This morning, in Belfast, I was privileged to witness veterans of the Arctic Convoys receiving the Ushakov Medal, from Russia’s ambassador to the UK. This honour is the culmination of a lengthy campaign to recognise the brave servicemen who risked ice floes and U-boat attack, to bring vital supplies to the Soviet Union, during World War 2.
The British government presented veterans with the Arctic Star, belatedly, in 2012. Before that, rather shamefully, there was no medal for taking part in the convoys.
It also took some time before the Foreign Office would allow the Russian government to show its appreciation for the servicemen. The Medal of Ushakov was first presented to British sailors in June 2013, when Vladimir Putin and David Cameron conducted a ceremony, during the Russian President’s visit to London.
Most of the surviving seamen who crewed the convoys are now in their nineties. The event in Belfast was a poignant occasion, with many proud family members in attendance, as the veterans’ bravery was recognised after so many years. Obviously an enormous number of servicemen received no award during their lifetimes, for their part in resupplying the Soviet Union.
The convoys are not one of the more celebrated aspects of the war, in the UK. However they claimed the lives of some 3,000 men and they were vital in keeping open the eastern front. It was this bloody war of attrition, between the USSR and Germany, which eventually broke the Nazi army and made arguably the greatest contribution to eventual Allied victory.
A lack of recognition for the convoys was influenced by the Cold War which followed World War 2. The Soviet Union was viewed principally as an enemy, rather than a former ally, from the late 1940s.
Even seventy years later, it’s important that the part which the convoys played in defeating Germany is recognised. It’s also heartening that the Russian and British governments can now mark and celebrate a shared history of struggle against Nazism.
The two countries have often had a difficult relationship, but hopefully the Ushakov Medal ceremonies can help to build mutual understanding and respect between the UK and Russia.