They braved treacherous seas, freezing conditions, German U-boats and attacks from the Luftwaffe as they undertook dangerous missions sailing from Scotland’s Loch Ewe to deliver vital military equipment and help the Soviet Union’s war effort.
Now, to mark the 75th anniversary of the first convoys departing from Wester Ross, Scotland’s Arctic convoy veterans are to be honoured at a special ceremony on the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh tomorrow night at an event organised by Scotland’s Russian consul-general.
Every veteran who took part in the convoys, described by wartime prime minister Sir Winston Churchill as the “worst journey in the world”, will receive a copy of a book specially-commissioned by Andrey Pritsepov, Cold Seas and Warm Friendships, in which the men recall their memories of the journeys to Murmansk and Archangel.
Mr Pritsepov has already presented the veterans – there are now just under 150 in Scotland – with the Ushakov Medal, one of Russia’s highest military honours for courage in sea warfare.
Speaking about the contribution made by veterans to help Russia, where 22 million people were killed during the war, Mr Pritsepov said: “Everything connected with the war is very much vivid with the Russian people. The Arctic convoys are an integral part of this memory. These men are regarded as war heroes.”
Harold O’Neill, 94, from Haddington, East Lothian, whose story appears in the book written by Commander Dairmid Gunn, recalls: “There I was lashed to a funnel on HMS Sumba, chopping ice, with an ice-pick in hand, when this German plane appears from nowhere. It machine-gunned down the deck with the bullets hitting right in front of my toes.
“I wasn’t scared. I was only 20 years old and had no more sense at that age. But I did see our sister ship HMS Sulla go down.
“I was so sorry for all the men who were wiped out. But you get hardened to death. It was tough but you’ve got to have a hard streak in you to cope with what you see.”