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11 Nov, 2013 19:36

Arctic Convoy: Russia reaches out to British mariners who provided WWII lifeline

The Russian embassy in London has tracked down the UK veterans of the Arctic Convoys who delivered vital supplies to the Eastern Front during WWII. The embassy wants to ensure that all the heroes are awarded the Ushakov Medal for bravery.

So far, over 3,000 veterans have been included in the list of those entitled to the medal, but the work is still under way. Some estimates put the likely number of surviving veterans, now in their nineties, at around 100.

The medals, named for Russia’s own naval hero, Admiral Ushakov, can now be awarded because an ancient law forbidding Royal Navy mariners from accepting foreign military decorations was finally lifted by the British government this summer. To celebrate the occasion, the first 20 veterans were awarded with the Ushakov Medal at a ceremony in Downing Street in June.

As both countries race to award the medals, the Russian Embassy in London has been pulling out the stops to find the veterans and make sure they receive the recognition they deserve.

Photo from Facebook.com/ArcticConvoyMedalsForOurVeterans

This year, the embassy has been writing personally to all Arctic Convoy veterans with the help of the the British Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense’s medal office, and is planning to award the medals to any veteran who served in one or more convoy to Soviet waters during World War II.

There were 78 Arctic convoys between August 1941 and May 1945. About 1,400 vessels delivered much-needed war supplies to the Soviet Union under a lend-lease program. The merchant ships were escorted by the Royal Navy, the US Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy. Sixteen Royal Navy warships were lost in the operation, as well as 85 merchant vessels.

Some Arctic Convoys veterans have been writing back, with many saying just how touched they were to have been bestowed with this honor.

Photo from Facebook.com/ArcticConvoyMedalsForOurVeterans

“We have got some really emotional letters,” Liza Vokorina, an attaché at the Russian Embassy in London, told RT. “People are writing from their hearts, they’re really thankful for this medal, for the plan to give it. This is such great feedback, sometimes we even read with tears these great letters because it was really touching.”

Some of the veterans say they thought they would not live to see this happening.

“Unfortunately, we can’t all go on forever, but I’m so happy that I have lived long enough to have this honor,” Arctic Convoy veteran Jimmy Pitts told RT. “It is important that recognition goes to the people. I am looking forward to receiving this Ushakov Medal. In fact, it will give me great pride to wear it.”

The majority of the Convoy veterans are entitled to wear the Arctic Star, a similar award announced in late 2012. However, hard work is being done to find every one of those sailors who embarked on the freezing journey through the Arctic waters to the Soviet Union.

For more on the Artic Convoys and the Ushakov Medal, watch RT’s Polly Boyko’s report from London.