Recognition for those who served on Second World War Arctic Convoys

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Image reproduced with kind permission of Dr Gordon Canti

Last December I wrote about Brenda Shackleton’s fight for greater recognition of the remarkable story of the Merchant Navy Rescue ships and their vital contribution to the Second World War. Men of the Merchant Navy, including Brenda’s father Bill Hartley, crewed these small coastal vessels following the Allied convoys from 1940 onwards, with the sole purpose of rescuing survivors should any of the ships be torpedoed. It was a dangerous and difficult task but their actions succeeded in saving the lives of 4194 men throughout the Second World War. The ships on all the convoys suffered high risks and terrible losses but there was one particular convoy route described by Churchill himself as:

“The worst journey in the world.”

This was the route of the Arctic convoys, sailing northeast from Scotland to take supplies to Russia (then the Soviet Union) after the German invasion of 1941. Brenda’s father was one of the men to tackle this route (on a Rescue Ship supporting the convoys), where they faced not only the ever present threat of German submarines and aircraft but also terrible weather conditions with extreme cold, gales, and pack ice. The loss rate for Arctic convoy ships was higher than on any other Allied convoy route. The picture above of a snow covered Allied seaman gives you some idea of the conditions they were sailing in.  

At the end of the war all those who had served in any capacity on the convoys were eligible for a medal called the Atlantic Star, this included those whose service had been not in the Atlantic but in the Arctic. Those involved with the Arctic convoys have long held that this was not ideal and that there should be a separate medal to represent the very different conditions that the Arctic convoys were exposed to.

In 2012 the decision was finally made to create the Arctic Star, available to anyone who served in the Arctic either as part of the Airforce, Royal Navy or Merchant Navy during the war. Priority was given to surviving veterans but relatives are able to claim posthumously on behalf of eligible family members. Brenda has been patiently waiting to receive her father’s medal and now her application has been successfully processed she can be seen here proudly holding the Arctic Star.

Brenda Shackleton holding her Father's Artic Star

Brenda Shackleton holding her Father's Arctic Star.  Image courtesy of Brenda Shackleton.

The medal is based on a design by a Scottish Royal Navy veteran, Commander Eddie Grenfell, who has been campaigning hard for many years for proper recognition of those braving the sub-zero conditions of the Arctic Circle. The colours in the ribbon represent the forces involved, light blue for the Air Force, dark blue for the Royal Navy and red for the Merchant Navy with the central white stripe representing the snow and ice of the Arctic itself.

With the medal being such a recent award we’ve not yet got an example in our collections but hopefully we’ll be able to add one soon to better represent those serving in some of the most extreme conditions encountered in the Second World War.