Just over 70 years ago, the first Arctic convoy set out to the Soviet ports of Archangel and Murmansk. Over the next four years, tens of thousands of men made this perilous journey in freezing conditions to keep the wartime supply line with Russia open.
Last week in Parliament, I urged the government to recognise these heroes with a medal. A handful of veterans, all in their late 80s or 90s, attended the debate. It was a testament to their spirit, but also a shameful reminder that these elderly men are forced to carry on fighting for an honour they’ve long deserved.
The merit of their campaign is beyond doubt. In total, over 66,000 men served in the Arctic convoys, enduring what Winston Churchill described as ‘the worst journey in the world’.
They faced sub-zero temperatures, sometimes as low as -60C, and constant German bombardment. The nine per cent fatality rate was the highest of any maritime campaign in the war.
Without the Arctic convoys, it is impossible to imagine how the Red Army could have continued to fight on the Eastern Front. The veterans are hailed as heroes in Russia, yet in their own country they receive no medal. The Atlantic Star, which they can ostensibly be awarded, refers to a campaign conducted 800 miles away and requires the veterans to have served for six months – something no man could endure in such hazardous conditions.
It is a gross oversight that arose largely from the unease at honouring a mission associated with Russia in a Cold War-dominated landscape.
So it remains the only major maritime campaign of the Second World War with no specific medal. Successive governments have, in opposition, recognised this injustice, but to this day no medal has been granted.
Yet again, the veterans were left disappointed last week when the minister confirmed that there would be a further, independent, inquiry. This assumes that time is on the veterans’ side.
It is not. These heroic men have waited almost 70 years for recognition from the country they served. Now is not the time for delay or protocol, but for action that will ensure these men are honoured before it is too late.