At long last: Arctic Convoy Star medal for veterans and descendants

With Christmas on the doorstep, Prime Minister David Cameron has at last fulfilled a pre-election pledge he broke as soon as got into power.

He has awarded the Arctic Convoy Star medal, which progressive British governments have shamefully refused to do since the end of World War II.

This is for those who served on the Arctic Convoys carrying vital supplies to Russia – from Loch Ewe in Wester Ross, from Oban and from Glasgow to Murmansk on the Kola Inlet and to Archangel on the White Sea.

These supplies kept Russia in the war, an alliance that enabled Britain to survive as an independent democracy and not a defeated colony of the Third Reich

The greatest number of these veterans are members of the Merchant Navy, along with the members of the Royal Navy, whose ships acted as escorts for these most dangerous of all convoys.

They sailed in waters riddled with U-boats, for whom they were soft targets.  The U-boat captains aimed to get into the middle of a convoy  – and often did – and from that vantage point simply pick off targets.

The convoys were also subject to air attack from the Luftwaffe, since their passage brought them within range of the aces of this feared airforce from occupied Norway.

Then there was the weather – freezing conditions so hazardous an out-breath could freeze in the nostrils and ice had constantly to be chipped off the rails, decks and equipment of the ships for fear the increasing weight of it would capsize the ship.

Sea conditions and attacks caused convoys to scatter, with the thinly spread merchant ships then without  the support of the naval escorts – in U-boat predations that were little more than turkey shoots.

The constant dangers made the  attrition rate of the convoys shocking.

More than 3,000 seamen were killed during the course of 78 convoys, with 85 merchant ships and 16 navy escort ships destroyed -  the cost of delivering 4 million tons of cargo to a Russia  that expresses its heartfelt gratitude in repeated medal awards to this day.

Only recently the Foreign and Commonwealth Office turned down a request from Russia to award the convoy veterans another medal. The Foreign Secretary is likely to have known what was in the wind and did not wish to see the shine taken off this belated British recognition.

Now, at last, the unique service of these wartime veterans has been recognised – and the award of the medal will also comfort the descendants of the very many veterans who died after successive governments let them down. Over 66,000 men sailed on these convoys. No more than 200 are alive today. That is the scale of the betrayal.

The Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project team at Aultbea in Wester Ross will be cheering themselves hoarse tonight – and Jock Dempster, former Chair of the Scottish Russian Convoy Association has seen triumph at then end of a long fought campaign.

Well done, in the end, David Cameron but this late action is irretrievably tainted with 67 years of small mindedness, misjudgment and, frankly, service snobbery because these veterans are largely Merchant Navy seamen.

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12 Responses to At long last: Arctic Convoy Star medal for veterans and descendants

  1. I am delighted to hear this news. I am the nephew of a Merchant Navy crewman, Douglas Wallace, who spent WW11 being bombed and torpedoed, much of it on the Russian convoys, and thereafter half a century battling mealy-mouth two-face politicians and assorted pen-pusher bureaucrats on this and related issues.

    The latter battle was the toughest.

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    • The Russian Arctic Convoy Museum team at Aultbea would be glad to know more about your uncle and his experiences – as would our readers.
      You might think about letting both the Museum folk and ourselves have the details you have.
      You know where we are and you can contact the Museum team by email at: info@russianarcticconvoymuseum.co.uk and mark your email FAO Jacky Brookes.

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  2. I am also delighted my dad Robert Kenneth Moore served in the Royal Navy and served on several ships and travelled to Mermansk, I still have his Russian flag & flagpole & records in a personal diary of what he endured,he loved his time serving in the navy and was a very proud man, I am so glad that there effortrs have finally been recognised. God Bless Dad

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  3. My dad served on HMS Dido on a convoy but sadly past away 18 months ago, how i wish he was alive today to hear the news that is so long overdue. I am so proud of him and his comrades.

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    • If you know something of his story on HMS Dido and/or have any photographs he had of his service – the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum team at Loch Ewe in Wester Ross would be delighted to hear from you – as would we.
      You can contact the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum by email at: info@russianarcticconvoymuseum.co.uk [Put FAO Jacky Brookes in the subject line of the email.]

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  4. I have only a few written records of my uncle’s service in the Merchant Navy. I will attempt to contact his descendants to obtain more. but since they live in various faraway locations it might take a long time.

    What I have is as follows -

    Douglas Wallace – Service Number R267509 – Signed On May 30 1942 – Age 17 – Deck Boy/Galleyhand

    His first ship, SS Kordecki, sunk by bombing in the English Channel Christmas Day, 1942.

    He then sailed on the SS Amberton, January 23 1943 bound for South Africa, but had to divert to Belfast for repairs due to storm damage. He then sailed in convoy for Freetown SA but as a result of enemy attack the convoy scattered and his vessel sailed alone to Montevideo, Uruguay.

