Commander Eddie Grenfell: Naval officer who became a hero of the hazardous Arctic Convoys

 

For more than 70 years a tot of rum from his captain was all Eddie Grenfell had as thanks for an act of bravery during the Second World War in the icy Barents Sea. A decoration was promised after he volunteered to climb the mast and fix the broken radar equipment of the catapult armed merchant ship Empire Lawrence as she escorted more than 30 ships on Arctic Convoy PQ16 from Reykjavik to Murmansk in May 1942.

The convoy was one of more than 70 that delivered essential supplies and equipment to the Soviet Union for her part in the Allied fight against Hitler's Germany. Empire Lawrence was between mainland Europe's northernmost point, the North Cape of Norway, and the still remoter mist-shrouded peaks and skull-like snow gullies of Bear Island.

The 22-year-old radar operator's gloved fingers clung and pulled at metal so cold it would have torn his skin from his hands had they touched it naked, and he fought for footholds difficult to sense through the thick, stiff leather of his sea-boots. He did get frostbite, but the fire from German aircraft able to attack round the clock in the perpetual northern summer daylight failed to knock him off, and, the repair done, he shimmied deck-wards past jagged damage that could have brought the mast down altogether, to general cheers.

The idea of safety restored was, however, an illusion, for the very next day, 27 May, dozens of enemy He-111s and Ju-88s shot SS Empire Lawrence to pieces, and she exploded and sank. "I flew through the air surrounded by large chunks of steel, one that looked like the ship's funnel, hitting the water and going down very deep," Grenfell said. With his lungs bursting he struggled up out of darkness, with some sort of weight pulling him back. He realised when he neared the surface that he had brought up a fellow seaman's corpse, head sliced in half by a shard, but hand still clamped on his arm.

Six months in a hospital near Murmansk followed, and eventual repatriation, but the mooted award never came. This may have been because the Commodore of PQ16, Newell Herbert "Herby" Gale, who would have had to approve it, was killed on another convoy off the coast of Australia less than four months later.

Edward Grenfell was born in Aberdeenshire, the son of an English father and a Scottish mother, and attended Montrose Academy, Angus, before joining the Prince of Wales Sea Cadet Training School in London. He served on the cruisers HMS Edinburgh and HMS Leander, taking part in the Norway campaign of 1941 and later sailed to the relief of Malta.

After the war Grenfell, who had joined the Navy's Torpedo Branch, qualifying as a "wireman", was commissioned into the Electrical Branch; among his postings was a year in Australia in 1954. In 1942 he had married Beryl Hodgkins, know as "Bobs."

In 1961, having been promoted Commander, and possessing fluent German, he was appointed assistant naval attaché in Bonn, then capital of West Germany. Surprised at how few embassy staff spoke German, he set up a lecture tour and worked to forge links between the two countries. His appointment was twice extended, until 1965, when he retired.

He and Bobs parted in 1967, and in 1968 Grenfell married a Norwegian, Irene Haneberg. He returned to Germany to run an export business, but after being seriously injured in a car accident he turned to gardening for a living. His employer was a tourism entrepreneur, and soon Grenfell was organising coach holidays from Germany to Britain. His work brought recognition in Germany for the reconciliation he had promoted.

Grenfell's second marriage had ended in 1974, and in 1990 he moved back to Portsmouth, where his daughter lived. Renewing connections with his Scottish roots he joined the Scottish Russian Convoy Club.

The Arctic convoy veterans, marching fewer and fewer each year in their distinctive white berets at the Cenotaph, felt aggrieved as anniversaries passed that they were eligible for a medal only as part of the Atlantic campaigns far from their own grim northern theatre. They were also forbidden by the Foreign Office from accepting the Ushakov Medal from Russia, which was eager to express gratitude to survivors of the operations that had helped her keep on fighting. The ban, according to British policy on accepting foreign medals, was because the Russian embassy's information about named individuals did not show that they had given specific services to Russia within the past five years.

But official reluctance was really, it was thought, because the Ushakov Medal – named for Russia's 18th century "Nelson" – had been instituted by the Soviet Union in 1944, as the Cold War loomed and Britain's erstwhile ally became a potential enemy. The Blair government incensed the Arctic veterans further, by first promising a medal, then reneging and offering a lapel badge, which Grenfell rejected with disgust as "being like something you find at the bottom of a cornflakes packet ... The only way that a campaign, especially one as dreadful as the Arctic one, goes down in history is by a medal. A badge means nothing."

Grenfell highlighted the veterans' campaign by standing in the General Election of 2005 – thought to be the oldest parliamentary candidate in the country – against Geoff Hoon, who had been Blair's Defence Secretary, in the Nottinghamshire constituency of Ashfield. Grenfell, as an Independent, won 269 votes. The impasse lasted until December 2012, when the Coalition government announced that a medal would be struck. Grenfell was too frail to travel to Downing Street to receive his from the Prime Minister in March. He received the first Arctic Star from the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, in the Mayor's Parlour at Portsmouth.

Meanwhile the Foreign Office relented and veterans were invited to receive the Ushakov Medal at Downing Street from Vladimir Putin during his visit in mid-June. Grenfell, in hospital, declared, "I'm absolutely delighted. They told us we couldn't have it because it would be breaking the rules, but they broke the same rules for other medals, such as for the Malaysian, Malta and Suez campaigns." At his funeral in Portsmouth Cathedral his coffin, draped in a Union Jack, was met by a guard of honour of Royal British Legion standard-bearers. Representatives from Russia and Germany, as well as the Royal Navy, attended.

Anne Keleny

William Edward Grenfell, naval officer and campaigner: born Peterhead 17 January 1920; married 1942 Beryl Hodgkins (divorced 1967; two daughters), secondly Irene Haneberg (divorced 1974); died Portsmouth 28 June 2013.

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