The sub-zero heroes of the Arctic convoys

Second World War veterans are furious that the men who risked their lives to maintain the vital supply route to the Soviet Union are being denied their own medal. Cahal Milmo retraces the route that defied U-boats, bombers and bitter cold
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Winston Churchill called it "the worst journey in the world". For every minute of every day, death threatened from the skies and waves as lumbering vessels plodded through 3,000 miles of ocean in temperatures that instantly froze bare skin to metal.

Winston Churchill called it "the worst journey in the world". For every minute of every day, death threatened from the skies and waves as lumbering vessels plodded through 3,000 miles of ocean in temperatures that instantly froze bare skin to metal.

By the end of May 1945, some 3,000 British sailors and merchant seamen had lost their lives and 101 cargo vessels and Royal Navy warships had sunk to the ocean floor during the journey from Iceland past Nazi-occupied Norway to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel.

As one seaman put it after seeing a British merchant ship carrying ammunition blown apart by a German torpedo in 1943: "There was a dull noise, a dark purple flash and she was gone. That was what we lived in fear of - the sudden violence and the icy water. You knew your chances of surviving either weren't worth a candle. That was the Arctic convoys."

Some 64 years after the first Arctic convoy set sail, it is now accepted that the men who undertook these treacherous voyages ensured Russian - and therefore British - survival during the Second World War.

During four years, nearly 1,500 cargo vessels ferried four million tons of supplies to the Red Army, allowing Stalin's forces to engage the vast majority of Hitler's forces in the carnage of the Eastern Front. But the recognition of the importance of the convoys has been slow in coming - and for many is still far from complete.

Amid the political deep freeze of the Cold War, history at first downplayed and then quietly forgot the role of the men whose bravery maintained the war machine of the Communist ally turned nuclear enemy.

At a champagne reception in Downing Street on Monday evening, Tony Blair attempted to rectify this wrong when he told surviving veterans that they had given "exceptional service" to their country. Standing before the veterans in their white berets, the Prime Minister said: "You played a crucial role in supplying Britain's ally on the Eastern Front with material without which they would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to survive and maintain the fight."

The tribute was the result of the Government's pledge last year to consider the long-running campaign by the Arctic convoy veterans, of whom barely 1,000 survive, for a medal to recognise their role.

Mr Blair announced that rather than a medal, the veterans were to be awarded an "emblem".

The Ministry of Defence was yesterday unable to provide an explanation of the device other than the fact that it did not have the same status as a medal but could be worn alongside them. A spokesman said: "We will be designing it in consultation with the veterans so we don't know what it will look like or what it will be made of." It was a Whitehall fudge which was yesterday met with a response from the Arctic convoy survivors that was as glacial as the -60C temperatures they endured six decades ago.

The Russians have had no such difficulties in recognising the veterans' valour. To date, three medals have been granted to the British sailors.

Commander Eddie Grenfell, 85, the leader of the veterans' medal campaign, said: "We are disgusted, absolutely disgusted. Mr Blair effectively told us were a great bunch of fellows but there was a limit to what he could do and we would have to be happy with a badge. I am not satisfied. 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."

As the 60th anniversary of the last of the Arctic convoys approaches in May, the row has once more focused attention on the nature of their task and its historical significance.

The sole nation fighting Hitler on the European mainland before the invasion of Italy in 1943, the Soviet Union was in desperate need of basic supplies in the early years of the war from its key allies, the Americans and the British.

Much of that hardware - ranging from aviation fuel to military boots - was supplied over land via Iran and across Siberia from the United States.

But Stalin also demanded that the stocks come via the quickest route possible - by sea from the North Atlantic and along the Norwegian coast to the Barents Sea, across some of the most inhospitable and heavily militarised waters on the planet.

Nick Hewitt, an expert on the convoys at the Imperial War Museum in London, said: "The nature of the Arctic ice sheet meant that, particularly in winter, these convoys had a relatively narrow channel in which to pass the enemy.

"The route was so important that the Germans based most of their naval fleet in Norway and sent as many U-boats there as possible. They could also use air power, by far the most difficult thing for a convoy to contend with. To sail the Arctic convoy route was dangerous in the extreme."

The convoys, usually consisting of between 20 and 50 British and American merchant vessels with a heavy naval escort, gathered off Iceland or Loch Ewe, in Wester Ross, before starting their 3,000-mile, three-week journey. By the end of the war, some 1,400 merchant ships had completed the return voyage with losses running at around six per cent of the total.

