Hero of the Arctic Convoys celebrates his 100th birthday

John Hirst, a merchant seaman who served on the Arctic Convoys during World War Two, celebrated his 100th birthday this week.

John Hirst celebrates his 100th birthday and receives a card from the Queen. Pic credit Photo Makeovers

A party in his honour was held in the garden of his Horbury home attended by family and friends and Mr Hirst hoisted a brand new Red Ensign on his flagpole. The Red Ensign is the British Merchant Navy’s flag.

During the war Mr Hirst and other navy and merchant seamen, carried vital supplies through Nazi attacks to keep Russia’s war effort alive between August 1941 and May 1945, delivering more than four million tons of cargo.

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In all, 85 merchant ships and 16 warships were lost. One of these was the merchant ship SS Empire Cowper with young signalman John Hirst on board for his first ever mission.

Conditions aboard the ships in the Arctic were horendous

He was a conscript for the duration of the war and had completed his training only days before he joined the crew of the ship, which was a member of Convoy QP 10.

Four days after leaving Iceland they had to scatter owing to a severe gale. Once reassembled they continued to Murmansk where they were bombed continually by the Luftwaffe as they discharged their cargo.

Mr Hirst takes up the story: “On April 10, 1942 we left Murmansk to return to the UK. Shortly after clearing land we lost power, fell behind the convoy and were sighted by a Junkers 88 which proceeded to bomb us.

“On the order to abandon ship’ I helped launch two lifeboats and then escaped myself on a life raft with two other survivors. Two hours later we were picked up by the rescue ship Paynter.”

The Empire Cowper was sunk in the Barents Sea with the loss of nine of her crew, who are commemorated at the Tower Hill Memorial, London.

Upon landing at Seydisfjord in Iceland the survivors were taken aboard HMS Liverpool where the first person Mr Hirst encountered was Albert Brooke, his neighbour from Horbury and a distant cousin.

Twelve days after his journey began he arrived home by bus dressed in the uniform of a Russian sailor to be met with incredulity by his parents.

After he had recovered from his ordeal Mr Hirst went back to sea and served for six-and-a-half years on board eight different ships.

After the war he married his late wife Lucy and the couple went on to have one daughter Christine, two granddaughters and four great grandchildren.

Mr Hirst had a variety of jobs including working at local mining machinery factory Fletcher Sutcliffe Wild - several of his former colleagues were at his birthday party.

A keen and knowledgeable historian, John has collected hundreds of books and photographs detailing the heroism of the members of the Arctic convoy and their ships and has collected many thousands of pounds on behalf of the British Legion's Poppy Appeal.

He was also involved in the campaign to have the Arctic veterans’ role in the war recognised by the UK government. Eventually they were awarded the Arctic Star in 2013.

The fight for recognition wasn’t over though. Russia had long wanted to bestow their own medal on those men who had played such an important part in their war, but were prevented from doing so due to British government protocol surrounding the awarding of foreign military medals.

Finally an agreement was reached between Vladimir Putin and the then prime minister David Cameron and all veterans were recognised with the Ushakov medal in 2015 - the highest Russian naval award.

Every five years Mr Hirst receives a commemorative medal from the Russian government to thank him for his service during the war.

Since lockdown he has been archiving his extensive collection and tending to his garden: he is particularly proud of his magnificent sweet peas this year.