Thursday, 17 February 2011

Scottish Arctic Star Campaigners fight on

The men who sailed in and escorted the convoys from Wester Ross to North Russia during the Second World War are continuing to apply the pressure on the government to honour the promises made in opposition to award a campaign medal for their war service.

This is an article from today's Scotsman which goes into quite a lot of detail on the perils they faced during the war and the fight they've had over the past twenty years to get the reward they deserve.

A memorial at Loch Ewe is mentioned in the text. It is on the Scottish War Memorials Project

From today's Scotsman:

A Few Good Men: The World War II heroes in search of recognition
Published Date: 16 February 2011
By David Maddox

They faced Arctic conditions and enemy fire to get supplies through to the Soviet Union in the darkest days of the Second World War. Now these sailors face another battle - to get their contribution recognised by the government

On 22 June, 1941, Adolf Hitler made a decision that would eventually prove instrumental in the defeat of Nazi Germany, when he declared war on the Soviet Union. In the dark days following Dunkirk, it was a development which was to dramatically change the lives of thousands of Royal Navy and merchant seamen who were plunged into Britain's most arduous naval campaign of the war to date.

In just a matter of weeks, the first Arctic convoys sailed from Loch Ewe in north-west Scotland to take essential supplies to Britain's new ally, Stalin's Soviet Union.

The journeys to Archangel and Murmansk involved sailing through a gauntlet of air, submarine and battleship attack in temperatures which plunged to minus -60C at times, so cold that if a sailor's bare hand touched the outside of the ship his skin and flesh were torn away.

The conditions and the constant attacks as well as the threat of mines accounted for the lives of around 3,000 merchant and Royal Navy sailors, around 9 per cent of all those who sailed, the highest casualty rate of any of the sea campaigns.

The ships sailed along the line of Arctic ice at the northern most extreme in an effort to minimise the threat of air attack, but this did not stop the dive bombers flying in and causing mayhem.

One grim feature of the campaign was the use of "suicide" flights from catapult aircraft merchantmen (Cam) ships to protect the convoys. The fighter planes were flung into the air with the use of a sling when enemy aircraft were sighted. With nowhere to land when they were shot or ran out of fuel, pilots were forced to crash into the sea and certain death.

Now, with the 70th anniversary of the first Russian Convoy fast approaching in August, the surviving veterans believe that their efforts in a campaign many consider was pivotal to the success of the war have still been largely unrecognised by the British government.

Yesterday, a reception was held in the House of Lords paid for by a leading Russian banker, Dr George Piskov, to honour many of the last remaining convoy veterans, all now in the eighties and nineties.
The reception saw veterans mingling with MPs, ministers and members of the Lords and involved the first screening of a new documentary on the convoys by Desmond Cox.

But prior to that, a letter was delivered to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, at Downing Street by six veterans including Commander Eddie Grenfell, originally from Peterhead, who has, since 1997, led the Russian Convoy Club's fight to get an official medal for the Arctic campaign. The letter represents part of a last-ditch effort to have the Arctic campaign officially recognised.

The issue for Cdr Grenfell, and many of the other convoy veterans, is that when the campaign medals were decided for the Second World War, the Arctic theatre was ignored.

Instead it was included with the Battle of the Atlantic, a separate campaign to keep Britain supplied during the German U-boat blockade.

But even the Atlantic Star, in a cruel twist, was denied some veterans of the Arctic campaign. Uniquely for campaign medals, recipients of the Atlantic Star had to have fulfilled a six-month qualifying period, as opposed to just one day. This meant that many of those who sailed on the convoys and lost limbs in the extreme cold did not serve long enough to qualify for even this award.

"It is clear that the Arctic campaign was ignored because our relations with the Soviet Union were poor at the end of the war," said Cdr Grenfell.

"The Soviet Union was becoming the next enemy and there was no appetite to recognise those who had helped them out.

"The Atlantic Star qualification was then set up in such a way as to make sure that nobody who only served in the Arctic could qualify."

He explained that this was why veterans waited until the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, to launch their campaign for medal recognition. But he is clear that the campaign should have been recognised separately with its own medal. "It was crucial because those supplies basically kept the Soviet Union in the war especially in the early days," he said. "I spent several months in Murmansk in hospital and then in a Soviet army camp recovering from my injuries after being blown into the water when the ship I was on – the SS Empire Lawrence – was hit by five bombs. At that time in Murmansk, we could hear the fighting just a few miles away. The Germans were very close.

