How long do Arctic Convoy heroes have to wait for a fitting honour?
About 200 survivors still await recognition for their contribution to victory in the Second World War - as time runs out
Sunday 14 October 2012
Alfred Victor Bond, Alan to his family, risked his life while still a teenager on what Winston Churchill called "the worst journey in the world" at the height of the Second World War. He worked on the Arctic convoys that shipped over four million tonnes of supplies to the Soviet Union, by then allies of Britain and the US, through Arctic waters. For 15 years he campaigned for some 65,000 fellow seamen to be recognised, and their contribution acknowledged. He died in May, his dream unfulfilled.
Some 200 surviving veterans of the convoys continue their wait, hoping that a review ordered by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last year will finally bring them the recognition they deserve.
Conditions on the convoy ships were horrific. During hours spent on watch, sailors were deathly cold and under constant threat of attack. Ice accumulated two inches thick on the walls of ship cabins, and sailors braved monster waves, freezing temperatures and daily assault from German planes and U-boats.
The Government insists that its hands are tied by protocol. Although just after the war all of the seamen were eligible for an Atlantic Star medal, campaigners want those who served in the Arctic to have their own special award. Ministry of Defence rules say medals should not be awarded more than five years after a campaign.
While the Arctic convoy survivors have not been honoured in their own country, overseas – particularly in the former Soviet Union – they have been lionised.
But this has brought new problems, most recently when the Foreign Office refused to allow the Russian embassy to confer the Medal of Ushakov on veterans, despite the fact that other Commonwealth nations have allowed the honour.
Speaking about her late husband, Wendy Bond, 76, of West Mersea in Essex, said that she "could not understand" the British government's decision considering the "incredible lengths" those involved went to. "When I think about what they survived and I think that he was only 18, it is amazing. He talked sometimes of watching other ships going down and waiting their turn.
"We are very proud of him. I think of my grandsons, one of whom is around 18, and he was there at that age …" On her husband's gravestone is the insignia of the ship he served on, HMS Nairana, as Mrs Bond believed putting it there was "the right thing to do".
The Russian embassy said it was "grounds for deep regret" that Russia is not allowed to recognise the veterans of the 1941-44 operation, in which 3,000 men died. The veterans were allowed to wear a 40th anniversary medal from Russia, but all other attempts to recognise them have been rebuffed.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said that the Government "appreciates" Russia's wish to recognise the veterans, but added: "The rules on the acceptance of foreign awards clearly state that in order for permission to be given for an award to be accepted, there has to have been specific service to the country concerned, and that that service should have taken place within the previous five years.
"Additionally, permission cannot be granted if they have received, or are expected to receive, a UK award for the same services. All British Veterans of the Convoys were eligible for the 'Atlantic Star'. A lapel badge (the 'Arctic Emblem') was introduced in 2006 and some 10,000 have been issued."
Campaigners point out that the Atlantic is 800 miles from where they served. They take the view that the Arctic Emblem lacks the status of a medal, and that the Arctic campaign – one of the most hostile in the war – should be recognised with its own medal.
Commander Eddie Grenfell, 92, of Portsmouth, who has led the fight for a medal since 1997 said yesterday that veterans are starting to lose hope, and the recent turning down of the Russian medal was a disgrace: "We feel that we have been messed around by the Government for so many years we are beginning to doubt whether they are going to award anything, and if that is the case we would rather have the Ushakov medal," he said.
Caroline Dinenage, Conservative MP for Gosport, said yesterday: "Every minute that you waste on this is important. The worst case scenario is that we finally go through all this procedure and it is decided that the veterans are worthy of a medal and then there is nobody left alive to receive one. That would be a hollow victory".
The review ordered by Mr Cameron and headed by former diplomat Sir John Holmes last July cited the issue as an example of why the concepts of not allowing double medalling and the five-year rule both needed looking at. Last night Sir John said he hoped to make recommendations to the Government "in the next few weeks". "It hasn't been kicked into the long grass and we are working on it fairly rapidly, and while we are only making recommendations, I think there will be an appetite to move fast in general."
But for Alfred "Alan" Bond it is already too late.
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