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The worst journey in the world

You may have heard recently in the news of Henry McIntosh "Jock" Dempster who was just 16 when he made two Arctic convoy trips to Murmansk in 1945 as part of the Second World War campaign that transported vital supplies to Russia. He had campaigned tirelessly over many decades to win official recognition for the sacrifices of those who took part in the Arctic Convoys. The Ministry of Defence has subsequently awarded a medal the 'Arctic Star' to belatedly recognise their bravery. However the sad news is that "Jock" 85, died from a stroke only two months after receiving his medal from David Cameron. His passing came days before he was due to take a trip to Loch Ewe in Wester Ross where many of these suicide missions were launched for the reunion of over 40 veterans.

The worst journey in the world
We had just got over the battle of Britain and standing on the threshold of defeat when Hitler turned East and attacked the USSR (Russia) on June 6th 1941. The Arctic convoys of World War II sailed from the United Kingdom, to northern ports in the Soviet Union. There were 78 convoys in total sent between August 1941 and May 1945 sailing via several seas of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. Around 1,400 merchant ships delivered essential supplies to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program, and Churchill sent the lions share to Russia. The convoys were escorted by ships of the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, and the U.S. Navy. Many naval engagements with the enemy occured including the Battle of the Barents Sea.

In 1941 when the Germans were at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad the Russians had to dismantle their war industries and ship them to the Ural mountain's. This mass upheaval of tanks, furnaces and artillery was a gigantic move taking millions of rolling stock to the East, this comprised their war effort as they had no means to produce the tanks and equipment to defend themselves.  So these supplies were absolutely crucial.

An example of one small convoy JW-51B departed from Liverpool on December 22nd comprising of 40 Merchant ships, 202 tanks, 2,044 vehicles, 87 fighters, 33 bombers, 11,500 tons of fuel oil, 12,650 tons of aviation spirit and 54,320 tons of miscellaneous supplies - and that was a small convoy!! As a rule convoys were usually between 38-50 strong.

These brave men knew they were taking on a suicide mission, not only was it a dangerous route to take, they were being attacked around the clock in daylight hours from all angles, From below the water by German submarines, from the sky and battleships sent to sink and destroy the convoys as they were bringing a lifeline to the Russians. The Germans were hunting the convoys down and they had little protection, the majority of our fleets were in the East and also protecting our shores - but it was our priority to keep Russia in the war.

The men also had to endure and contend with severe weather, strong currents, frequency of fog, drift ice, plus maintaining convoy cohesion along with difficulties in navigation. In these conditions they only had seconds to survive if the ship sank into the icy water. "Hats off to them for their bravery"

Photo Jock DempsyBritains pact at this time with Russia and the convoys demonstrated the Allies commitment to helping the Soviet Union, prior to the opening of a Second Front. This tied up a substantial part of Germany's Naval and Air Force. At this time the Russians were engaging 217 divisions of axis troops totalling some 6.7million. The Arctic convoys were absolutely vital at this junction of time, and the Germans took great store in trying to blockade the Russians from outside help to halt any aid reaching them.

Eighty-five merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships (two cruisers, six destroyers, eight escort ships) were lost. The Nazi German Kriegsmarine lost a number of vessels including one battleship, three destroyers and at least 30 U-boats as well as a large number of aircraft.

Although Russia were the first to recognise the bravery of these men - the Government offered medals to British veterans to commemorate significant anniversaries of the end of the Second World War. The Russian authorities contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth office (FCO) in the mid-1980s when their 40th Anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War Medal (also known more commonly as the Russian Convoy Medal) was offered to British ex-Servicemen. Instituted in 1985 and offered to British veterans shortly afterwards, permission was not granted for it to be accepted and worn at that time. Some years later however, further approaches by the Russians to the British Government through the FCO were reconsidered. In 1994 The Queen granted permission for this medal to be accepted and worn by eligible British citizens.

It was only on 26th February 2013 that our Government recognised the bravery of this branch of the Merchant Navy and has since awarded medals. It’s thought between 200 and 400 sailors – all in their late 80s (at their youngest) still survive. A case of too little too late for a majority of these veterans.

As many as a quarter of a million medals and clasps could be produced, with priority given to veterans and widows. Other next of kin may also apply now but may have to wait slightly longer to receive their award. You can download an application form from www.veterans-uk.info/arctic_star_index.htm or write to The Arctic Star, MOD Medal Office, Imjin Barracks, Innsworth, Gloucester, GL3 1HW.

Top Image: Arctic Convoy May 1942 Image credit-Wikipedia

Bottom Image: Jock Dempsy Credit: Deadline News

 

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