News Article

Arctic Convoy veterans return to Russia

A History and Honour news article

24 Jul 09

Veterans from the World War Two Arctic Convoys, who are visiting the waters where thousands of their colleagues were killed, began their journey this week with an escort from the Royal Navy.

Arctic Convoy veteran Jock Dempster

Jock Dempster looks at the flags raised in honour of the Arctic Convoy veterans aboard MV Discovery
[Picture: LA(Phot) Guy Pool, Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

The Arctic Convoys were carried out by British seamen to supply the Soviet Union, who had joined the Allies against Nazi Germany in 1941, with military equipment.

150 of those seamen began a journey this week to retrace the route they undertook during those convoys over 60 years ago.

As the veterans set sail for Murmansk in Russia and Narvik in Norway this week, their passenger vessel MV Discovery was given an escort out of Harwich by Royal Navy patrol ship HMS Tracker.

Before sailing, the last post was sounded as a collection of British and American Shipping Company House Flags were hoisted, each flag representing the companies that operated ships as part of the convoys.

Commodore Ewan Macdonald, the Royal Naval Regional Commander for Eastern England, onboard the MV Discovery to see the veterans off, spoke of the Royal Navy's affiliation with the veterans:

"We have had a long history in support of the Russian Convoys - today we have HMS Tracker escorting MV Discovery out of Harwich as a mark of naval respect."

From left: Geoffery Holmes, Commodore Ewan Macdonald, Len Dibb-Western, and Jock Dempster

From left: Geoffery Holmes, Commodore Ewan Macdonald, the Royal Naval Regional Commander for Eastern England, Len Dibb-Western, and Jock Dempster
[Picture: LA(Phot) Guy Pool, Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

The Arctic Convoys provided the Soviet Union with considerable war materials against the odds and were a crucial part of the effort to defeat Hitler.

The supplies were carried in some 790 ships in 40 convoys between August 1941 and May 1945 and saw 5,218 tanks (of which 1,388 were from Canada) and 7,411 aircraft (including 3,129 aircraft sent from the United States of America) delivered.

The total value of the military supplies despatched amounted to approximately £308m. They also supplied around £120m of raw materials, foodstuffs, machinery, industrial plant equipment, medical supplies and hospital equipment.

Almost 3,000 British seamen were killed during the convoys which travelled through treacherous arctic waters from the UK to the northern Russian ports of Archangel and Murmansk.

More than 100 British ships were sunk including two Royal Navy cruisers, six destroyers and eight other escorts. Winston Churchill called it 'the worst journey in the world'.

The veterans retracing this journey will hold a memorial service on the spot off the Norwegian coast near Narvik where the greatest loss of life occurred during the Russian Convoys' transit of the northern waters.

HMS Tracker and MV Discovery

Patrol ship HMS Tracker escorts MV Discovery from her berth in Harwich en route to Murmansk and Narvik
[Picture: LA(Phot) Guy Pool, Crown Copyright/MOD 2009]

The veterans, all of whom are in their eighties, will scatter 20,000 poppies and lay a wreath commemorating their fallen comrades.

Geoffrey Holmes, aged 84, who was an Able Seaman in the Merchant Navy during the convoys, boarded the MV Discovery to return to Russia for the first time since 1944.

He said:

"I completed three trips on the Russian Convoys, and returned!

"The point is that myself and the other veterans wanted to go back and see Russia for one last time - in November '44 all I remember was smoke and rubble.

"It was the people there that I think about most, why I wanted to go back and see. When this trip was advertised, it was [the only one] following the convoy route itself, it's going to be the real deal."

On arrival in Murmansk the veterans will attend a reception hosted by English-speaking Russian children who maintain an Arctic Convoy museum in their school.

Later they will visit a cemetery which contains the graves of a large number of British and Allied sailors and is the site of an Arctic Convoy Memorial.

Jack Speak
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