We ask this question because there are, amongst others, American veterans who sailed in the Arctic Convoys, often on board the Liberty Ships, made in America at an astounding rate [one a day] at the height of Britain’s need for them as supply ships in the second World War.
The imperative at that time to get supplies to the bealeaguered Russia was such that Britain was likely to lose the war if this key ally went down. The Liberty Ships were as much a key to this as the convoys in which they sailed.
So can – and will – Britain create a medal to embrace all those whose service and., in so many cases, whose sacrifice, kept our existence as an independent democracy alive?
One example of such an American seaman is ‘Spud’ Campbell, left, an American veteran who was aboard the SS Henry Bacon – the last ship of the war to be sunk by the Luftwaffe.
A Liberty ship, she was one of the thirty-eight merchant ships in Convoy RA-64, which sailed back from the Kola inlet at Murmansk in North Russia, bound for Loch Ewe.
Damaged by severe storms the Henry Bacon could not keep up with the convoy. She was carrying 19 civilian Norwegian passengers (including women and children – youngest 2 years old – who had just been evacuated from the German Siege of the Norwegian island of Soroy) to Scotland and safety.
She was spotted by 23 German aircraft and managed to shoot down 5 before being sunk.Most of her lifeboats were destroyed in the battle.
In the event 26 crew, including the Captain gave up their lifeboats to save the Norwegian passengers. Saluting the survivors, they sank into water that was – 50 degrees. Only a handful of the youngest crew were selected and put into the different lifeboats to help get the civilians back to safety. Spud was one such crew member.
He managed to erect an aerial and transmit an SOS. This was picked up and they were rescued by HMS Opportune, Zealous and Zambezi [with Roy Elwood onboard – Roy, who has since become an eminent photographer, has written for us on his experiences on Arctic Convoy escort duty on Zambezi; and on the evacuation of Soroy in which he took part].
It is because of this story – of the Norwegian survivors from Soroy who were on the SS Henry Bacon when she was attacked – that the Norwegian military attache, submarine and US Naval representatives were present at the international tribute to the Arctic Convoys run at Pool House in Loch Ewe in 2008. Pool House was Admiralty House for the Convoys of the time and the years of work of the Harrison family at Pool House to commemorate the convoys and the veterans provided the fuel for what has become the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project.
Pool House was then a hotel, with its private dining room named after the SS Henry Bacon and the Russian Convoy bell has an additional inscription added – ‘In memory of the SS Henry Bacon’.
Many of ‘Spud’ Campbell’s fellow crew members died in that sinking. It would be an incomplete redemption of state neglect if this long belated medal was not inclusive in celebrating and commemorating all those involved in that unique service.
The Ministry of Defence will be issuing the guidelines on eligibility for this medal in the New Year. While they are likely to want to exclude foreign nationals. the UK has set the precedent for ennobling such people when they have done marked service to this country or to humanitarian causes – like Casper Weinberger and Bob Geldof.
Notes:The photographs immediately above was taken at an international Arctic Convoy Tribute ceremony at Pool House on Loch Ewe in October 2008. It shows, from left, Arctic Convoy veterans, Reay Clarke, Jimmy McHugh, Jock Dempster and Jim Osler. The photograph above that, of ‘Spud Campbell, was taken at the same event. In flying over for the ceremony, he was separated from his luggage and was annoyed that his clothes were less formal than he had intended.
The 2008 Tribute Ceremony at Pool House at Loch Ewe was a remarkable international occasion. Our story of that event, published on 16th October 2008, is here.
On 25th August 2011 we published Roy Elwood’s account of another ceremony at Loch Ewe, this time run by the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project at Aultbea in a celebration, led by Prince Michael of Kent, of the Convoy’s Operation Dervish. This was held at held at Cove, a tiny hamlet near the mouth of the loch where a Memorial Stone (top) was unveiled in 1999 in memory of ‘over 3,000 shipmates who perished in the icy waters on forty subsequent convoys’.