    After a number of other voyages, one of which was remarkable by the fact that the previous crew had mutinied, and om an oil tanker, which he hated, he joined the SS Empire Tourist, November 3 1943, bound for Russia. I don’t know how many voyages he did om this run, but his vessel was sunk March 4 1944 at 3:45 pm on a return voyage. Remarkably, the entire crew were picked up alive by their escort, HMS Gleaner. He was landed at Loch Ewe, and was quartered briefly at the hotel at Achnasheen.

    He also sailed on the SS Ocean Vista to Normandy, D Day+1 1944.

    That is all the written records I have, the following are my recollections of conversations I had with him. Like many others who underwent such horrific experiences he didn’t really enjoy speaking of them, and what little he told me was in the form of impromptu remarks and anecdotes when we were discussing other matters.

    His regard for his shipmates was enormous. Their survival depended on the closest of teamwork and an absolute trust in each other, all ranks.

    He was horrified by the heartless brutality he witnessed in Russia, the starving civilians shot by the dockyard patrols when they attempted to beg food from foreign ships.

    And his treatment from his employers drew more than a few scathing comments. After his ship was torpedoed returning from Russia, his clothing, soaked in oil, had to be discarded and he was given cast-offs by the Royal Navy crew. Since he was a very tall gangling lad nothing could be found to fit him and the result was a passable imitation of a scarecrow, so much so that even his relatives didn’t recognise him when he eventually got home to Glasgow. His joy at surviving was a bit dented, however, when he reported to his shipping company to get reassigned and to pick up his back pay only to find that they had deducted the price of his uniform which was lost when his ship went down!

    I never saw any bitterness in him, no sense of anger that his youth had been wasted. His sense of fun and humour, his ability to find the best in people, was always with him. This did not mean that he was in any way “soft”, he could spot a phoney instantly and reacted accordingly regardless of how exalted their position. Which was just as well because he was very active for many years in the British Legion, fighting cases for fair treatment of war widows and ex servicemen. This included the awarding of medals where deserved – those little bits of metal and ribbon – which signify so much.

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    • Great story – thank you. And aren’t mutineers always interesting? You wonder what that story was about.
      Do you know where his ship was when it was sunk on its return convoy?
      They were very lucky to survive that.

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  5. As a Sapper I sailed to Arctic Norway from Scapa Flow to resist the German invasion. Issued with first class arctic clothing we had boots two sizes too big to take three pairs of arctic socks. Long pants with extra pant-legs.Lamds-wool vests,leather jerkins,trigger-finger gloves,rabbit-skin mittens, snow goggles, balaclava,white deer-staker hats, arctic coats with clips instead of buttons. Double nested sleeping-bags an rubber ankle-boots. It was so coldly that sentry duty was ten minutes on and twenty minutes off instead of the usual two hours on and four hours off. We cleared snow from twelve fields and joined them together to build an airstrip for Hurricanes prior to the battle and capture of Narvik. I qualify for Arctic Emblem, will I qualify for the Arctic Medal ???

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    • This is a fantastically interesting account, Ted. The detail of what you were given to wear sounds usefully strategic – possibly heavy. Did it work?
      Ten minutes on, twenty minutes off sounds as if you will have been cold to the core coming up to the ten.
      How long did it take to clear and create the Hurricane airstrip – and how many of you were working on it?
      Narvik is well north, opposite the Lofotens, so the temperatures must have been very low. Do you know what they were?
      Do you know at what stage of the attack on Narvik the Hurricanes came into play at the airstrip you helped to create? It would be interesting to know that detail.
      When you talk of the Arctic Emblem – is this the round button badge with a red star that was eventually awarded but that was not supposed to be work on the left breast, where medals are worn?
      The new medal appears to be entitled the ‘Arctic Convoy Star Medal’ which, with its specific dedication to the Arctic Convoys, may well be limited to those in the Merchant and Royal Navies who sailed in them.
      However, it is just as likely that, with the speed of rushing this announcement out before Christmas, the details of eligibility have not yet been sorted out; and there may be room to have that medal represent the entire Arctic campaign.
      We advise you to contact the Ministry of Defence sooner rather than later and put the point to them – and ask your MP to do the same.
      Thank you for this information – and it would be hugely interesting to us and to many of our readers, to have more. You could add anything here – or contact me personally by email: lm.henderson@powdermills.com [lynda247@btinternet.com after 7th January].
      Lynda Henderson

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  6. At long last the brave men of the Merchant Navy are being recognized, and not before time. I have not been able to find any information as to how family of a Merchant seaman, who lost his life an board SS Goolistan, can receive the medal on their behalf.

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  7. My father too was in the convoys HMS Narwal and sadly he
    died two years ago 98 and no recognition for his DSM before he
    died all too sad lets hope they find us his relatives or do we
    have to go begging/ Gill Dawson

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