Recognition at last for our Arctic heroes as they are finally given medals after 70 years
David Cameron delivers on pledge to introduce a specific Arctic MedalBoth survivors and victims of dangerous and arduous sea missions will receive accolades
Their heroism, stoicism and sacrifice directly contributed to victory on Eastern Front
Tim Shipman and Ian Drury
23:02 GMT, 19 December 2012
Veterans of the Arctic Convoys won their 70-year battle for recognition yesterday when David Cameron revealed they will finally be given campaign medals.
The 200 survivors will be presented with the medals next year, marking a victory for the Daily Mail’s campaign to win recognition for the veterans of the convoys.
No 10 sources said that the medals would also be awarded posthumously, meaning the families of those Arctic Convoy veterans who died during the Second World War or since can collect one on their behalf.
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Frozen hell: Sailors chipping away the ice and snow from the deck of H.M.S. Vansittart while on convoy escort duty in the Arctic in February 1943
Appalling cold: Snow and ice covered the upper works of all ships
More than 66,000 Royal Navy sailors and merchant seamen braved sub-zero temperatures, U-boats, surface warships and aircraft to keep supply lines to Russia open.
However, the onset of the Cold War meant it was politically difficult to give them a medal for assisting the Soviet Union and it is only now their sacrifice has been properly recognised.
Convoy veterans welcomed Mr Cameron’s announcement but accused him of dragging his feet after promising to act two years ago.
David Cameron, pictured leaving Downing Street today, announced the Government would award an Arctic Convoy medal. Commander Eddie Grenfell (right) said too many had 'died waiting' for recognition
Brave veterans of the Arctic Convoy, pictured last year
Phyllis Coyle commissioned the first memorial for the Arctic Convoy veterans in honour of her late husband Michael who was on the convoys but died in 2010
Commander Eddie Grenfell, 92, from
Portsmouth, was on four of the convoys and was one of the few survivors
when his ship, the SS Empire Lawrence, was blown up in 1942.
He said: ‘Of course I’m delighted that
all the veterans are finally being recognised but why have we had to
wait so long
'We were promised a medal by [Tory leaders] Iain Duncan
Smith in 2003, Michael Howard in 2004 and David Cameron.
‘Yet no end of my Arctic chums have crossed the bar in the intervening years.’
Denis Graystone, 89, from Finchley, served as a radar rating on the cruiser HMS Diomede. He said: ‘I’m very pleased, it’s a nice gesture, but it’s long overdue.’
In a linked announcement, the airmen of Bomber Command learned that they will get a campaign clasp to match the Battle of Britain clasp given to Fighter Command personnel.
Mr Cameron told MPs he had accepted the recommendations of a review of military medals carried out by former diplomat Sir John Holmes.
He found that Bomber Command personnel were unfairly treated – in part because the bombing of Germany was criticised after the war.
Details of who will be eligible for the honours will be drawn up by the Ministry of Defence and announced in the spring.
Mr Cameron told MPs he agreed ‘the heroic aircrews should be awarded a Bomber Command Clasp’ and said: ‘I am very pleased that some of the brave men of the Arctic Convoys will get the recognition they so richly deserve for the very dangerous work they did.’
Hero: In perilous conditions a sailor frees chains, wires and bollards from the ice
Unsung: One of 78 convoys that braved frozen seas to help win the war
Why did it take them 70 years By Robert Hardman
Winston Churchill called it ‘the worst journey in the world’. And he knew a few.
Even greater than the ever-present threat of German U-boats, battleships and dive bombers, were conditions so bleak that some men required surgery just to take off their clothes.
Merely rubbing your nose risked tearing the flesh off your face. Those careless enough to grab a handrail risked leaving their palm glued to the metalwork. But in monstrous seas which could suddenly pitch a ship 30 degrees in either direction, sometimes they had no choice.
Frank Wilson was a seaman on the HMS Activity and endured torpedo infested waters and sub zero temperatures to assist Russian soldiers
Here, more than anywhere, the order to
abandon ship was akin to a death sentence. Those not rescued within a
few minutes were beyond rescue at all.
