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Arctic Convoy Veterans Medal

Volume 537: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2011

I am grateful to you, Mrs Riordan, for the opportunity to secure the debate. I want to speak about two words: “heroism” and “bravery”. They are words that we hear too often in modern language, yet their true meaning is absolutely personified by the gentlemen in the white berets. They are the Arctic convoy veterans of world war two. They are the men who risked their lives again and again on what Winston Churchill described as:

“the worst journey in the world.”

On a daily basis, they endured sub-zero temperatures—sometimes as low as minus 60°—and had to hack away at the ice and snow that covered the decks and external parts of their ships. One veteran said that he did not realise how cold it was until he accidentally grabbed a ladder, which removed all the skin on his hand. However, the weather was nothing compared to the continual aerial bombardment from German U-boats, battleships and planes that plagued each trip.

One grim feature of the campaign was the use of suicide flights. Fighter planes were flung into the air with the use of a catapult when enemy aircraft were sighted. With nowhere to land when they were shot or ran out of fuel, pilots were forced to crash into the sea and face almost certain death. A total of 78 convoys delivered 4 million tonnes of vital cargo and munitions to the Soviet Union, which allowed the red army to repel the Nazi invasion. The cost in terms of life was horrific. More than 100 vessels perished and 3,000 UK seamen were killed in the treacherous waters of the Arctic ocean as they undertook terrifying trips to keep Russia supplied and fighting on the eastern front. Nine per cent. of the seamen who took part were killed— the highest fatality rate of any maritime campaign in the war.

The cost, had the Arctic convoys not succeeded, would have been worse. Nazi Germany would very probably have won the second world war. Churchill had promised to supply Stalin “at all costs”. He knew that, if Russia fell, the full weight of the Nazi military machine would be targeted at the west. Yet, because Norway and the Baltic states had been captured by the Germans, the only way to get supplies to Russia was through the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel, which are both inside the icy waters of the Arctic circle.

Were the convoy veterans honoured with a medal by their own country? After all, even Russia—the Soviet Union—awarded medals that acknowledged its gratitude to the surviving sailors, whom it regarded as heroes. No. The convoy campaign was the only major sea campaign of the second world war not to be honoured with a specific medal. Instead, it was included in the battle of the Atlantic, which was a separate campaign to keep Britain supplied during the German U-boat blockade. This is the biggest fallacy: the Arctic convoy veterans all qualified for the Atlantic star. Leave aside that the Atlantic is 800 miles away from the Arctic and a wholly different campaign. Uniquely for campaign medals, recipients of the Atlantic star had to fulfil a six-month qualifying period, as opposed to just one day for the Africa star, for example.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. She mentioned the Africa star. Not only does the campaign star system allow for such a stand-alone medal—the Italy star is another example—but it permits recognition of a significant event, battle or sustained effort; for example, the one-off clasp, the 1939-1945 star, to commemorate the battle of Britain. Does she agree that there has been a worrying complacency on this matter, in that neither of those ready solutions has been proposed? Today, the Ministry of Defence’s own website does not even mention the convoys in the criteria for the Atlantic star.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and has worked extremely hard on this campaign, as we all have. There is a ready-made solution within the star framework. The complacency in relation to rewarding these extraordinary men is, in many ways, shameful.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Probably the most powerful point she has made is that the qualifying criterion for the Atlantic star was 180 days, which by modern standards is very long indeed. I think that for the Falklands it was one day. For the current operational service medal, it is only 30 days. In fact, if she were devilish, she could ask the Minister what the qualifying period was for his two medals.

If one considers that the war went on for six years, and people then looked back and decided on the length of time required to qualify for medals, I think that that was a perfectly reasonable position. As I recall, Northern Ireland was 30 days, which was essentially a quarter of a four-month tour. Actually, if my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) thinks that accumulated service medals should take longer to acquire—does he have one, or is he about to get one?—he raises a sensible point, but the second world war went on for six years.

In two moments, I will. I welcome the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North, whom I think is still a serving member of the Army. I am sure that he very much represents the views of the service people of today, who recognise fully and fully appreciate the sacrifice that these gentlemen made.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Like others, I congratulate her on successfully securing the debate. She said that there were two words that she wanted to talk about. There are two other words that, unfortunately, have not been taken on board by the Government. One is gratitude—the gratitude of the nation to these men. The other is obligation—the obligation that successive Governments have refused to take up to honour these men with the medal they deserve. The Minister’s outburst belittled the importance of this debate, and I regret that he chose to make those statements. I believe that “obligation” and “gratitude” are the two things that the nation now needs to show these men while they are still alive.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and echo everything that he has said. I know that he has also been a great supporter of the Arctic convoy veterans in their campaign for a medal.

