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‘If we hadn’t been successful, who knows what Europe would be like today?’

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Eddie Grenfell was striding down Whitehall about to go into battle. Again.

He was in his mid-80s but kept up the pace of a man 60 years younger.

We were heading for the Ministry of Defence where he and other veterans of the Arctic Convoys were about to confront defence secretary Geoff Hoon. Again.

And, yet again, they were to state their case, forcefully, for a medal for those who wrestled with some of the most harrowing conditions of the Second World War.

We had met in a pub in Whitehall, the Silver Cross. Eddie wanted to plan strategy with his fellow campaigners and have a little something to fortify him for the conflict ahead. They were always conflicts with the Labour defence secretary.

We reached the main entrance of the building when a look of horror swept over the face of the usually unflappable Eddie. ‘Damn. Left my beret in the pub. There’s no way I’m going in there without it. It represents everything we’re fighting for.

‘I’d be improperly dressed without it. Be a good chap and run back for it would you?’

And so, with five minutes to spare, I found myself doing a 500-metre dash back to the pub to retrieve the famous white beret and its distinctive badge which has come to symbolise the 15-year struggle of the few who now remain from those awful days in the 1940s.

When he and his colleagues emerged from the Hoon meeting about an hour later, they were stony-faced. Another rebuff. ‘We will win this. One day,’ said Eddie. ‘Long after Hoon and his like have been shuffled off somewhere else. And I’m damned sure it’s going to happen before I die.’

And true to his word that prediction came true this week when David Cameron finally announced that a medal will be issued for those who endured the Arctic Convoys. It brought to a close Eddie’s 15-year tenure as the leader of the campaign, one which was spearheaded by The News.

In his flat in Admiralty Tower, Queen Street, Portsea, Eddie grins: ‘Told you we’d do it, didn’t I.’

But there was no huge celebration. ‘Yes, I’m happy. It’s wonderful news, of course, but I’m angry and sorry that so many of my Arctic friends are no longer with us to receive the medal.

‘No, it hasn’t come as a surprise, because, although we’ve been kept waiting all this time, I knew that one day they had to give in.’

He is used to fighting. It was that indomitable spirit which enabled him to defy medical science and survive for 10 minutes in the freezing Arctic waters after his ship, the Empire Lawrence, was sunk on May 27, 1942.

What happened next is indelibly etched on his memory and shows why the fight for the medal was such a just cause.

‘I hit the water, and after sailing through the air surrounded by chunks of metal, I went deep down in the icy cold sea.

‘I opened my eyes expecting to see a green sea. Instead it was a frightening black colour, probably caused by oil.

‘My lungs near bursting, I not only prayed, I argued with my Maker that I was, at 22, too young to die.’

At that moment a bubble of air from the sinking ship shot Eddie and other survivors to the surface.

‘I started to sink – something was hanging from my right arm. In panic I heaved up whatever it was and the head of someone split in two by a piece of metal broke the surface. I loosened his fingers holding on to my sleeve and he drifted away. His dead eyes were open wide.’

A wave lifted Eddie high enough for him to spot an overturned lifeboat about 100 yards away.

He adds: ‘I had to swim for it. If I stayed in the sea I would freeze to death so I joined two other survivors on the lifeboat and saw an attacking German dive-bomber roaring down from the sky, machine-gunning as he came.

‘He was after one of the corvettes that had left the convoy to search for survivors but, certainly unintentionally, hit some survivors in a lifeboat some distance away. We saw them topple over lifeless.’

After 10 minutes in the water and another 10 on the upturned lifeboat, Eddie was rescued by the corvette HMS Hyderabad.

He continues: ‘Wrapped in blankets and placed in bunks deep down in the ship, we suffered another three days of bombing before reaching Murmansk where we were taken to the bombed out Russian military hospital.’

He was given a Russian Army uniform to replace the rags in which he had arrived and was transferred to the Russian Army camp at Vaenga before he was returned home to Scapa Flow, Orkney, in the minesweeper HMS Hussar in a convoy that lost six ships north of Iceland.

Eddie adds: ‘My story is no different to those of hundreds of others. What we all did was get supplies through to Russia which kept them in the war.

‘If we hadn’t been successful, who knows what Europe would be like today?’

 

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