‘An Arctic medal is our right’

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EVERY night for 70 years, Len Saunders has fearfully relived the moment he came so close to death.

As a 21-year-old stoker aboard the destroyer HMS Somali, he was thrown into the Arctic sea after his ship was torpedoed.

LUCKY ONE Len Saunders talks about his time in the Arctic Convoy missions. Picture: Paul Jacobs (123400-14)

LUCKY ONE Len Saunders talks about his time in the Arctic Convoy missions. Picture: Paul Jacobs (123400-14)

Half-frozen in the water, he managed to swim past the frosted bodies of dead comrades to the safety of a rescue boat.

He was one of the lucky ones.

Some 3,000 British lives were lost on the Arctic Convoys which delivered four million tonnes of war supplies to Russia between 1941 and 1945.

The 65,000 men sent on what Winston Churchill called ‘the worst journey in the world’ are credited with turning the tide of the war against Adolf Hitler’s advancing forces.

But Len and his comrades have never been awarded their own British war medal.

With the advent of the Cold War, it was considered politically intolerable and instead they were lumped in with the Atlantic Star – a separate campaign some 800 miles away from the distant Barents Sea.

For seven decades, their calls for an Arctic Star medal have been ignored by British leaders. They have even recently been denied a bravery medal from the Russian government.

Now aged 91 and living in a care home in Fareham, Len has spoken out to urge David Cameron to end ‘67 years of pain’ and finally strike an Arctic Star medal before he and the remaining 200 veterans take their final journey.

He said: ‘The Arctic Convoys were by far the worst part of the war when you consider the weather and storms, the sea sickness and the biting cold – not to mention the U-boats and waves of attacks from the Luftwaffe.

‘You knew if you went in to the water you didn’t stand much of a chance.

‘It’s unbelievable we’ve never had the thanks and recognition we truly deserve.’

Speaking to The News, Len recalled the horror of when HMS Somali was attacked by a U-boat on September 20, 1942.

He said: ‘We were returning from a convoy to Archangel.

‘I was off watch in the mess having some supper at the time we were hit.

‘Everything shook, It was horrendous.

‘But if it had been 10 minutes later, I would have been back down in the engine room where we got smacked.’

The Somali did not sink straight away. Thinking she could be saved, commanders ordered Len and a small party of engineers to remain in the stricken vessel to try and salvage her.

He said: ‘I was sent to pump her out. She was full of holes and cannon shells and she was gradually filling up with water.

‘We were under tow with HMS Ashanti and during the night it blew up a blizzard.

‘It was a severe storm. The ship started breaking up in two.

‘I was at forward part and the aft turned up and went down with several men on board.

‘As she went down, the bow went up in the air and I jumped out of the way to avoid getting sucked in.

‘I swam towards the Ashanti and passed a life raft covered with men already frozen to death.

‘It was -20C and they had clambered on to the raft and just froze solid.’

Len was eventually picked up by the rescue tanker Lord Middleton.

He said: ‘They hauled me on board and at first they thought I was dead. But as they pulled me up, I said “thank God”.

‘I remember one chap said “oh, he’s alive this one” so they took me down to the engine room and thawed me out with a couple of tots of rum.

‘The experience has never left me. I’ve been frightened of it ever since. I thought I was a goner.’

Len’s remarkable story is just one tale of what the Arctic veterans endured.

Yet their pleas for a medal continue to go unmet.

Len said: ‘We were sent to face death on a promise that’s never been kept and they have no intention of keeping.

It’s been 67 years of pain and it plays on my mind every single day.’

The second stage of an independent medal review by Sir John Holmes could finally hand the Arctic veterans their own medal.

Defence minister Andrew Murrison said: ‘Sir John will report further towards the end of the year on the rules that apply to medalling and will deal specifically with the Arctic convoy and various other circumstances.’

A spokesman for the review team was unable to give a specific date for the report’s release or any details of what it will say.

It comes after the Foreign Office blocked the Russian government from awarding the Ushakov medal to commemorate the valour of Arctic veterans.

Pen-pushing officials said the rules state such medals must be awarded within five years of service.

Commander Eddie Grenfell, 92, of Portsea, who has led the Arctic Medal Campaign for 15 years, is angry at the latest snub.

He pointed out that the Cold War prevented the Ushakov from being awarded immediately after the war and said: ‘Our government has insulted the Russians and they have also insulted their own people – the Arctic veterans. They are not prepared to recognise our valour.

‘I know the Russians will be cross, they will feel snubbed.

‘Surely, the Foreign Office does not want to mess up this olive branch of friendship coming from Russia?

‘They have made a terrible blunder here.’

Cdr Grenfell, who himself spent 10 minutes in the Arctic after his ship Edinburgh was bombed, added: ‘With the way things are now, I think we would rather have a bravery medal that was generously awarded by Russia than have an Arctic Medal begrudgingly given by the British government 67 years too late.

‘But we still want to fight for it, because it’s our right.’


THE News is supporting veterans who want a medal for the Royal Navy sailors and merchant seamen who served in the Second World War Arctic Convoys.

Our award-winning Last Chance for Justice campaign began in 1997 after Arctic Convoy veteran Commander Eddie Grenfell, who then lived in Havant, was elected leader of the Arctic Medal Campaign by fellow veterans in the Russian Convoy Club.

The campaign saw 46,000 local people sign a petition and more than 500 veterans and supporters march on Whitehall to hand it in to Number 10 Downing Street.

In 2006, after nine years of pressure, the then Labour government relented and gave the veterans a lapel badge they can wear called the Arctic Star Emblem.

But the unpopular emblem was not a medal and only 10,000 of the 66,500 veterans eligible applied for one.

During the early 2000s, the campaign attracted the attention of senior Conservative politicians – including the successive party leaders Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith who visited The News and promised the next Tory government would award an Arctic Star Medal.

The News wrote to and phoned every MP at the time asking for their support and Early Day Motions calling for a medal were signed by hundreds of MPs from across the political spectrum.

Our records show David Cameron pledged his support for the Arctic Medal Campaign in a phone call with former News reporter David Maddox at 11.30am on July 19, 2004.

But, despite this support, the coalition government has still not awarded the Arctic veterans a medal.

In July 2010, the Ministry of Defence was asked to review the system for awarding medals.

This review was axed by Mr Cameron last year amid claims it was a ‘whitewash’ and a new independent review led by the ex-diplomat Sir John Holmes was established.

In July this year, Sir John reported that the honours system needs a ‘rapid but in-depth’ rethink.

Mr Cameron asked the diplomat to produce a second report by this Autumn outlining how changes can be made.

The proposals could mean that Arctic veterans finally get a fair hearing and the medal they have deserved for so long.