Local MSP Jackie Baillie attended the medal ceremony of a 90-year-old WW2 veteran from Dumbarton on Saturday, 1st November 2014.
The Russian Consul General visited Cardross to present Arthur McWatt with his Ushakov Medal for service on the Arctic Convoys – a campaign Winston Churchill described as the ‘the worst journey in the world’.
Mr McWatt, from Giels Avenue, joined the Royal Navy when he was 18 and served on board HMS Walker during the Second World War, taking part in two convoy sailings to northern Russia to resupply the Soviet Union.
HMS Walker was actually built in Dumbarton – a W-class destroyer of the British Royal Navy that saw service in the final months of World War I, in the Russian Civil War and in World War II. She was laid down by William Denny and Brothers on 26th March 1917.; launched on 29th November; completed on 12th February 1918– fitted to lay mines and commissioned on the same day. These were no days for faffing around.
Walker had a fascinating service history, unusually well detailed in her Wikiepedia entry here – which makes for very interesting reading. It looks from her history that Mr McWatt’s Arctic Convoy service on Walker would have been in 1944 – or possibly 1945. [After a very busy and prolonged working life, much of it at war – the tail end of WWI, the Russian Civil War and WWII – HMS Walker was scrapped at Troon in 1946.]
Known as the Arctic Convoys, each sailing lasted around 10 weeks and ships were under constant threat of attack from German U-Boats and aircraft.
Veterans say that the biggest enemy was the bitter cold weather and ice; and Mr McWatt recalled that on his first sailing it was impossible to use the ship’s guns to defend against attack because they were frozen.
Mr McWatt turned 90 today, Tuesday 4th November and the medal ceremony was arranged as a birthday surprise by his daughter, Marie. He arrived at Cardross Golf Club for his usual Saturday afternoon lunch – to be greeted by a piper and Russian Consul General Andrey Pritsepov. He must have wondered what on earth was going on – before discovering that it was all for him.
Jackie Baillie was touched at the McWatt family’s invitation to her to take part in the occasion. She says: ‘It was an honour to be invited to share this special day with Arthur and his family.
Arthur showed great bravery and courage during what can only be described as some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions of the Second World War.
‘I know that Arthur had been waiting for this medal for some time.
‘When Russia announced plans to award the Ushakov medal to British veterans in 2012, Foreign Office rules stopped British soldiers from being honoured by other countries.
‘I am delighted that this decision was overturned after a hard-fought campaign by veterans and their families and the Russian Consulate deserves credit for making the effort to come to Cardross to surprise Arthur for his birthday.’
The Foreign Office not only obstructed British veterans from being honoured by other nations but the Ministry of Defence obstructed the award of an Arctic Service medal – for 70 years – to merchant navy veterans whose service was unlike any other and which played a key part in the outcome of World War II.
These men sailed in large and widely spaced formation convoys in frightful physical conditions and under constant attack, most of them in unarmed merchant ships – the targets for the attackers – unable to defend themselves and reliant on their naval escorts.
The attrition rate of the convoys was terrifying. Their success in getting supplies through to Russia at such cost – to keep that country active in the war on the side of the Allies, was a material contribution to the outcome of that war and one which Russia, to its eternal credit, has never forgotten. The warmth and generosity with which Russia has serially recognised the contribution made to its needs in desperate times by these brave men has put the United Kingdom’s own response to shame.
It was only in 2013 that many Arctic Convoy veterans received the finally awarded Arctic Star Medal.
For Argyll reported then from Loch Ewe, first hand, on 9th May 2013, when a gathering of veterans were honoured, celebrated and presented with these medals by representatives of Her Majesty the Queen, the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments and the Royal Navy.
These celebrations lasted for almost a week, with the veterans and their carers guests of the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum project at Aultbea in Wester Ross, This team had unceasingly campaigned for the award of the Arctic Star, campaigned for a medal ceremony to be held at Loch Ewe, from which so many convoys departed for the Kola Inlet and Murmansk; fundraised for, planned and delivered a week long programme of events to pay due tribute to the men at the heart of it all – of whom Arthur McWatt was one.
Note: The photograph above of Arthur McWatt’s ship, HMS Walker, in choppy seas was taken during her World War II service by Royal Navy official photographer, Tomlin, H W [Lt] and is now out of copyright.