Saluting the men of the Arctic convoys
From Harry Wallop, writing in the Telegraph:
. . .Nearly 72 years after the first group of ships was sent to deliver vital supplies to Russia through the icy waters of the Norwegian Sea, the bravery of those who served on the Arctic convoys is to be recognised with a medal. As if to remind veterans how long they have waited, the Arctic Star bears the old king’s cipher: George Rex Imperator – from the days when we had an empire.
It is a bittersweet moment for the few survivors of one of the most dangerous, miserable and under-appreciated campaigns of the Second World War. “Top of the pops, it really is, after all these years,” said Lt Cdr Roy “Dickie” Dykes, who was planning to go down to his local pub in Hampshire to celebrate yesterday. But at the age of 92, he has few fellow comrades with whom to mark the occasion: it is estimated that of the 66,000 who took part in the Arctic convoys, as few as 200 survive.
There were 78 voyages made between 1941 and the end of the war, in which the Royal Navy lost 18 warships and the merchant fleet 87 ships; altogether there were more than 3,000 casualties. The convoys have often been overlooked in tales of how the war was won. But recent research has suggested that the Arctic missions were as important in maintaining the Allied effort against Nazi Germany as the Atlantic convoys, if not more so.
Robert Blyth, a curator at the Royal Museums Greenwich, sums up the importance of the missions: “The Arctic convoys were vital in keeping the Soviet Union in the war. We could not have had D-Day without their effort.”
In 1941, Britain was, in Churchill’s words, “quite alone, desperately alone”. But he decided that, despite the nation’s precarious position, it would divert resources by sending tanks, planes, fuel, telegraph wires, medicine and food to the Soviet Union, which had just been invaded by Germany.
Richard Woodman, naval historian and author of Arctic Convoys, 1941-1945, says: “Churchill insisted on making this big effort to encourage Stalin to stay in the ring. It was a huge political gamble, but as it gathered pace, it gained in strategic importance.”
Germany occupied all of the main routes into Russia, so the only way for ships to reach the Soviet Union was to travel north from Scotland or Iceland, around the very top of Norway deep into the Arctic Circle and then down to Murmansk. Nearly a quarter of all the aid given to Russia, totalling nearly 4 million tons, arrived this way.
The fear of being thrown overboard into an instant frozen grave never went away. Robert Blyth says: “There was the triple whammy of German U-boats, German bombers and German surface raiders. Combine that with the terror of the freezing water, and you have an idea of how horrific it was. . .
Brave, brave men.
Wish we knew the name of the pub where Lt Cdr Roy “Dickie” Dykes planned to celebrate. We'd love to buy him a drink. Bet you would, too.