

In his more lucid moments he still had his long-term memories of his experience of the convoys, but, like many of his generation who served in the war, he had never really spoken about them before.

Interestingly, however, the one thing he did remember was that after suffering the nightmare of the freezing weather and the sea conditions that the convoys faced (and he served in three or four of them), not to mention surviving the threat posed by German U-boats, when they got to Russia and requested bunkering facilities and fresh water, the response was “we didn’t ask you to come here”. This paints a somewhat different picture to the one normally presented in documentaries as to how desperate Russia was when the ships arrived – those that made it.  

The local press carried an item about my father receiving his Arctic Star, and for a while at least I tried to maintain the acknowledgement that it represented by having it framed along with his other service medals and hanging them on the wall instead of them being hidden away in the attic as they had been for most of the intervening years.

But then, also in 2013, the Russian government suddenly decided, again long overdue, that they, too, ought to offer the same recognition of the contribution that the convoys had made to Russia’s survival during those war years.

A letter arrived for my father informing him that he would be awarded the Ushakov Medal – a state decoration retained from the awards system of the USSR “for bravery and courage displayed while defending the Motherland” and named in honour of the 18th century Russian admiral Fyodor Ushakov – but first he had to provide the details of his participation in the convoys (as if our own Government’s acknowledgement wasn’t enough).  

I duly submitted the official application on his behalf fully expecting that the promised medal would arrive fairly soon, but months and months passed with no further word.

I contacted the Russian Embassy on a number of occasions, without receiving any response, to ask how the awards process was progressing and pointing out that my father was now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and certainly would no longer be able to attend any awards ceremony as had been mentioned.  

The medal eventually arrived in the post – two years after the application was made – accompanied by a “Certificate of State Award” dated 2013 though the actual postmark was current.  It would seem that the wheels of state in Russia turn very slowly, but of course they had been rather busy invading the Crimea and Ukraine. 

To be honest, if it had been my medal, I think I might have returned it in protest over Russia’s current foreign policy, but it’s my father’s medal and more than deservedly awarded for a wartime action that has to be separated from 21st century politics. Ironically I had to 
return the medal anyway because, on closer examination, it turned out not to be the Ushakov medal at all, but one commemorating the 70th anniversary of “victory in the great patriotic war of 1941-45” and looks like something you’d win at a school sports day.

Two months later, I haven’t even received an acknowledgement, let alone an explanation or even the correct medal. The problem is that in the meantime my father’s dementia has progressed to the point where he would no longer know what I was talking about if I handed him the medal, or why he is being awarded it, or what the commendation is all about that came with it. 

It seems a very real shame that the service and sufferings of veterans of the Arctic convoys should have remained unrecognised for 70 years or more, and that many like my father who are suffering the ravages of dementia are no
longer able to comprehend
the honour that is finally 
being paid.  Many more, of course, are no longer with us to even receive their medal, or Russia’s belated thanks, in the first place.

Father Neil McNicholas is a parish priest at Yarm.