It is difficult to overstate the perils faced by the crews of the Arctic convoys of the Second World War. It is difficult, too, to overstate the debt of gratitude that is owed to them.
These extraordinarily courageous men – merchant sailors and naval escorts – braved the vicious polar climate and the ever-present threat from German U-boats. Had they not done so, vital supplies of everything from planes to food to telephone wire would never have made it through to the embattled Soviet Union.
It is testament to the grave dangers they faced that some 3,000 sailors lost their lives over the four years that the convoys were operating. Yet more than four million tons of goods were also delivered over that time. And by tying up German military capacity, they added to the strain on Hitler’s already stretched forces.
Quite a contribution to the Allied war effort, then. Even so, it took more than six decades for the British Government formally to recognise it. Thankfully, with the creation of the Arctic Star in 2012, that oversight was finally rectified.
President Vladimir Putin has also promised the Ushakov Medal – one of Russia’s highest honours – to the remaining veterans of the convoys, and the British Government has now finally lifted petty restrictions on the mariners receiving foreign awards. A smattering have been distributed at a ceremony in Downing Street this summer. But as many as 100 are still to be honoured, despite risking their lives to undertake what Winston Churchill himself acknowledged to be one of the most dangerous maritime missions of the war.
The problem here is one of bureaucratic torpor rather than lack of interest. But with these men now in their nineties, it would be injudicious to delay for too long. Remembrance Sunday ceremonies will commemorate all those, military and civilian, who have contributed to British war efforts since the First World War. The crews of the Arctic convoys have done as much as any, and they deserve every possible honour, including the Ushakov Medal. Let’s not leave it too late.