A room of heroes: Arctic Convoy veterans honoured
By Western Daily Press | Saturday, September 28, 2013, 05:01
A tiny band of brothers who survived what Winston Churchill described as "the worst journey in the world" were finally honoured by the Government at a special ceremony in Trowbridge yesterday.
Admiral Sir William O'Brian, left, talks with, from the left, Arthur Ayres, Ken Beard and Nelson Foyle after the Arctic Convoy Star presentations yesterday PICTURE: STEVE ROBERTS
Artic Convoy veterans at the Artic Convoy Star Medal ceremony at County Hall, Trowbridge.
Dr Andrew Murrison MP for South West Wiltshire and Defence Minister addresses the Artic Convoy Star Medal veterans and guests at County Hall, Trowbridge.
Cecil Maynard, 88, left, of Swindon, and Robert Batty of Bulford at the Artic Convoy Star Medal ceremony held at County Hall, Trowbridge.
Admiral Sir William O'Brian, left, talks with from the left, Arthur Ayres, Ken Beard and Nelson Foyce after the Artic Convoy Star presentations held at County Hall, Trowbridge.
Phillip Strong, 88, His ship ran out of fuel and he spent four months in Russia. Mr Strong of Swindon, received his Artic Convoy Star during a ceremony held at County Hall, Trowbridge.
Tom Goff, 88, of Calne with his Artic Convoy Star at County Hall, Trowbridge.
hairman of the White Ensign Association Tony Pocock, right, and secretary Graham Payne prepare for the Artic Convoy Star Medal ceremony at County Hall, Trowbridge.
Norman Gray of Salisbury, centre, talks with Robert Batty of Bulford. The two decorated vetarans attended the Artic Convoy Star Medal ceremony at County Hall, Trowbridge.
Cecil Maynard left, of Swindon, and Robert Batty of Bulford are interviewed by Western Daily Press reporter Tristan Cork at the Artic Convoy Star Medal ceremony held at County Hall, Trowbridge.
Artic Convoy veterans at the Artic Convoy Star Medal eremony at County Hall, Trowbridge.
Medals pined to the jacket of Robert Batty of Bulford who attended the Artic Convoy Star Medal ceremony held at County Hall, Trowbridge.
In the first event of its kind in the West, veterans of the Arctic Convoys from Wiltshire and Swindon were treated to a tot of rum, the presence of a Russian ambassador and the thanks of their local MPs in a poignant and uplifting ceremony at County Hall.
Now in their late 80s and 90s, the sailors and merchant seamen had received their Arctic Star medals rather unceremoniously in the post, after the Government bowed to a concerted campaign by veterans and politicians to finally recognise the bravery and sacrifice of those gruelling missions to maintain supply lines to our allies in Russia, "over the top of the map" across the Arctic.
So Wiltshire's MPs and council chiefs thought a proper presentation ceremony was called for, and 24 of the 29 Arctic Convoy veterans still alive made it to County Hall yesterday.
The men were mainly still in their teens when they were sent on supply boats or military escort vessels to Canada or Iceland to pick up supplies, and then around the Norwegian coast to Murmansk and Archangel in the far north of Russia, to keep the Soviet allies stocked with food, fuel and munitions.
They braved freezing and fearsome seas, deadly German U-boats, bombing raids and torpedo attacks, and endured a casualty rate of unprecedented levels for a naval campaign. Of the 70,000 British Navy sailors or Merchant Navy seaman who were involved, more than 3,000 lost their lives. But their steadfast refusal to give up meant Russia was able to turn the tide against Hitler. Without the seamen's courage and resilience, the war might well have been lost, said the third secretary at the Russian Embassy, Igor Chamov, in an impassioned speech of thanks.
"It is a great privilege and honour to be here at this ceremony," he said. "We strongly welcome such a high recognition of war deeds. I'd like to express deep gratitude to your contribution to the victory over fascism.
"The aid provided was absolutely crucial and indispensable to my country. Dear veterans, you and your comrades made huge sacrifices to be able to teach us a lesson from history," he added.
The 24 men came from all over Wiltshire, many with chests already bulging with medals from other campaigns. Most went on to serve in the Far East, the Mediterranean and in the Atlantic, but their role on the Arctic Convoys had not previously been recognised. One by one they were called up by the chairman of Wiltshire Council and the mayor of Swindon, and were presented with a medal and a scroll of honour by their local MP.
The South West Wiltshire MP Andrew Murrison, himself a naval doctor, presented the awards to his constituents. He said it had been done far too late. "I think today has been very moving," he said. "Clearly it's seven decades late, but I'm pleased that, at last, we've been able to pay tribute to the men who served north of the Arctic Circle. Without them and the sacrifice they made, the course of the war was likely to have been very different, so we all owe them a debt of gratitude," he added.
