'Path through hell’: UK to finally recognize WWII Arctic heroes?

The epic efforts of UK Arctic heroes who braved icy waters during World War II to maintain vital supply lines to the Soviet Union may finally be recognized at home. The British PM has ordered a medals review after years of campaigning from veterans.

­Around 66,500 British sailors are estimated to have sailed on what was described by Winston Churchill as the worst journey in the world – 10 days through hell. Barely 200 are alive today.

Britain’s arctic convoys were a vital lifeline of supplies to the Soviet Union, as its Eastern ally was in the grips of a Nazi onslaught.

The convoys delivered scores of food and munitions – an estimated quarter of the total Western aid to the former USSR. Over 7,000 aircrafts, 5,000 tanks, 5,000 anti-tank guns, as well as non-military goods like fuel, food and medical supplies were brought to the-then Soviet northern cities of Archangelsk and Murmansk.

Britain lost almost 3000 men and 100 allied vessels were sunk in what was known as the most hostile theatre of World War II. But the onslaught came not only from Nazi attacks, but from the treacherous sea.

John Seares
John Seares

John Seares was just 19 at the time and was serving as a gunner onboard one of the convoy ship. He recalls braving fierce seas, the bitter cold and a perilous route infested by German U boats.

“I’d never experienced anything like it. Can you just imagine waves coming at you as high as the block of flats you’ve just passed. As we hit the waves it picked us up just like a toy – bear in my mind we were 14-thousand tonnes, pretty heavy – like a toy, and you knew we’d been lifted out because you could hear the screws turning out behind in the water,” he told RT while recounting on of the dangerous voyages.

John Seares recalls water so cold that falling in meant almost certain death.

Yet those behind the mission never honored the men it sent.

In 1946, the Admiralty ordered that the Atlantic Star, the medal for maritime supply missions, should be awarded to those with six months’ service.

Because of the harsh conditions of the Arctic convoys, very few who sailed to the Soviet Union served long enough to meet that criterion, and thus received no award.

Arctic campaigners have argued that the conditions of the Arctic convoys mean a dedicated medal is justified, but successive Governments have said they cannot retrospectively change the Admiralty’s decision.

”I feel disgusted the way I’ve been treated. There’s only a few of us left now,” John Seares told RT. “We’re well into our 80s. I’m coming up for 89. I mean come on, we ain’t asking a lot, are we?  Something we deserve. I’ve got Atlantic, Burma, Pacific Defense medals. I’ve got a medal for all the other campaigns I’ve been in. but… I’d be over the moon if I had an English medal for the Russian convoys.”

John Seares
John Seares

Seares was among other Arctic heroes who have just been offered another medal by the Russian Government forever in debt to their service – on top of the two it’s already awarded.

The Medal of Ushakov. – which is rewarded for courage and bravery displayed in times of war – was recently awarded to the foreign sailors from Britain, US, Australia and New Zealand.  Created in 1944, this state decoration is named in honor of Russian admiral Fyodor Ushakov, who never lost a battle and was proclaimed patron saint of the Russian Navy.

But the situation in Britain could soon change. After 16 years of campaigning from veterans, Prime Minister David Cameron has finally ordered a medals review, albeit seven months after the announcement was first made.   

“It’s disgusting, to my mind, the fact that it has taken this long is really heartbreaking,” Caroline Dinenage, MP from the UK Conservative party told RT. “Because over the years we’ve been campaigning for these medals, many-many of these veterans have sadly passed away. And the absolute tragedy for this would be if we do get to a situation where the medal review would remove the barriers and the arctic convoy veterans are allowed a medal and none of them are around to receive it.”

John will find out in September if he’ll finally receive what he and his comrades-in-arms should have gotten long ago.

Gordon Long receives his Arctic Convoy Commemorative medal for serving in the Merchant Navy during World War II on board HMS Belfast, in London, on March 24, 2010 to mark the upcoming 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. (AFP Photo / Warren Allott )
Gordon Long receives his Arctic Convoy Commemorative medal for serving in the Merchant Navy during World War II on board HMS Belfast, in London, on March 24, 2010 to mark the upcoming 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. (AFP Photo / Warren Allott )