Second World War veterans in Shropshire have been presented with a Russian War medal – 70 years since they fought to keep open supply routes in the icy waters of the Arctic. The men have been awarded the Ushakov medal by the Russian Government for serving in the Arctic convoys of the Second World War.
It follows a 30-year campaign to lift a ban on presenting British soldiers with the medal, imposed by the UK government.
More than 3,000 Royal Navy and merchant seaman died in what Winston Churchill described as the “worst journey in the world” and now about 30 Shropshire veterans have been handed their medals.
One of the veterans who collected his medal in a ceremony held at the Shirehall in Shrewsbury was 93-year-old war veteran Ralph Bishop of Mercia Court, Market Drayton.
Mr Bishop joined the Royal Air Force in 1941, aged 18. He said: “I wanted to do it. It was a bit of an adventure when it all started. Young people were faced with little experiences so when the war came along it was a good opportunity. “We didn’t get a chance for trips around the world. So I wanted an adventure and decided to sign up.”
Mr Bishop completed his training in the technical unit. His first convoy was to Iceland before taking part in the Arctic Convoys. He then spent three years at sea.
The Arctic Convoys saw Royal Navy and merchant ships suffer appalling weather and frequent German air and sea attacks as they supplied Russian ports during the Second World War.
But their efforts kept the former Soviet Union supplied with weapons and food totalling 4.5 million tonnes.
Mr Bishop said: “I was part of a team of four lads who looked after the planes. We worked on watches but up in the Arctic you couldn’t be on duty for very long. We mucked in together. I was dealing with dangerous weapons.
“You could never go to bed in your pyjamas; you had to keep clothes on all the time just in case. You had to be ready for action as you never knew when you may be bombed or shot at. It was scary being constantly under threat.
“There was a lot of camaraderie, we were like a band of brothers.
“It was dangerous and you never knew if you were going to be afloat in the morning. Some nights it would be -46 degrees and the ships would become so heavy with ice because things would freeze immediately. It was highly dangerous.”
Counsellor of The Russian Embassy, Sergey Nalobin, presented Ushakov medals to the men of the Arctic Convoys at a special ceremony in Shrewsbury.
During the ceremony Mr Nalobin said the men were “all heroes who will never be forgotten in our country”.
The Foreign Office initially did not allow Russia to honour the veterans as it broke rules that do not allow British soldiers to receive a foreign medal if the act happened more than five years ago.
Following a concerted campaign last year, it allowed an exception to the rule and President Putin presented the first medals during his visit to London on June 16, 2013.
Since then embassy staff have travelled across the UK handing out the award. Sadly some of the veterans had died before they were honoured and their families were invited to accept the awards on their behalf.
Among the families were brothers Keith Allen, 68 and Tony, 76 of Shrewsbury, who proudly collected their father Thomas Allen’s medal. They attended on behalf of their mother Annie who is 101 and lives at Holy Cross Care Home in Abbey Foregate.
Keith Allen said: “My father joined the Navy at 16 and progressed through the ranks until in 1941 and 1942 he was on HMS Seagull on the Arctic Convoys.
“He did 10 trips – five out to Russia and five back. He went through his career until eventually he was demobbed in 1949. He met my mother and they had my brother Tony then me. Three months after I was born my father was posted to Malta for three years.
My brother told me that when my father returned home I hid behind my mother’s pinny because I had never met him. I didn’t know who he was. “He went to work on the tugs that bring in huge liners until 1961 they found out he had cancer and that took its toll on him. He fell down in the street and died. I was 14 at the time.”
Speaking about the experience of collecting their father’s medals, Keith said: “I’ve been collecting my father’s war medals and putting them in a little box for my mother. I am very proud of my father. I wasn’t born while he was on the Arctic Convoys but my brother has the memories.”
Also at the ceremony was Fred Gorton, 88, of Market Drayton, who joined the Royal Navy in 1943 as he was “fed up with doing shift work and working night shifts”. He said: “I trained in Skegness on the Royal Arthur before moving up to Scotland to go out on the first ship. I went on to sail on the Arctic Convoys numerous times.
“I was out for 12 months at sea and did suffer from sea sickness in little bits. It was a very tough environment. Delighted to be finally receiving his medal, Mr Gorton said: “This is a long time coming but I am glad we are getting it.”