Thursday, 20 December 2012

Finally, recognition for Arctic convoy crews

By the beginning of winter 1941 the future of Europe looked bleak. The Swastika flew triumphantly from flagpoles across the continent and the sound of marching jackboots resonated in many streets. The Wehrmacht had rolled through all opposition only being turned back at the English channel. Now they had encircled Leningrad, sat poised at Orel as Denikin had some twenty years previously and forward detachments were in the suburbs of Moscow itself.

Russian industry in the Ukraine and Belarus had been destroyed or overrun and the Luftwaffe roamed with impunity looking for fresh targets. New factories were being set up quickly in the Ural region to resupply a new Russian army to replace the one that was marched back to Germany as prisoners, but this would take time, something the Russians did not have.

Quick to get Stalin onside, Churchill promised convoys of lend lease equipment to sail by the quickest route from Iceland to Arkangel and Murmansk. The journey was a slow perilous one though. The water was freezing, so cold that if you were to fall in you would need rescuing in 30 seconds to survive. Ice formed around superstructures on vessels , winds were biting cold and with icy teeth and to touch metal with bare hands was to leave your hand behind and frostbite was a common problem.

Hidden Nemesis; Tirpitz
Then, of course there was the German Navy and Luftwaffe operating from Norway trying to stop you. In the first two years the Condors and Heinkel's mercilessly attacked the poorly defended convoys but with the advent of the fleet carriers they fell back to the spotter role for the U-boats and surface vessels. Although she only twice ventured from her lair KMS Tirpitz was a constant threat, the smaller vessels like Hipper were repulsed in the battle of the Barents sea and Scharnhorst sunk on boxing-day 1943. Had she got in range of the convoy it would have been over quickly.

As it was the lessons learnt in the Atlantic were used to great effect and the tide was turned against the German forces as Hurricane and Spitfires were gifted to the Russian airforce to replace their obsolete aircraft, trucks, rifles, clothing, fuel, raw materials came like a vital blood transfusion to a beleaguered USSR until May 1945. 85 merchant ships and 18 warships were lost in the conflict to the German's 4 warships (including Scharnhorst who took 1932 of her crew down to the depths) and 30 U-boats.

What reward or recognition was gifted by a grateful nation?

Nothing.

That was until yesterday's announcement at Prime minister's questions that a Star medal will be issued to veterans. This is far too late in the coming as many veterans are long dead or in their 80s or 90s. It is, however welcome that the brave souls who faced the elements and the business end of the German war machine in lightly armed and armoured merchant ships like their already decorated Atlantic comrades.

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