Churchill described it as “the worst journey in the world”, but it has been one of the longest for the son of a brave Arctic convoy warrior who helped keep Russia in the Second World War.
Spalding man Edward Aylett last week won his own 18-month battle to finally have in his grasp the Arctic Star – the bravery medal his father, Leonard, should have been awarded for his role in the Royal Navy taking vital supplies to starving Russians.
Sadly, the honour is bittersweet for Edward as his father died six years ago at the age of 81, before veterans won the right to apply for the medal.
But Edward said he was determined the opportunity for his father to be recognised should not pass.
He said: “As soon as I found out relatives could apply for the medal I knew I had to do it for my dad.
“It would have been nice if he had been able to receive it, but it’s something the family will always treasure – especially my father’s sister, Emily, who is 85 and lives in Newcastle.”
FThere were 78 voyages made through the icy waters of the Norwegian Sea 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 suggests the Arctic missions were as important in maintaining the Allied effort against Nazi Germany as the Atlantic convoys.
In 1941, Britain was, in Churchill’s words, “quite alone, desperately alone”, but the Government decided the country should divert resources by sending tanks, planes, fuel, telegraph wires, medicine and food to the Soviet Union, which had just been invaded by Germany.
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 top of Norway deep into the Arctic Circle and then down to Murmansk.
There were about 35 merchant ships in a typical convoy, carrying armaments and supplies, and an escort of about 20 Royal Navy vessels.
Seamen who survived – merchant and Royal Navy alike – describe the bitter, unrelenting cold, with men sleeping fully clothed and wearing their life jackets just to keep warm.
Edward said: “I can still remember the stories my father told me of those journeys - constantly being under fire and having to drop depth charges in the sea when they knew sailors from ships around them were in the water.”
Between 200 and 400 sailors – all now in their late 80s at their youngest – survived the four-year campaign. The Cold War prevented Russia honouring the British veterans with their Arctic Star until the 1980s – a medal Leonard did receive.
The decision to award the belated medal was made at the end of 2012 by Prime Minister David Cameron after a long-running campaign by survivors.
Edward said: “It is only right veterans should be awarded. I only wish my father was still here to receive it.”
The medal will be sent to Edward’s brother, John Davis, who lives in Australia and who he met for the first time in 2011 – never knowing that when his father lived halfway across the world for a year after being in the merchant navy he had fathered another child.
Edward said: “John has all of the medals my father received displayed over there. This one will be worn by John’s 15-year-old son, Thomas, who is an air cadet, on Anzac Day next April. It will be a proud moment for us all.”