Arctic Convoy medals for Harborough war heroes

Sergey Fedichkin (centre), from the Russian Embassy, presents the Ushakov medals to Harry Darby and Dave Hill of Market Harborough
Sergey Fedichkin (centre), from the Russian Embassy, presents the Ushakov medals to Harry Darby and Dave Hill of Market Harborough

Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it “the worst journey in the world”.

And even by the standards of the time, the Arctic convoys of the Second World War were uniquely difficult and dangerous.

Which is why – more than 70 years on – a representative from the Russian Embassy rang the doorbell of a retirement home in Market Harborough last week.

A rare warming of relations between Britain and Russia has led to President Vladimir Putin agreeing to present one of Russia’s highest awards – the Medal of Ushakov – to the small band of Arctic convoy survivors.

Two of those survivors, both now close to 90, live in Market Harborough.

“I feel very proud of the medal,” said 89-year-old Arctic convoy veteran Harry Darby. “But I’m not a hero. People ask ‘weren’t you frightened?’ and at times I was, rather. In fact, at times I was petrified.”

And fellow survivor David Hill (89) agreed: “We really were just doing the job we were told to do.

“But I was so pleased and proud that the Russian representative came all the way up to Harborough to present us with our medals.”

The two medals were presented to the Harborough men in Mr Darby’s apartment at a town retirement home, by Sergey Fedichkin, a political officer from the Embassy of the Russian Federation.

“It was one day last week when I got a phone call and a voice said ‘This is the Russian Embassy’,” recalled Mr Darby.

“I was told I would be receiving a visit the following Thursday to present me with my Ushakov Medal.

“On the day, the Russian representative made a little speech and handed a plush, velvet-covered case to David Hill and me, and inside was this beautiful medal.”

Mr Hill said: “We got a medal from the British Government too, but that just came through the post.

“When I first heard I’d got a call from the Russian Embassy, I thought it was a hoax.

“I was flattered and a bit gobsmacked that someone was coming up to Harborough to present the medals in person to myself and Harry.”

The Arctic convoys sailed from Loch Ewe in Scotland to Soviet Union ports like Arkhangelsk (Archangel) and Murmansk to deliver essential supplies to the Soviet Union during the war.

The route took the little groups of ships around the north of Nazi-occupied Norway.

It was particularly dangerous because of the mixture of appalling weather and the proximity of German air, submarine and surface forces.

Because of the northerly latitudes, the convoys often sailed in either constant darkness or – even worse – constant daylight under round-the-clock attack.

“We were cold, wet, tired and sometimes at our wits’ end,” said Mr Darby, who was on the minesweeper HMS Hydra, which was eventually struck by a mine in 1944 and had to be scrapped.

“We were likely to be under some sort of bombardment, and because we had a very shallow draft as a minesweeper, we not only rolled port and starboard, but also pitched forward and aft, and slid down the side of the larger waves.”

Mr Hill was on the Royal Navy sloop HMS Starling, which was credited with helping to destroy 15 German U-boats.

He said: “It was a very, very harassing time”

“And look, I don’t say much about it, because I still get too worked up about it, even now.”

It took 70 years for the British government to specifically acknowledge the contribution made by the Arctic convoys with the creation just last year of the Arctic Star medal.

And last summer, Mr Putin presented the Ushakov Medal in person to 20 British veterans from the Arctic convoy ships which brought four million tons of desperately needed military and civilian supplies to the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

Relatives feared that time could be running out for the other veterans, now in their late 80s and 90s, who did not receive the accolade at the Downing Street ceremony.

It is thought there could be as few as 100 men still alive who reached Russian waters after taking part in the journeys.

The convoys claimed more than 3,000 Allied lives, when 104 merchant and 16 military vessels were sunk in the icy Arctic waters.

The Ushakov Medal is named in honour of 18th century Russian admiral Fyodor Ushakov who reputedly never lost a battle. He was later proclaimed by the Russian Orthodox Church as the patron saint of the Russian Navy. The medal is awarded for bravery and courage displayed while defending Russia, or the public interests of the Russian Federation, in military operations at sea.

Most Ushakov Medals are given to Russians, of course.

It is rare for British serviceman to be awarded the Russian medals.

“It was just one of the jobs that befell you during the War,” explained Mr Darby.

“When I got back to England, I was then posted out to the Mediterranean.

“So when the war finally came to an end I was in Naples, treasuring the fact that it was so much warmer than the Atlantic!”

Both men said they were humbled to receive the Russian medal, more than 70 years after reluctantly booking their own tickets on Churchill’s “worst journey in the world”.

An entry on the website of the Imperial War Museum in London recalls: “Conditions were among the worst faced by any Allied sailors.

“As well as the Germans, they faced extreme cold, gales, and pack ice. The loss rate for ships was higher than any other Allied convoy route.”

Despite the conditions over four million tons of supplies were delivered to the Russians. As well as tanks and aircraft, these included less sensational but still vital items like trucks, tractors, telephone wire, railway engines and boots.

Although the supplies were valuable, the most important contribution made by the Arctic convoys was political.

They proved that the Allies were committed to helping the Soviet Union.

Mr Hill said: “We were there to do a job, and really we just got on with it.

“I feel I’m accepting this medal not for myself, but for all the men who died.”