Sea change for the war heroes recognised after 70 years

WINSTON Churchill described it as “the worst journey in the world” and now, more than 70 years after the first crews set out, veterans of Britain’s Second World War Arctic convoys are being recognised for their bravery and sacrifice.

The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that the convoy veterans will be awarded the Arctic Star, while those of the RAF’s Bomber Command would receive the gold “clasp”.

Surviving veterans will receive the new medals or clasps within a fortnight following the Government’s decision to bow to years of campaigning and properly acknowledge their bravery during the war.

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Priority for the new awards will be given to applications from veterans and widows, and then other relatives will be able to apply shortly afterwards.

The move follows David Cameron’s announcement in December that he was accepting the recommendations of a review of military decorations by the former diplomat Sir John Holmes.

A long-running campaign to honour the achievements of the seamen who kept open the vital supply routes to the Soviet Union during the Second World War had previously been rejected on grounds of protocol.

The review also concluded that Bomber Command veterans had been treated “inconsistently” with their counterparts in Fighter Command.

The Arctic convoys made their way from Britain to the northern Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel between 1941 and 1945, during which time they were under constant threat of attack by the Luftwaffe and German U-boats.

Their vital cargo included tanks, fighter planes, fuel, ammunition, raw materials, along with food, and during the course of the war these convoys transported more than four million tonnes of supplies to the Soviet Union.

However, it came at a cost. More than 3,000 seamen were killed, and of the estimated 66,500 men who sailed on the convoys, only around 200 are still alive today.

By May 1945, the treacherous Arctic route had claimed 104 merchant and 16 military vessels. As well as having to withstand German attacks, the convoys also had to contend with freezing weather, storms and ice floes. Some of the men on board spoke of conditions so harsh that salt spray froze as it fell and pilots so numb with cold they had to be lifted out of their cockpits.

Dr Robb Robinson, maritime historian at Hull University, says the decision to honour these men is long overdue. “We have a tendency to honour traditional servicemen and those who fought in traditional battles, which is why this is very welcome. The work carried out by Britain’s Merchant Navy and its fishermen in armed trawlers during the war was crucial.”

The convoys helped the Red Army push back against the Nazis at a time when much of Europe was under Hitler’s control. “The Russians wanted a second front and these convoys not only helped to get important supplies to Russia, they also helped to create a bond between the two countries.”

It was, as Dr Robinson explains, a perilous journey from which many did not return. “They set off from Scotland and had to sail towards Iceland and avoid occupied Norway, which meant they had to get as close as possible to the Arctic ice. They went over in all weathers, they had to endure Arctic winters and gales that beset the ships, and at the same time they faced the constant threat of being attacked by German planes or U-boats,” he says.

“If your ship was struck and you went into the freezing Arctic water, then you didn’t last long. It was a difficult, torturous journey and these men displayed a courage that is almost beyond comprehension.”

Perhaps one of the reasons the bravery of the convoy veterans hasn’t been recognised sooner is due to the fact that not long after the conflict was over Britain found itself embroiled in the Cold War, this time with the Soviet Union as the enemy. “Within a couple of years they were the other side of the Iron Curtain and it became difficult to equate the people we’d supplied during the war as potential foes.”

Nevertheless, Dr Robinson says those that sailed on the convoys deserve our acknowledgement and praise. “The courage of our merchant seaman and fishermen sometimes gets forgotten, but as an island nation it’s important that we remember the crucial role they played during the war.”