In from the cold? The race to honour Arctic convoy heroes

The treacherous Arctic convoys undertaken by Allied ships in the Second World War were described as ‘the worst journey in the world’. Jonathan Brown reports on attempts to track down the survivors so they can get the recognition they deserve

There can be little doubt that the “hell run” of the Arctic convoys fully merited Winston Churchill’s description of it as the “worst journey in the world”.

The ships, heaving in heavy seas, became slowly entombed in ice spray as they sailed across the top of the world, stalked through the perpetual darkness of the polar winter by remorseless packs of U-boats.

It took more than 60 years for the British government to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution made by the merchant convoys and their Navy escorts with the creation just last year of the Arctic Star medal.  Now Russian President Vladimir Putin is being urged to make good on his promise and hasten the award of one  of Russia’s highest honours  to the dwindling band of  survivors.

This summer, in a welcome outbreak of cordiality between London and Moscow, Mr Putin presented the Ushakov Medal to 20 British veterans from the ships which brought four million tonnes of desperately needed military and civilian supplies to the Soviet Union during the Second World War. But relatives fear that time could be running out for the others, now in their nineties, who did not receive the accolade at the Downing Street ceremony.

It is thought there could be as few as 100 men still alive who reached Russian waters after taking part in the convoys, which claimed 3,000 of their fellow mariners when 104 merchant and 16 military vessels were sunk in icy waters.

John Harlock, whose father was a veteran of five missions to Murmansk, said he still does not know what is happening after being invited to apply for his medal by the Russian Embassy in the summer.

“We knew this might take some time, but you really don’t want to leave these men hanging on for too long. Every day you read obituaries of those who served bravely in the Second World War and time is running out,” he said.

The Westminster Russia Forum, which represents prominent Russians living in the UK, has already called for “swift decision-making” in Moscow to speed up the process. The Ushakov Medal, named after one of Russia’s most celebrated admirals, is among the country’s highest honours for defending the Motherland.

In June the Foreign Office lifted the ban on British mariners receiving the award, which had already been conferred on convoy sailors from the United States, Australia and Canada. Unlike the Arctic Star, which can be given to anyone who served north of the Arctic Circle, the Ushakov Medal is reserved only for those who reached a Russian port. It cannot be awarded posthumously.

Mr Harlock’s father, Commander William Mark Harlock, now aged 92, was a navigating and torpedo officer on board the destroyer HMS Vigilant, which acted as an escort in 1943.

“We were very conscious about what was going on and we knew the Russians were in a terrible state,” he said. “We knew there was help going in through the Persian Gulf, but it was only a trickle.”

Thirty-strong convoys would rendezvous off Iceland, with ships sailing from the United States loaded with everything from tanks to corned beef. Some did not make it across the Atlantic.

The two-week voyages placed extraordinary physical and psychological pressure on the crews. “When a ship went down it was so quick. But it was pointless leaving your position. You had to look after yourself and not abandon your sector,” Commander Harlock, who trained with the Duke of Edinburgh at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, said.

The crew of a British destroyer clear the snow and ice from her decks, whilst on convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic, 11th April 1943 The crew of a British destroyer clear the snow and ice from her decks, whilst on convoy escort duty in the North Atlantic, 11th April 1943 (Getty)
“The worst-case scenario was a submarine getting inside the convoy. But the weather posed a greater risk. Sometimes it was so bad you could only make three to four knots. Sometimes the ship would be hit by huge waves and rear up into the sky. The salt from the spray would freeze, making the ship top-heavy and it could just roll over.”

Sailors used pick-axes to smash off the ice; tanks would roll free in the mountainous seas, punching through the hulls. Anyone falling overboard was dead within minutes.

Crews – wearing every item of clothing they possessed – rotated through four-hour shifts: “Your only thought was about getting into your hammock and getting some sleep.” Once the ships arrived in Murmansk the crew were not allowed to go ashore. Sentries were posted at the bottom of the gang-plank, although Commander Harlock recalls bribing one guard with a cigarette and venturing on to land where he went skiing for the first time.

Andrey Makarenko of the Russian embassy in London told The Independent that not all the names of Arctic convoy veterans had been provided by the UK authorities, because of data protection rules. He said officials had worked flat-out over the summer to process the applications and forward a list of names to Moscow for consideration. Anyone who has completed the application will receive a medal, he said.

“Now we need to wait until a special decree will be signed, the medals would be minted and delivered to the UK. After that we will be ready to start the awarding process,” he added.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?