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UK and Russia remember the Arctic Convoys’ ‘true brotherhood in arms’

Rear Admiral Iain Lower salutes the fallen of the Arctic Convoy on HMS Belfast's Quarterdeck
15 December 2020
Wreaths have been laid at memorials around the UK to honour the men who sailed in the Arctic Convoys to Russia.

Royal Navy and Russian military representatives have taken part in 75th anniversary commemorations of the end of a bitter four-year struggle to deliver vital aid to the Soviet Union and defeat Nazism.

The global pandemic scuppered plans for a major commemoration of the end of the convoys, which ran from the summer of 1941 until the defeat of the Third Reich in the spring of 1945.

Instead a ‘virtual commemoration’ was last month, when veterans joined senior political and diplomatic figures from Britain and Russia for an online discussion to underline the importance of the convoys – and to thank the dwindling number of men who endured what Churchill called ‘the worst journey in the world’.

That event sparked the idea of low-key physical commemorations at some of the key monuments to the convoys.

Commander James Buck, Harbour Master in Orkney, saluted the fallen commemorated by the monument on Hoy; adjacent Scapa Flow was home to many of the warships which escorted the convoys.

Liverpool was a key staging post for both Atlantic and Arctic Convoys. The Royal Navy’s Deputy Regional Commander Lieutenant Colonel Guy Balmer Royal Marines joined the Rector of Liverpool Canon Dr Crispin Pailing for a service at the Arctic Campaign memorial in Liverpool Parish Church of Our Lady and St Nicholas.

And on HMS Belfast on the Thames Rear Admiral Iain Lower, the Royal Navy’s Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Policy), and the Russian Defence Attaché to the UK, Colonel Maxim Elovik, met on the quarterdeck of Belfast in London for a 15-minute service of remembrance and thanksgiving.

The Allied seamen showed true heroism in their long and perilous sea passages. The memory of these and other heroic examples of joint combat and mutual support continues to live in our hearts

Colonel Maxim Elovik

Since 2014, the Russian Federation has presented around 3,500 Ushakov Medals to Arctic Convoy veterans­­, honouring their “contribution to our common victory over Fascism”, Col Elovik said.

And it will resume presenting them to those eligible once the pandemic passes to ensure “that each award finds its hero”.

“Today we not only celebrate the shared history and joint achievements of Russia and the United Kingdom in World War 2, but also the true brotherhood in arms of our people, a bright example of which were the Arctic Convoys.

“The Allied seamen showed true heroism in their long and perilous sea passages, constantly attacked by enemy forces in the appalling weather conditions of the Arctic.

“The memory of these and other heroic examples of joint combat and mutual support continues to live in our hearts.”

Col Elovik placed a wreath on behalf of his nation alongside Admiral Lower’s beneath Belfast’s battle honours board.

“It was an absolute honour to have the opportunity to properly commemorate the service of all the courageous mariners who served in the Arctic convoys; on and under the sea, as well as in the air,” said Admiral Lower.

“In doing so, I am glad we could also celebrate our shared history of solidarity with Russia and its people.

“Having the ceremony on HMS Belfast is particularly poignant too as it has so many deep connections with this shared past.”  

The wartime cruiser serves as a living memorial to the 3,000-plus sailors – Royal Navy and merchant seamen – who sacrificed their lives delivering more than four million tonnes of supplies: tanks, fighters, trucks, fuel, ammunition and food.

Around 1,400 merchant ships made the perilous journey to ports in northern Russia during 78 convoys.

Some 85 merchant ships never made it – nor 16 Royal Navy warships which provided escort for them in the face of attacks from the German surface fleet, U-boats and Luftwaffe.

Despite these losses and the grim weather conditions which meant sailors had little chance of survival if they went in the water.

HMS Belfast spent 18 months on Arctic Convoy duties between Christmas 1942 through to the spring of 1944, participating in the last battleship duel of World War 2 in Europe, the sinking of the Scharnhorst off the North Cape on Boxing Day 1943.

Plans for a belated 75th anniversary commemoration on the shores of Loch Ewe in north-west Scotland, where many convoys mustered before sailing, is planned for May 2021.

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