But bald numbers do little to convey the horror of the fate suffered by the convoys, including PQ17 which left Reykjavik on 27 June 1942 laden with thousands of tons of supplies for Murmansk. Secret documents released last year suggested that the convoy was used as bait in an MI5/MI6 plot to lure out Hitler's prized battleship, the Tirpitz, from its Norwegian base.

When Tirpitz failed to leave port, and British commanders wrongly believed another Nazi naval force was closing in, the order was given for PQ17 to scatter. Each ship was left to make its own way to Russia at the mercy of U-boats and Luftwaffe bombers.

In the end only 11 of the 36 ships in PQ17 made it to port. For those on board the vessels, the lucky ones who survived a sinking made it to lifeboats.

They included 84-year-old Bill Short, who found himself floating some 170 miles north of the Russian coast in 30ft seas and blizzards after his vessel, SS Induna, sank in March 1942.

The air temperature was -10C and, after four days at sea, the 35 survivors on board had dwindled to 17. They were so cold that ice crystals had formed in their stomachs. Those who had drunk whisky in the belief it would keep them warm instead fell asleep and froze where they sat in 12 inches of water.

Like many of the veterans, Mr Short is modest about his contribution. He said: "I'm not a hero. I was just one of the many who kept that route open."

Alongside the threat of German torpedoes, the greatest menace to the Arctic convoys was the weather. A storm that struck HMS Sheffield, the sister ship to another Arctic convoy vessel, HMS Belfast, now moored in the river Thames, was so fierce that it peeled the armoured lid off a gun turret "like a sardine can".

It was a constant battle to prevent ice forming on the upper decks which could capsize the vessel. The sailors resorted to wearing extreme quantities of clothing at a time of year when others would expect to be sunbathing.

Seaman Alan Smith, a Royal Navy rating who sailed with PQ17, wrote of the voyage: "Apart from extra-thick Arctic long johns over pairs of long johns, I had a thick naval jersey [and] woollen vests underneath, pure wool.

"I had a naval blue greatcoat, and over that I had a duffel coat. I had a balaclava and then I had a hood attached to the duffel coat and two or three pairs of gloves because if you had put your hand on the metal, you would have pulled the skin away. I couldn't believe that this was July."

Another sailor, William Smith, added: "The temperature in these seas got as low as 60 degrees below freezing. Your eyebrows and your eyelashes froze. The older men, who had hair in their noses, found that these froze solid and were like needles. Many men came off watch with faces covered in blood because they had rubbed their noses without thinking."

The 20,000 Allied sailors who sailed on the convoys were also rarely accorded a warm welcome in Soviet Russia. Suspicion that the western powers might strike a peace deal with Hitler was reinforced by high-level Soviet embarrassment at having to accept capitalist aid, and the British visitors were confined to port on arrival.

But although the work was unglamorous and perilous in the extreme, experts point out that it was vital because rather than concentrating on providing sophisticated military hardware, it provided more basic supplies such fuel and logistical materials. In total, the Allied supply routes brought the Russians 375,000 trucks, one million miles of telephone wire and 15 million pairs of boots.

Others argue that the "nuts and bolts" nature of the material sent in the Arctic convoys, rather than being dominated by tanks and aircraft, meant that its military significance has been overplayed. It has also been suggested that the convoys were perpetuated to allow the Royal Navy to engage in a series of set-piece battles to destroy the Nazi's key battleships such as the Tirpitz and the Scharnhorst, sunk in the Battle of North Cape on Boxing Day 1943.

Others point out that far wider political considerations were at play. Mr Hewitt said: "The convoys were hugely important for keeping our end up with the Russians and showing the commitment of the political alliance with Britain and America. The Russians were the only people fighting Hitler on land in Europe and both sides were worried about the other making a separate peace, so keeping the Russians on side was everything. The convoys provided important supplies but you also cannot extract the politics."

Last night, as the Ministry of Defence insisted the Arctic convoy veterans had already been granted an Atlantic campaign medal and convention prevented an additional trophy, politics continued to play a part.

Graham Allen, the Labour MP who has championed the veterans' cause, said: "I don't think there is anyone in the country who wouldn't feel it is appropriate to recognise the sacrifices of these men and defy the bureaucrats in the bowels of Whitehall who are sitting on ceremony to preserve a meaningless convention."