Royal Navy Honors WWII Arctic Convoy Veterans
On Monday, nearly three dozen Arctic convoy veterans and their families gathered in Liverpool for a day of celebrations and commemorations 75 years after the first left Britain for Russia to deliver vital aid.
A day of events from a reception in the city hall to a tour of destroyer HMS Dragon and flypast by a Swordfish torpedo bomber were staged for the Arctic heroes, the youngest of whom were in their late 80s.
Liverpool was the setting for a day of celebration and commemoration for the dwindling number of survivors – the youngest in their late 80s – who made what Churchill called ‘the worst journey in the world’, delivering vital aid to the Soviet Union to help the Red Army fend off and ultimately defeat the Nazi invader.
Some 35 veterans, the left breasts of their jackets bristling with an array of medals, plus in many cases the recently-instituted Arctic Star, plus their families gathered on the Mersey for a series of events organised by the RN, Royal British Legion and Liverpool City Council.
Paying tribute to their, Earl Howe, Minister of State for the Lords, told them it was impossible to imagine what they went through in the war.
He added: “Time has not diminished the brilliance of your deeds, but made them shine ever brighter.”
The first convoy from Liverpool set off for Russia in October 1941. Over the next four years, 78 convoys from Liverpool and Scotland made the journey, facing some of the worst conditions of any Allied sailors.
One in every 20 ships sent to Russia was lost – compared with an average of one in 300 on other convoy routes during WW2 – and more than 3,000 Servicemen and merchant sailors were killed.
But they succeeded in delivering between 3½ and 4 million tons of cargo of all kinds, from thousands of tanks and aircraft to vital fuel and machinery to the Soviet Union.
The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, said it was difficult to comprehend the horrors of the journeys in which the Germans and the weather were equal enemies, and in which the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy sailors faced threats from enemy aircraft, ships, U-boots, mines, extreme weather and perpetual darkness.
He told the veterans: “The Royal Navy is not as large as the one you remember, but we haven’t forgotten the lessons of the past.
“My solemn promise, on behalf of the Service, is that we will honour your service and sacrifice by showing the same sense of commitment that you showed all those years ago.”
The Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Councillor Roz Gladden, was moved to tears when Admiral Jones made a surprise presentation of her late father’s Arctic Star medal.
After the lunch the veterans gathered in Exchange Flags behind the Town Hall to hear the Royal Marines Band Scotland Beat Retreat, at which the Lord Lieutenant took the salute.
Then the party made its way to the Cruise Liner Terminal to visit the Type 45 destroyer HMS Dragon. Some of the veterans were helped up the gangway by the young sailors, those in wheelchairs stayed on the quayside in brilliant sunshine to admire the ship and wait for the Swordfish flypast.
For 92-year-old Jack Thomas, it was an emotional moment as the Swordfish circled gracefully around the destroyer and he spotted its number.
“That’s my Swordfish!” he cried, as he recognised the very same plane he flew in the war.
Mr. Thomas, who travelled from Wirral in his wheelchair with his daughter-in-law, said: “I was in 836 Squadron based in Northern Ireland. We had 450 aircrew and we served 13 different Merchant aircraft carriers, or MACS as we called them, so although I was a Royal Navy man I served under the Red Ensign.
He added: “You had times of great fear and times of great hilarity as well. When you’re 18 or 19 you think you’re immortal and you don’t think of fear – it’s your job.”
After the flypast, the veterans spent the rest of the day chatting to the young sailors of HMS Dragon and comparing the old to the new as the 75th anniversary commemorations drew to a close.
(C) Navy News/MOD/Crown Copyright 2016
This article appears courtesy Royal Navy News and may be found in its original edition here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.