After the 1940 defeat at Dunkirk, Great Britain stood alone. Its only possible ally was America, but there was no sign of this country ever entering the war militarily on Britain’s side.
America, in fact, never declared war on Germany; it was Germany that declared war on America.
Germany invaded Russia on June, 21, 1941 and quickly advanced towards Moscow and Leningrad, seizing the major cities of west Russia with their manufacturing potential in the process. It would take Russia a year and more to rebuild its armament factories east of the Ural mountains. Before being able to do this, it was in danger of being catastrophically defeated.
Winston Churchill decided that Great Britain, short of war material after the losses at Dunkirk, should nevertheless help Russia. Despite his loathing of communism, and welcoming Russia as an ally, he said in the House of Commons: ‘If Hitler invaded Hell, I would at least make a favourable reference to the Devil.’
So started the first convoy Dervish.
The Dervish convoy, the precursor of the Russian/Arctic convoys of the following four years, left Liverpool on August 12, 1941. It gathered together in Hvalfjord, Iceland, and finally left for Russia on the August 21, 1941.
It consisted of one Dutch merchant ship, the Alchiba, and six British merchant ships, the Lancastrian Prince, New Westminster City, Esneh, Llanstephan Castle and the Trehata, and was escorted by 20 warships of varying sizes; the aircraft carrier, HMS Victorious, the cruisers Aurora, Devonshire and Suffolk, and the destroyers Eclipse, Escapade, and Inglefield along with smaller vessels. The Germans were taken by surprise and the convoy arrived safely in Archangel on August 31.
Professor AG Uvarov, Captain 1st Rank, Russian Navy (rtd.), who has extensively researched the Arctic Convoys, states that the Dervish Convoy delivered 10,000 tons of rubber, 3,800 depth-charges and magnetic mines, 15 Hurricane fighters, 1,500 tons of army boots and other material, besides transporting 534 pilots and ground crew for service in Russia.
Dervish was the first of 95 convoys and special operations in the Arctic aimed at helping Russia stave off defeat by Germany. There were two other routes for delivering war material to Russia – via Persia (now Iraq) and Vladivostok on the Russian Pacific coast, but the shortest route was through the Arctic to Murmansk and Archangel. Churchill called it the worst journey in the world.
Britain and America, finally in the war on December 7, 1941, delivered a total of 16,366,000 tons of war-material to Russia during the four years of the convoys, 3,960,000 tons of this by the fastest route through the Arctic.
According to Professor, Captain Uvarov, of the Russian Navy, the following material was transported by the 41 convoys to Russia and by the two other routes; 22,206 aircraft, 12,755 tanks, 471,257 vehicles, 13,150 anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, 13,633 torpedoes, 473,000,000 shells, 4,005 rifles and automatic weapons, 345,735 tons of explosives, 1,981 railway engines, 11,155 railway wagons, 54,000 tons of rails, 2,670,000 tons of fuel and oil, 842,000 tons of chemicals, 1,050,000 miles of telephone cables, 3,786,000 vehicle tyres, 49,000 tons of leather, 15,000,000 pairs of army boots, 69,000,000 square metres of woollen fabric, one battleship, one cruiser, nine destroyers, 28 frigates, 43 landing ships, 78 patrol boats, 166 torpedo boats, four submarines, 89 minesweepers, 96 cargo vessels, and three ice-breakers.
But this help to Russia came at a great human cost; 3,000 lives were lost running a daily gauntlet of German air, surface and U-boat attacks in conditions as cold as -20C.
Of the total of 508 British warships and merchant ships that sailed in the convoys, 23 warships and 104 merchant ships were sunk.
The Russian convoy campaign was the most important campaign of the war.
If Russia had been defeated in 1941, as nearly happened, Germany would have been able to transfer 150 army divisions to the Channel coast to join the 35 divisions already there. With 185 divisions at his disposal, Hitler could easily have invaded Britain, which would need to have brought home its armies from North Africa and the Far East for the defence of the homeland.
This would have meant the campaigns in North Africa, Italy, Burma and the Pacific, would never have been carried out.
They did eventually take place, and all were honoured by the award of a campaign medal.
But the Arctic campaign that ensured these campaigns went ahead was ignored.
When campaign medals were awarded towards the end of the Second World War, it was decided that the 66,500 men who served in the Arctic Convoys should receive the Atlantic Star medal.
However, 95 per cent of the men who served in the Arctic had already earned the Atlantic Star for service in the Home Fleet before being transferred to the Arctic.
The Atlantic medal has no connection whatsoever with the campaign fought in the 800 miles distant Arctic.
The remaining five per cent of men who served only in the Arctic did not receive the Atlantic Star, which had a six-month service clause. Serving only in the Arctic meant that due to the severity of conditions, it was impossible to fulfil this requirement.
Successive governments have ignored this injustice, but we are hopeful, although not confident, that the Conservative-led coalition government will honour its pre-election pledge to award us an Arctic Star medal.
This is now subject to the quite unnecessary current medal review being carried out by the MoD; a promise is a promise and needs no review.
To aggravate matters, the review is being conducted by the same civil servants who have always been against awarding an Arctic Star medal.
The initial draft conclusions of the review still say that Arctic veterans should not be awarded a medal. But the assumptions are based on false evidence. For example, the MoD incorrectly asserted that 190,000 men served in the Arctic Convoys and to give each a medal would cost more than £12m. Nonsense; only 66,500 British personnel served in the Arctic and reputable medal manufacturers assess the total cost of the medal at £650,000.
The review was carried out without the elected Leaders of the Arctic Medal campaign being consulted. The MoD also says that Arctic war veterans were fortunate in being awarded the Arctic Star emblem badge and also the 40th commemorative medal presented by the Russian government in recognition of their efforts.
The Arctic Star emblem is a lapel badge eventually awarded in 2006 by the previous Labour government following years of campaigning. It was only a badge, not a medal, and was so deeply unpopular with Arctic Convoy veterans that only 10,000 out of 66,500 applied for it.
The Russian medal is not a British war medal.
When the Russians awarded it, the Foreign Office ordered Arctic veterans not to wear it.
Some time later, Admiral Lord Lewin stepped in to intervene, and the Foreign Office civil servants relented.
The truth is that the British government awarded no medal to recognise the vitally important Russian convoys.
As a result of the MoD’s false evidence in the draft of the medal review, I have written a full rebuttal to the Prime Minister, who on 12th January this year spoke in support of the Arctic Convoy veterans during PMQs and said: ‘...it seems to me that the important fact is that people on the Arctic convoys served under incredibly harsh conditions and were not allowed to serve for very long periods, so there is a case for saying that they have missed out. Many of them are coming to the end of their lives, and it would be good if we could do something more to recognise what they have done.’
Quite apart from this, the Conservative Party leaders when in opposition promised that an Arctic Medal would be awarded by a Conservative government when again in power.
An MoD medal review was unnecessary.
A promise is a promise and does not need to be reviewed.