Such was life for the men of the Royal
and Merchant Navies who took part in the Arctic Convoys between 1941
and 1945, providing vital supplies for Russia’s campaign against the
Some 3,000 British and Commonwealth
sailors perished on those icy voyages to and from Murmansk and
Archangel, while many survivors would end the war minus a limb or two –
courtesy of frostbite, if not enemy fire.
Now, 70 years later – and following a
Daily Mail campaign – they are finally to receive due recognition, even
if there are only a couple of hundred still able to pin that hard-won
medal on a gallant chest.
However, the Prime Minister’s
announcement that a new medal, the Arctic Convoy Star, will be minted
for these men is still a cause for great celebration. Amongst veterans’
groups, there is a palpable sense of a wrong being righted.
'THE HORRORS OF WAR THAT STILL HAUNT MY DREAMS'
Two veterans who welcomed today's announcement remember the perils of fighting on the frozen front:
Bill Sheppard, 86, from Portsmouth, said: 'The ships were solid with ice. If you put your hand on a rail without gloves on, you’d strip the skin off. That’s how cold it was.
'We had to go out on deck tied to ropes and chip off the ice. Sometimes the ships would tilt to 45 degrees, so we had to clear the ice quick.
'We came dangerously close to the ice taking us over.
'The most horrendous thing I remember is when an oil tanker got hit by a bomber.
'It broke up and there were huge flames.
'There were men on fire falling over the side in to the freezing sea that was also on fire because of the oil on the water.
'There are things that never leave your mind. Sometimes at night those terrible images will invade my dreams. It never leaves you.'
Lt Cdr Dykes said: 'It was gale force wind after gale force wind coming from all different directions.
'The spray would turn to ice on your face. Your eyebrows and nose would be covered in ice.
'It was horrendously cold in every way imaginable, but we had to keep going out and chipping the ice off the ship because if it built up too much we could go under.
'It wasn’t just the weather, though. There were enemy attacks from dive bombers and torpedoes on an hourly basis at times.
'We would be at action stations for weeks on end and we’d live off cold food because the chef would be too busy supplying ammunition to cook anything – not that we had much time to think about eating at all.'
Arctic veteran Lieutenant-Commander
Roy ‘Dick’ Dykes, 92, summed it up last night: ‘This has been the best
Christmas present I could have asked for. In fact, it is the best news
in a very long time.’
No surviving veteran spent longer on
the convoys than Lt-Cdr Dykes, who clocked up 12 round-trips in the
corvette, HMS Honeysuckle.
He says there will be celebration
drinks at the next gathering of the Winchester branch of the Royal Naval
Association or, as he puts it: ‘Splice the mainbrace!’
So why has it taken so long Why have
12 previous post-war Prime Ministers not made amends until now – while
allowing the veterans to dwindle to a handful
It has been largely down to a
combination of politics and institutional inertia. Whitehall has long
had its dusty old rules about the allocation of medals, notably an edict
that no medal could be created for a campaign more than five years in
And the reasons that the heroes of the
Arctic Convoys were cold-shouldered by the Establishment in the
immediate aftermath of the war were entirely down to politics.
No sooner had the war come to a close
than the Cold War began. The Arctic Convoys had been busy supplying a
communist maniac who might, at any minute, turn his tanks and his atomic
weapons on the West. Best not talk up the work of those who had helped
‘There was this initial political
concern about honouring our sacrifices for a Cold War enemy,’ explains
Caroline Dinenage, Tory MP for Gosport, and long-standing campaigner for
an Arctic veterans’ medal.
‘Then the Arctic issue just fell in
with the protocol on all medals. There was a Ministry of Defence mindset
about restricting the number of medals and nothing was going to change
Miss Dinenage is grateful to the
public and to the media – notably the Mail – for their steadfast support
on these issues over the years.
‘The public have never understood why more has not been done and, finally, the Government has listened.
‘We cannot imagine what these men went
through. One survivor returned to Britain and had to be shipped to
London to have his socks surgically removed because they had frozen to
Every account of the convoys is peppered with stories which should leave the rest of us open-mouthed.
A particularly bleak image is that of
the Hurricane pilots assigned to the convoys to provide limited air
protection and shoot down enemy reconnaissance aircraft.
