Thursday, 20 December 2012


The worst journey in the world
David Cameron’s decision to honour the Arctic convoy veterans is the right decision even if it was a long time coming. Mr Cameron told MPs he had accepted the recommendations of a review of military medals carried out by former diplomat Sir John Holmes. Russia’s gratitude to the naval and merchant navy veterans who ferried supplies to Murmansk and Archangel during the Second World War has long been noted.

The veterans risked their lives time and time again convoying crucial supplies through often atrocious weather and hostile seas to the hard pressed (then) Soviet Union, which was fighting for survival. The Foreign Office (and the Ministry of Defence) had previously repeatedly (under both Labour and Conservative Governments) blocked this move saying that it would break the rules surrounding acceptance of medals. The Russian Embassy had expressed its 'deep regret' at this decision, which was understandably been condemned by surviving convoy veterans, their families and supporters.

Between August 31, 1941 and May 22, 1945, some 78 Allied Arctic Convoy (more than 1,400 merchant ships escorted by ships of the British, U.S. and Canadian Navies) sailed to the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk.  Some 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were sunk by Nazi submarines and approximately 3,000 British servicemen were killed during the Arctic campaign.

The significance of lend-lease supplies for the Eastern front by Soviet-bound Arctic convoys and their role in defeating fascism is still emerging. The convoy veterans and the vital supplies they delivered were temporarily lost in the often hot rhetoric of the Cold War. Oleg Rzheshevsky, the Russian war historian, has noted that apart from everything else, the convoys were a powerful moral influence.

"The moral aspect of the Arctic Convoys meant a lot. This was an extremely important factor both for the army and for all our people as it signalled that we were not alone in that war but had strong allies such as Britain and the United States. This helped boost our troop morale on the battlefield and supported our people on the home front."

Successive Westminster governments had previously promised to create a medal, yet they all failed to deliver on their promise. The Russian Government has awarded our veterans three medals, the arctic convoys are now part of Russia’s school curriculum. The Russian Government and the Russian people understand the convoy’s importance, yet successive UK Governments seem to really struggle with this, at least until now.

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