"Without the supplies we brought, the Soviet Union would have struggled to hold out."

He added: "The campaign was also in a different geographical sphere with separate aims to the Battle of the Atlantic. I sailed in both campaigns and while the Battle of the Atlantic was tough, the Arctic campaign was unimaginably worse."

As things stand, the main memorials to the Arctic Convoys is at Loch Ewe where a new museum has also opened. There are also moves to get the convoys on to the national curriculum, particularly by the Scottish Government, covering lessons in history and international affairs.
But, in opposition, parties have promised to deliver the medal and then failed to keep their pledge in office.

Prior to winning power back in 1997, Labour said it would create an Arctic Star, only to refuse to allow any recognition and then eventually grudgingly producing an Arctic Emblem in 2006 after a long campaign by veterans.

However, both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in opposition also promised to create an Arctic Star.

Defence minister Gerald Howarth has since made sure it is included in a review of how medals are sanctioned.

And last month, at Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron appeared to suggest that he agreed the issue should be speeded up and a medal created because of the age of the veterans involved.

He told MPs that he had "considerable sympathy" with the campaign and had raised a "number of questions" with the Ministry of Defence.
He added: "Many of them (veterans] 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."

However, the Tory MP for Gosport, Caroline Dinenage, who had asked the question, has since admitted she is concerned about a lack of progress.

She told The Scotsman: "It appears that the Ministry of Defence is dragging its heels. I take the view that no news is not good news.
"I received a letter from the son of one of the veterans recently who has died since I asked my question; it shows that we do not have much time left to honour these brave men who are now all in their eighties and nineties."

An early day motion was put down on the issue by SNP Westminster leader and defence spokesman Angus Robertson, who is more blunt in his criticism of the coalition government.

The motion has been signed by 47 MPs from almost every political party in the House of Commons and he believes that there is wide political will for a quick solution.

Mr Robertson said: "It is time for the government to put things right, and what better moment to do it than the 70th anniversary of the convoys.

"The Ministry of Defence is dragging its feet as usual and so the Prime Minister should personally intervene, knock heads together and announce the creation of a campaign medal without any further delay."

Under new leader Ed Miliband, the Labour Party is now also supporting the campaign. Labour's veterans' front-bench spokeswoman Gemma Doyle said: "The Arctic campaign was vital in sustaining the fight on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. It is right and proper that all who fought have their patriotic efforts recognised."

But a spokeswoman for the MoD said that the veterans would have to wait until later this year for the medal review to be completed. She said: "It is part of a wider medal review which will report later this year. We do not have a date for that as yet."

It is a statement that has been met with suspicion among the veterans. Jock Dempster, of Dunbar, who is now chairman of the Russian Convoy Club in Scotland, said: "The problem is that the MoD have always dragged their feet.

"I think it is partly because they still are suspicious towards Russia. But actually the Arctic convoys should be used as a bridge to build friendship between us and Russia."

In fact, the Russians have given the Arctic veterans three memorial medals and regularly invite them as guests of honour to Second World War commemorations and receptions where they are feted by the country's leading politicians.

"We are treated like heroes when we visit Russia," said Mr Dempster, who speaks fluent Russian.

"The last time I visited with other veterans we were met with marching bands, parades and some of the most senior officers in the navy.
Sadly, we have never been afforded the same recognition in this country. We always have the impression that the government would prefer to ignore us."

1 comment:

  1. Arctic Convoy Veteran, Norman Scarth, 86 years, imprisoned by Judge Jonathan Rose of Bradford, Yorks, for attempting to record a court hearing on an audio device because he is hard of hearing and hearing loops were not provided by the Court.

    Judge Rose had him immediately arrested by police, taken away in handcuffs and imprisoned in Leeds Prison for serious offenders. It has the highest suicide rate in the UK. Mr. Scarth is denied his prescription medication for serious muscle cramping, and is being kept in torturous conditions in solitary confinement. Sentenced to six months and denied court access for one year..

    Nobody whatsoever in government is responding to his formal complaints.

    Please sign the petition here to have this hero released:

    FOLLOW ON TWITTER @freenorman