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An insult to the heroes of Arctic convoys

JUST when David Cameron was announcing his peculiar and somewhat cynical plans for an extravagant commemoration of the start of the First World War, a small but valiant group of Second World War veterans was being snubbed by his Government.

It emerged over the weekend that survivors of the Arctic convoys, who endured so much to keep supplies flowing to our Russian allies during the dark days of 1942, have been told they must not accept medals from the Russian Government in recognition of their bravery.

This is an inept and insulting ruling by the Foreign Office. The Medal of Ushakov, which the Russians want to award to the convoy veterans, is named after the greatest hero of the Russian Navy, the 18th-century Admiral Fyodor Ushakov, who never lost a sea battle though he fought 43 of them. The medal has already been offered to and been accepted by Australians and Canadians who served on the convoys, but the British Government is taking unnecessary refuge in a technicality: that for an award to be accepted from a foreign country, specific service must have been given. Anyway, I cannot see what is "non-specific" about struggling through perilous, mountainous seas in appalling weather, while under attack from U-boats, surface warships and aircraft, sometimes all at the same time.

Indeed it could be asked why it has taken so long for the Russians to signal their gratitude to the men who served on the convoys. It should certainly be asked why the British Government has still not given the Arctic veterans their own campaign medal. Meanwhile the Russians say that the snub from the British Government is a matter of deep regret, and I think that should be regarded as a genuine comment rather than mischief- making.

The Arctic convoys were plagued by bickering and poor strategic decision-making from the start. Winston Churchill was determined to give the immensely important Soviet war effort whatever support he could, both symbolic and real. But senior Royal Navy officers thought, with some point, that convoys sailing round the North Cape to Archangel and Murmansk would be exceptionally vulnerable.

The Navy commanders believed that their service was already overstretched and could not see that sending shipments of material to the Russians was any kind of priority. Further, they knew that convoys could only proceed at the pace of the slowest merchant ship, and could easily be scattered. They had a case, but they annoyed Churchill with their regular demands to suspend the convoys.

A fine Scottish journalist called John Pirie, whom I knew well towards the end of his career, served on HMS Edinburgh, a cruiser which was deployed several times on the Arctic convoys. It was attacked by U-boats as it returned from Murmansk in the spring of 1942 with around 450 ingots of gold – a part payment by the Soviets for their supplies – on board. About 50 men were lost. The stricken warship made dogged efforts to return to the Russian port. Eventually the cruiser had to be abandoned.

John Pirie was just 20 at the time. He was taken to a camp for Allied seamen about 30 miles from Murmansk. He joked later that the episode proved that he could not be trusted with other people's money.

At the camp John and his comrades were infuriated when their officers told them not to "fraternise "with their "Bolshevik" hosts. John and a few others defied these orders. They found the Russians friendly; they also understood that their convoy had delivered supplies to help to sustain the enormous and vital Soviet war effort. There was perhaps, in the proposed aloofness from the Russians, just a tinge of class war. Many senior figures in Britain could not hide their distaste for our Russian allies, though the war would never have been won without them.

John died in 2005. It is obviously too late for him to be given the Medal of Ushakov, but I know that he would have been very proud to receive it.

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