At long last, recognition for heroes of Arctic convoys

The late John Burns ' pictured in 2006 ' and fellow veterans were recognised byRussia for their role in the Arctic convoys
The late John Burns ' pictured in 2006 ' and fellow veterans were recognised byRussia for their role in the Arctic convoys
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IT may be too late for John Burns to savour the moment, but the daughter of the veteran of the Arctic convoys knows her father will still be smiling 

Mr Burns, who died from bronchial pneumonia four years ago, is now expected to receive a posthumous national award recognising his bravery in one of the Second World War’s harshest campaigns.

The veteran, farewelled with a procession along the Royal Mile, was one of an estimated 65,000 men who braved sub-zero temperatures at sea to deliver vital supplies to Britain’s Soviet allies from 1941-45.

The government announced on Wednesday – more than 70 years after the missions first started – that those veterans involved would finally be recognised by their country with an official Arctic campaign medal.

Mr Burns’ daughter, Pamela Hunter, said she planned to attend any award ceremony on her father’s behalf, adding: “He’d be content. If he was here, he’d think ‘at last after 70 years, there’s been recognition’.

“But it’s very sad that it’s come at this late stage and all these poor men were let down by their own country. It was very welcome news, but there’s always that bitter taste that it should have happened before.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the plan was for veterans to be awarded the medals, including posthumous awards, by spring.

Mr Burns, who died at the age of 87, served as a gunner with the Royal Navy’s Russian Arctic convoys in 1941.

On one mission, the Canongate father-of-four braved perilous weather in the search for survivors of the disastrous PQ17 Merchant Navy convoy left abandoned by its Royal Navy escort.

He worked in several jobs along the Royal Mile following his return from the war, maintaining the Tolbooth clock before working as chief bar steward of the officers’ mess at Edinburgh Castle.

Such was the esteem in which the veteran was held that a horse-drawn funeral procession was arranged for his public farewell, running from the Castle Esplanade to Canongate Kirk.

Mrs Hunter said: “Certainly my father didn’t say very much about what they did during the war. It wasn’t until later in life that these old chaps had time to reflect on how important it was.

“They really felt that it was brushed under the table. They did what they had to do, but there was no official recognition for it. Every time they left Scotland to go up there it was a suicide mission, but they were doing it for their country.”

Veterans of the Russian convoys officially started fighting for formal recognition during the mid-1990s, soon after the end of the Cold War.

Of those veterans, Dunbar’s Jock Dempster is one of only an estimated 200 campaign members still alive in Britain.

The 84-year-old said the national recognition meant “everything”, even if it had come too late for too many.

Mr Dempster made two trips to Murmansk starting from March 1945.

The Scottish veteran said: “You had full-scale blizzards, you had high seas, you had everything that a seaman dreads. The seas were really mountainous and it was freezing on top of it all. As the ship went through and the bow hit the sea, the spray would come up and before it even landed it would freeze. That’s how cold it was.”

The visceral image of watching tanker HMS Lapwing being torpedoed by German submarine U-968 remains etched in Mr Dempster’s mind.
He said: “To see men have no choice, to have to jump off the blazing ship into the freezing sea was horrible. They had a crew of 229, and 158 died that day.

“To hear men screaming for help, that’s always lived in my mind.”

Critical to the war effort

THE Arctic convoys sailed from the United Kingdom, Iceland and North America to northern ports in the Soviet Union.

Seventy-eight convoys made the crossings between August 1941 and May 1945, with 19 of those departing from Loch Ewe in Wester Ross.

Critical to the war effort, the merchant ships carrying supplies were escorted by the Royal Navy.

German forces had Russia – one of Britain’s allies – blockaded, with the munitions vital in helping the Soviets to hold the Eastern Front.

U-boats, surface ships and aircraft were used to target the merchantmen.

Severe weather and strong currents added to the risks.

More than 3000 men perished during the convoys campaign; their bodies were never recovered.