Fellow MP Claire Perry presented medals to the men from her Devizes constituency. "I feel unworthy to be here, actually. The sacrifices were so great and they were so brave, it feels like the Queen should be giving them these medals, not me," she said. "It's wonderful to celebrate them and give them this recognition. It should've been done a long time ago," she added.
The mayor of Swindon, Nick Martin, said some of the men from his town who couldn't make it were going to be visited by civic leaders at home to bestow the medals on them properly.
"It is hard to imagine the terrible conditions which they had to endure – the perilous seas, the freezing temperatures and the constant danger, not only from the conditions but also from warfare," he said. "The journey they undertook demanded huge bravery and courage."
Tom Goff was just 18 when he left Calne and travelled to Bristol to sign up with the forces. It was 1943 and he volunteered before he was conscripted.
"I knew that they were going to conscript people, and that it was likely I'd be sent down the mines," he said. "That didn't appeal to me very much, so I volunteered, knowing that I'd have a better chance of doing something else."
He joined the Navy, ended up as a telecommunications expert and spent much of the rest of the war on the freezing runs to northern Russia, trying to intercept German and Italian messages. "I'd been in the Scouts and I knew Morse Code. I got very good at it very quickly."
He survived the Arctic Convoys and the rest of the war, and returned to his native Calne to serve as the town's police sergeant for decades.
It was only three days after his 18th birthday when Philip Strong became the newest member of the crew of HMS Daneman, a recommissioned fishing trawler with the job of escorting the supply boats and shoot down enemy aircraft. It was something Mr Strong, now 89 "and a half", from Broad Hinton, was good at.
"I was credited with two confirmed hits," he said. "Although the second one flew away and we couldn't see it hit the water. It was in flames, though."
Having survived the enemy fire, his little trawler ran into problems, ran out of fuel and the men on board burned everything – including their beds – in a desperate bid to get to Russian territory. They made it, just, running aground next to a lighthouse. They spent the winter of 1942-43 in the Russian ports, waiting for their ship to be rescued and repaired.
"I left Iceland on September 12, 1942, and didn't get back to Britain until January 1943. Four months up there in the winter was unbelievable. It was cold, so cold," he said.
Trowbridge born and bred, he was also 18 when he enlisted on board HMS Furious, embarking on two missions to the far north.
"It was really so very cold. They said if you went over the side, you had two and a half minutes in the water before that was it. I think it's very good to have this here now."
A veteran of the air gunnery department of 887 fighter squadron, the Bulford man served on many ships, aircraft carriers and escort vessels.
He said his abiding memories involved watching as ships sailing alongside his were hit by torpedoes and air strikes. "We were pretty lucky, looking back," he said.
Mr Batty went on to serve in the Far East and was on board the Indefatigable, which was the only British ship which took part in the Japanese surrender at Yokahama. Earlier in the Far East campaign, his ship was hit by a kamikaze pilot.
"It was not half scary. We were on deck and saw it coming all the way in. He blew a pretty big hole in the ship, but luckily I was down the other end, so only suffered some cuts."
Cecil 'Bill' Maynard
"Just after the war, I lost all my medals, soon after I was given them. I think they ended up in Australia – there was a mix-up and I don't have them now, and I had lots.
"So I feel a bit left out here next to these chaps, as I've got no medals to show. But it's nice to get this Arctic Star one now. I was on board HMS Trumpeter, and went all around the world."
Roll of Honour
Philip Strong Broad Hinton
Eric Whyte Swindon
Edward Williams Wilton
Robert Batty Bulford
Gerald Pocock Amesbury
Norman Gray Salisbury
Tom Goff Calne
Fred Andrews Corsham
Mervyn Salter Corsham
Tom Edwards Melksham
Commander Harry Thompson Melksham
Admiral Sir William O'Brien Sedgehill
Joseph Grant Trowbridge
Alan Stubbs Trowbridge
Denis Pickett Holt
Bernard Howell Mere
Gilbert Grace Trowbridge
Ken Beard Ludgershall
Kenneth Stevens Devizes
Nelson Foyle Netheravon
Richard Jaggar Etchilhampton
Arthur Ayres Tidworth
Arthur Staynings Leigh
Cecil 'Bill' Maynard Swindon
Received medals, didn't attend:
Ernest Dixon Tough Swindon
George Wells Stowford
Ivor Frost Swindon
John O'Keefe Marlborough
Mr Weller Swindon