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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Britain Refuses Russian Honor for WWII Sailors

British Embassy In MoscowThe crew of a World War II convoy ship clearing ice and snow off the decks during the treacherous voyage to the Soviet Union.
The British government has poured cold water on an initiative by Soviet Navy veterans to honor British sailors who took part in the World War II Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union.

During the war, Arctic convoys transported material from the West to the U.S.S.R. to aid its fight against Nazi Germany. In recognition of their service, Soviet sailors who served in the navy and merchant marine in these convoys were awarded the Arctic Defense Medal.

Last fall, a group of Soviet Navy veterans launched an initiative to see that foreign sailors who served in the convoys also receive the recognition their Russian counterparts feel they are due.

But last week the British Defense Ministry seemingly doused those hopes by refusing permission for British veterans to be honored by Russia.

A Defense Ministry spokeswoman said: "The acceptance and wearing of foreign awards is subject to the rules agreed by Her Majesty the Queen on the recommendation of the Honors and Decorations Committee [of the Cabinet Office].

"These rules do not permit the acceptance and wearing of medals for services rendered in the distant past, i.e. more than five years previously."

The spokeswoman said the rules were designed to stop decisions made during the war from being questioned.

Many veterans in Russia and Britain find the decision hard to understand.

"The [British] government has no right to forbid the award of medals," said Anatoly Uvarov, a captain in the Soviet Navy during the war and one of those behind the initiative.

Commander Eddie Grenfell told The Daily Telegraph: "These decisions are made by people who've never seen a shot fired in anger. They have no idea of the hell we went through.

"We veterans are dismayed and disgusted by the government's ungrateful attitude."

Under the initiative thought up by the Russians, all veterans of the allied Arctic convoys would receive the Russian medal.

"We should give all proper recognition to our colleagues -- sailors from Britain, the United States, France, Poland, Canada and Norway -- who put their lives at risk just as we did," Uvarov said. "They sailed and often died together with us under the fascist bombs in order to bring essential aid to the Soviet Union."

Between Germany's attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the end of World War II, thousands of sailors served in convoys delivering aid under the Lend-Lease program, under which the United States delivered arms, ammunition, food supplies and other strategic items to allied countries fighting the Axis powers.

Thousands of sailors in foreign navies and merchant marines were killed or wounded serving in the convoys. Britain alone lost 2,000 naval and 1,000 civilian sailors on this transport route.

Between Aug. 31, 1941, when the first "Dervish" convoy arrived in the Soviet port of Arkhangelsk, and May 1945, the United States and Britain organized 42 convoys to the northern ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. In partial payment, the Soviet Union sent 36 convoys bearing raw materials in the opposite direction.

Although the crews of the merchant vessels were usually from a number of countries, the British Navy guarded the convoys until they reached Soviet waters, at which point the Soviet Navy would take over responsibility for defending them. Even with protection from warships, the route was dangerous: An average of five to six vessels from each convoy were sunk by German submarine and air attacks.

"The battles in the Arctic were the most horrendous of all I had seen in my life," said Grenfell, a British veteran of the Arctic convoys who also served in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. "I remember the terrible day when a German bomber sank the Empire Lawrence, the convoy ship I was on, and the horror of that day," he said in a telephone interview from England.

On May 27, 1942, a convoy including the Empire Lawrence was attacked by more than 200 German aircraft of the Luftwaffe. At 2 p.m., a flight of six medium bombers focused their attacks on the Empire Lawrence, scoring five direct hits and triggering an explosion in the ammunition-filled holds that turned the vessel into a gigantic fireball.

"I remember it as if it were just yesterday," Grenfell said. "Flying through the air surrounded by large chunks of steel, one that looked like the ship's funnel.

"I hit the water and went down very deep, and when I opened my eyes, I found myself faced with a swirling black turmoil instead of the green sea I had expected.

"With my lungs close to bursting, I prayed, even argued with my Maker. Something was hanging on my right arm. I gave a heave and brought to the surface the body of someone impossible to recognize. A piece of metal, still there, had almost cleaved his head in two."

Thanks to his rescue by a British lifeboat, Grenfell survived the ordeal and went on to serve on three more convoys.

Konstantin Sergeyev, a St. Petersburg resident who served in a submarine on the northern convoy routes, said Grenfell was lucky, as the chances of survival for a sailor whose ship had been sunk were extremely low.

"The average temperature in the Arctic is minus 30 degrees Celsius, and the Barents Sea, which the convoys were sailing through, is hit by about 10 to 15 storms a month," Sergeyev said. "A person can generally only survive in these waters for about three minutes."

Grenfell still remembers the freezing conditions on board the ships. "Even inside the ship, the bulkheads were covered with two inches of ice, and the guns were also iced up," he said.

Much as any rescue of a sailor in the water had to be done quickly, Uvarov said it was urgent that surviving foreign participants in the northern convoys receive their decorations. According to Uvarov, there are only about 250 of them still alive in Britain, with another 40 living in the United States, 50 in France and Norway and 50 more in Canada and Poland.

Uvarov said it has been a long haul getting through the bureaucratic barriers to convince the Russian government to award these medals. Previously, allied veterans of the convoys had received medals from Russia marking the 40th and 50th anniversaries of victory in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War, but the convoy medal is of higher standing as it is a battle decoration.

Last month, Uvarov and his companions finally received the answer they had been seeking when Murmansk Governor Yury Yevdokimov, who is responsible for the region where the convoys served, sent them a letter asking them to provide a list of all eligible veterans to send to the Foreign Ministry for approval.

Speaking before last week's statement by the British Defense Ministry, Ray Ball, another British convoy sailor, said veterans would be thrilled to receive the decorations, as those veterans who have been awarded Russian commemorative medals wear them with great pride.

"To be awarded a medal for actual service would be the icing on the cake, particularly as our own government has not recognized the Arctic convoys as a theater of war and has not issued a campaign medal," Ball said.

Sergeyev said: "I think that the most important thing in the world is the friendship between all nations. It shouldn't depend on the games of politicians who just want to separate us.

"We fought alongside our foreign allies. We helped each other. We really had the chance to see how reliable and great those people are, and we want them to know how we feel about that."