73-year wait for brave Holbeach veteran to receive rare medal from Russia

Marine veteran Norman Cole receives his medals- photo SG160615-301TW
Marine veteran Norman Cole receives his medals- photo SG160615-301TW
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A brave Royal Marine veteran has been awarded a rare medal from Russia for his services in the Arctic convoys of World War Two.

Norman Cole (94) of Wilders Garth, Holbeach, is one of the few surviving veterans to have received the Ushakov medal for his work escorting convoys carrying food and supplies from Iceland to Murmanks in Russia in 1942.

Crew members clearing ice and snow during Arctic crossing.

Crew members clearing ice and snow during Arctic crossing.

The route was treacherous with conditions hazardous and freezing and the crew had to regularly cut ice from their ship HMS Liverpool to prevent it capsizing while navigating the convoys through the ice floes.

Mr Cole was invited to a special award ceremony at Hemswell in Gainsborough where he was presented with the Ushakov medal and a 70 year anniversary medal from Russia.

It has taken until now for the veterans to receive the special medals.

The Ushakov medal was a Soviet Military award created in 1944 by the decision of the supreme Soviet of the USSR. The Foreign Office initially did not allow Russia to honour the veterans as it broke the rules on foreign medals which can only be awarded for events which happened less than five years previously.

The crossings were very rough with air planes and bombers attacking us

The British government created the Arctic Star in 2012 after a long campaign for convoy veterans to be recognised and after pressure the Foreign Office allowed an ‘exception to the rules’ for the Ushakov medal to be awarded.

The wait has meant many of those who were due to receive the medal are no longer alive.

Mr Cole said: “It has taken about 73 years so has been a long wait but was worth it. I know there are a lot of people who couldn’t wait.

“Of those who would have been in line to receive the medal, I believe only 1,700 have been presented with it.”

Speaking about his time on the convoys he said: “The crossings were very rough with air planes and bombers attacking us constantly and the U-boats (submarines) about, while we were dropping depth charges.

“The sea was terrible and the conditions freezing. We were wrapped up in big clothing and were shovelling ice from the ship twice a day.”

It was Churchill who proposed the convoys, following Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of Russia. He promised to supply Stalin “at all costs”. Had Russia fallen, it was feared the full weight of the Nazi machinery would have been directed at the West.

During his service in the marines, Mr Cole narrowly escaped with his life when HMS Liverpool was torpedoed by Italian planes during a separate convoy from Belfast to Malta.

He said: “We were in battle firing against the aircraft and all of a sudden we felt a ‘thump.’

“The captain said ‘I’m sorry - we’ve dodged three torpedoes but I couldn’t dodge the last.’ The torpedo had hit starboard mid-ship. One or two crew members were killed. The ship had to be towed back to Gibraltar and that was my last time on the ship.”

In 1944 Mr Cole came home and married his wife Hilda. They were together until she died seven years ago. He also served in Hong Kong as an ambulance driver and was sent to a Canadian beachhead in France to assist the injured.

Born in Long Sutton, he came back to the area after his service to work for a coal firm and then worked as a lorry driver for 31 years.

He said: “I served for six years in the marines. The first I heard about the medal for my service in the Arctic crossings was when I received a letter from the Russian Federation in London two years ago. A fortnight ago I received another letter inviting me to the ceremony in Hemswell. The medal is sanctioned by President Putin himself.

“I feel very honoured to receive this medal for the work I did on the convoy.”

Mr Cole is a grandfather to nine grandchildren, 22 great grandchildren and five great, great granddaughters. His daughter Linda also attended the ceremony and said: “I felt very proud to see my dad receiving his award.”