The planes would be launched by
catapult from the bow of a merchant ship but there was no means of
landing back on board. The pilots would be expected to fly until they
ran out of fuel and then crash-land at sea – little short of a suicide
mission in Arctic waters. And it has taken 70 years to give these people
Those who took part in the British Arctic convoy ran a gauntlet of U-boats and vicious weather conditions to bolster efforts on the Eastern Front
All agree that the most important
thing, now, is speed. Having taken so long to get round to creating a
medal, Whitehall officials could easily spend years dithering over
designs and eligibility criteria.
‘I hope they get on with it. This is
long overdue and all my pals are gone now,’ says William Lovegrove, 90,
of Penarth, who sailed the Arctic waters in HMS Bermuda. He once fell in
the water and attributes his survival to being a super-fit footballer
(as war broke out, he was having trials with Cardiff City).
Downing Street officials insist that the new medal should be ready by the spring.
Officials have not yet confirmed
whether it will be awarded posthumously, but it seems unlikely that,
having gone this far, the Prime Minister will limit the recipients to a
handful of veterans.
As these old men are always the first to admit, they are the lucky ones because they actually made it through the war.
So, let us all keep up the pressure
and ensure that, by next Remembrance Sunday, there is a shiny new
decoration on the blazers of the few still able to march.
And let us make sure that the families who have never stopped mourning are given a precious reminder that all was not in vain.
UNDER CONSTANT ATTACK, THE VITAL CONVOYS THROUGH THE ICE
Bravery: Eric Alley made 15 convoy journeys between August 1941 and March 1943
By IAN DRURY
Battered by waves as high as houses, the ships sailed on through the darkness, fog and appalling cold of the Arctic winter.
But the weather was as nothing compared with the fear of being attacked by German warplanes, battleships and U-boats.
A total of 78 convoys delivered four million tons of vital cargo and munitions to the Soviet Union – allowing the Red Army to repel the Nazi invasion.
The cost in lives was horrific. More than 3,000 UK seamen were killed in the treacherous waters of the Arctic Ocean as they undertook the terrifying trips to keep Russia supplied and fighting on the Eastern Front.
In total, 85 merchant and 16 Royal Navy vessels perished between 1941 and 1945.
But the cost had the Arctic convoys not succeeded would have been worse: Nazi Germany would very probably have won the Second World War.
Churchill proposed the convoys following Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of Russia.
Cabinet documents reveal that Britain’s greatest prime minister promised to supply Stalin ‘at all costs’. He knew that if Russia fell, the full weight of the Nazi military machine would be targeted at the West.
Over four years, the convoys delivered 7,000 warplanes, 5,000 tanks and other battlefield vehicles, ammunition, fuel, food, medicine and further emergency supplies. Because Norway and the Baltic states had been captured by Germany, the only way to get the goods to Russia was through the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel, both inside the Arctic Circle.
The first convoys set off from Iceland and Loch Ewe in the Scottish Highlands. Two or three reached their destination unscathed. But then the Germans ‘got wise’ to the missions, said Eric Alley, 88, who served as a radar operator on HMS Inglefield.
‘After they woke up, all hell broke loose. They shifted all their most able Luftwaffe squadrons and U-boats to Norway and we’d be under constant attack from the air and sea,’ said Mr Alley, from Weymouth, Dorset.
‘You’d hear a horrible bang and one of the ships would disappear. Once I was moving across the deck and there was a huge explosion. I saw a column of smoke and fire and one of the ships start to sink. The poor blighters on board didn’t stand a chance. We heard ships call for help but couldn’t do anything about it.’
Mr Alley, who made 15 convoy journeys between August 1941 and March 1943, said conditions on board were ‘pretty terrible’.
He learned the hard way about the freezing temperatures when the skin on his hand was ripped off as he accidentally grabbed a ladder.
The final convoy departed from the Clyde on May 12, 1945, and arrived at Kola Inlet, near Murmansk, on May 20. It sailed back into Glasgow ten days later.
Victory in Europe had been declared on May 8 – not least thanks to the sacrifice of the heroes of the Arctic convoys.