Scotland’s surviving veterans of the World War II Arctic or Russian Convoys have been honoured by Russia in the presentation of medals to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of the war.
The convoys, many of which gathered at Loch Ewe in Sutherland, with naval escorts trained in Argyll, at Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, sailed to bring munitions and food to Russia – four million tons of it – between 1941 and 1945.
They operated with a high attrition rate when the German U-boats were dominant, forcing them to travel, where they could, at the worst time of the year in appalling conditions through the North Atlantic and round the North Cape to Murmansk.
At these times visibility was bad, offering some protection from long range German reconnaissance aircraft and, to a degree, from the U-boats themselves.
104 Merchant ships, 20 Royal Navy ships, a submarine and two armed whalers were lost in the convoys, with Germany losing 31 submarines.
The irony in today’s presentation (23rd April 2010) is that the convoy veterans are more honoured by Russia than by their own country.
Today, civilian pen pushers from the MoD, sent on administrative duties to Iraq, are given campaign medals. The Convoy Veterans remain discriminated against because they were members of the Merchant Navy and were not of the Royal Navy service for whom medals were considered appropriate.
After years of campaigning, Tony Blair’s government, on 7th March 2005 made a modest concession. The Arctic Star – known as the Arctic Emblem was created. This was not, of course, a medal but ‘an addition to medals’, a small campaign button to be worn on the left lapel. It’s about the size of a 5p piece but the veterans, rightly, wear it with a pride Britain should feel and recognise more aptly.
Russia regularly honours the Convoy Veterans to whom it acknowledges a great debt.
At today’s ceremony in Edinburgh, Consul General of the Russian Federation, Sergey Krutikov presented the commemorative medals to the thirty surviving Scots veterans, saying: ‘It is a great honour for me to carry out the wishes of the President of the Russian Federation and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces and present these medals to the British Russian Convoy veterans.
‘The Russians, like the British, have the same warm feelings for their veterans.
‘Today we are honouring those who fought our common enemy and did everything possible to achieve our Great Victory’.
Responding on behalf of the veterans was Jock Dempster (left), featured in several articles in For Argyll’s continuing series on the Arctic Convoys.
Jock, who joined the Merchant Navy at 16 and today, at 81, believes he is the youngest surviving veteran, and is Chair of the Russian Convoy Club Scotland, said: ‘This event marks a very special day for us.
‘The long-standing bond of friendship which existed between the Russian people and the veterans during the war has become even stronger since.
‘The medal is much appreciated for adding formal recognition of the critical role we played in shipping vital supplies to Murmansk and Archangel.
‘The Russians have never forgotten the ultimate sacrifice made by the 2,800 seamen who never returned to our shores’.
Since the UK Government cannot put an appreciation of valour above the classist meanness of spirit that governs our armed forces, can Scotland’s First Minister perhaps create a major Scottish honour for these veterans of what Churchill described as ‘sucide missions’ – while at least these men remain alive?
The photograph at the top is of four Arctic Convoy veterans at an international tribute to them at Loch Ewe in October 2008, where a memorial was raised to those who were lost in the convoys. They are, from the left: Reay Clarke, Jimmy McHugh, Jock Dempster and Jim Osler, a survivor of the most infamous convoy of all, PQ17.