Arctic convoy veterans honoured 60 years after heroism in icy seas

Jonathan Thompson
Sunday 13 November 2005 01:00 GMT

Veterans of one of most brutal campaigns of the Second World War are to be honoured by the Government - more than 60 years after risking their lives for King and country in terrible conditions.

The men who sailed in the perilous Arctic convoys of 1941-45 have long complained that it was the only campaign of the war not to have its own medal. Now, following a meeting between the Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, and veterans last week, recognition is imminent.

The move, which comes as veterans across the country mark Remembrance Sunday today, follows a concerted, eight-year appeal by the old sailors.

Many reacted angrily in March when Tony Blair offered them a "special emblem" for transporting vital aid to wartime Russia.

One veteran said the badge was "like something you find at the bottom of a cornflakes packet."

Dr Reid has assured the remaining survivors of the Arctic convoys, thought to number around 2,500, that a mutually-acceptable resolution will be reached as soon as possible.

A proposal likely to find favour is a scheme proposed by the veterans' leader, Commander Eddie Grenfell, 85, whereby the Government would manufacture a white enamel star with a red dot in the centre, to be attached to the Atlantic Star or the 1939-45 Star. All veterans of the Arctic convoys already have one or both of these medals.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, Commander Grenfell said he had been greatly encouraged by the response of the Defence minister. "For the past eight years we've been met with cold, obstinate silence, but Dr Reid actually listened," said Commander Grenfell, of Montrose. "He promised that he would fight to get something better for us."

The Arctic convoys, described by Winston Churchill as the most dangerous of the entire war, transported four million tons of crucial supplies and munitions to Russia between 1941 and 1945, supporting the Red Army in the conflict. As Germany occupied Norway, the British ships had to take a treacherous northerly route, often skirting the Arctic ice floes, before dropping south into Russian ports including Murmansk and Archangel. In bitter cold, the merchant seamen and their Royal Navy escorts endured repeated attacks from both U-boats and Luftwaffe bombers, often sustaining heavy losses.

Just under 3,000 British seamen were killed during the convoys, the majority never recovered from the icy waters. More than 100 British ships were sunk during the campaign.

The recent crusade for recognition has brought back painful memories for Commander Grenfell, who took part in four Arctic convoys between 1941 and 1942, when his ship was hit five times by German dive bombers and exploded. He clung to an upturned life-boat before being rescued by another British vessel.

"There was ice everywhere," he remembered. "The water was indescribably cold. I was frozen stiff when I was picked up.

"The worst thing was the dive-bombers. There were times when we were attacked 150 times in one day. Then there were the torpedo bombers and the U-boats too."

The veterans believe that they were not formally honoured after the conflict because of the then government's crumbling political relationship with Russia, and the escalation of the Cold War.

As time passed, it became increasingly difficult to reverse this decision; a government rule stopping medals being awarded retrospectively more than five years after an event, to the frustration of the veterans.

"We fought for five years against injustice," said Commander Grenfell. "But we didn't think we'd have to fight another 50 years against British injustice."

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