In the midst of World War Two, tens of thousands of men were forced to endure what Churchill described as the "worst journey in the world". In sub-zero temperatures, the servicemen of the Arctic Convoys valiantly fought to keep the supply lines with Russia open. It is impossible to envisage how the Red Army would have continued its fight against the Nazis without the heroic actions of these men.
Only 200 of the Arctic Convoy veterans survive today, and yet they are still fighting to gain the recognition they have long deserved from this country. I recently held a debate in Westminster Hall to urge the government to finally honour the veterans of the Arctic Convoys with a medal.
For the Arctic campaign remains the only major maritime campaign of the Second World War without a specific medal. Successive governments have, in opposition, recognised the deep injustice of this situation, but no medal has been granted.
Over the years, the number of veterans has dwindled, while the MoD has hidden behind protocol to deny them recognition, with their most recent review ending fruitlessly after sixteen months. Yet once again, in Tuesday’s debate, the weaknesses of the arguments against a medal were apparent.
For the Atlantic Star, which the veterans can ostensibly receive, honours a campaign conducted over 800 miles away, and requires a length of service that no man could conceivably complete in the perilous conditions of the Arctic Circle. Nor should notions of precedent defeat the veterans’ claims. The Minister’s response, which implied that we should not question the wisdom of the previous medal settlements, mistakenly assumed a level of infallibly in our predecessors. As he is well aware, the issuing of the Canal Medal indicated that existing rules can be revised when earlier settlements are shown to contain omissions.
The breadth of cross-party support in the Westminster Hall debate further underlined the merits of the veterans’ case, with numerous interventions also echoing the depth of feeling for this issue among the wider public.
When I questioned the prime minister on the Arctic Convoys back in January, it was clear that he too understood the public support for the veterans’ campaign. He confirmed his commitment to looking into the case of the Arctic Convoy veterans at a meeting at Downing Street. Their calls for recognition will now be scrutinised by an independent medal review.
While I welcome the opportunity for the veterans’ case to be heard, my debate demonstrated once more that time is not on their side. The handful of veterans who attended the debate, now all in their late 80s and 90s, know how little time is left.
These heroic men have waited almost 70 years for recognition from the country they served so courageously. Now is not the time for delay or protocol, but for action. This is what the review must now rapidly deliver, to ensure that these men are honoured before it is too late.