The hon. Lady has been generous in giving way. She is making a powerful and eloquent case. I just want to underline the strength of cross-party support for her campaign, and the support it enjoys among the wider British public, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) has said. We owe these veterans a vote of thanks, and we owe them a distinctive Arctic convoy medal.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that good intervention. He has, in many ways, hit the nail on the head.

The Minister talked about qualifying periods for medals. The Arctic convoys sailed in excessively awful conditions. It is important to point out that nobody could possibly have managed six months of continuous service in those horrific conditions. There were people who sailed on the convoys, and many who lost limbs in the horrific extreme cold, who did not serve long enough to qualify for the Atlantic star. The Atlantic star qualification—albeit perhaps inadvertently—was therefore set up in such a way as to make sure that nobody who only served in the Arctic convoys could qualify. The Arctic convoy veterans who did receive the Atlantic star—there were a good number of them—only did so because they had also been part of an Atlantic convoy during other parts of the war; they did not receive it purely on the basis of their serving in the Arctic campaign.

Why was the Arctic the only campaign of the second world war to be ignored? The most likely explanation is that, as world war two ended, the cold war began and our relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated. Fear of communism was growing internationally and it was somehow seen as inappropriate, or perhaps even unfashionable, to recognise the efforts of our country in supporting the Russians. In some ways, this whole incredible, valiant episode was just brushed under the carpet. It was only in the 1990s, after the end of the cold war, that this incredibly heroic band of gentlemen felt that they could put forward their case for a medal.

Commander Eddie Grenfell survived his ship being bombed five times, and being plunged into the icy water where life expectancy was just minutes. He somehow managed to get rescued from the water and then spent many months recovering in Murmansk hospital. He is now 91. Lieutenant-Commander Dick Dykes spent more time in the Arctic convoys than anyone else alive today. Such men are heroes, yet they are still fighting. Portsmouth’s The News has led a campaign for more than 10 years to get a medal for Eddie, Dick and the ever-dwindling band of brave men: only 200 now survive. The News might be the champion, but the cause matters not only to people in Portsmouth.

I appreciate the hon. Lady securing the debate and congratulate her on that. My now dear departed uncle was on one of the convoys, and he was thrilled to be awarded the Russian medal, although our brave convoy veterans are not allowed to wear it on the same side as their other decorations. If the veterans can receive that medal from Russia, as they did several years ago with great honour here in London, should they not be honoured by our country?

The hon. Lady makes a super point and underlines the strength of feeling on the subject up and down the country. It is almost impossible to understand why our brave servicemen have been rewarded by other countries and not by our own. It is not only a local issue, as she pointed out. Loch Ewe, from where the convoys were launched, has a museum and an annual service of remembrance, and the Scottish Government are even considering including the story of the Arctic convoys in their national curriculum. When I raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions in January, the incredible outpouring of support I received came from all over the world and from as far afield as Canada and Australia. The medal has the support of people in all walks of life, young and old, and nowhere more so than among our serving servicemen and women. Next year, a new diamond jubilee medal will be awarded to anyone who has completed five years of service in the military, whether on active service or not. Many of the young people in the armed forces in my constituency have said that, if it is only a matter of money, they will happily forgo their own medal in order to afford one for the Arctic convoy veterans.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to me for a second time. Is she aware that the £12.3 million estimate for an Arctic convoy medal is based on incorrect numbers of servicemen and costings? Looking at the actual costs of other medals and allowing for inflation and even design costs, which obviously would not have to be included, I am hard pushed to reach even £1.2 million.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information, which further underlines the obstacles that are being put in the way of doing the right thing. The Ministry of Defence was asked to review the medals system in July 2010, and it took 16 months to get nowhere. However, time is of the essence. It is 70 years since the first convoys, and the remaining veterans are in their 80s and 90s; of the thousands who took part in the convoys, only 200 are yet alive.

The hon. Lady is being enormously generous in giving way again. Is she, like me, unable to find a single precedent other than that of successive Ministry of Defence Ministers from all Governments against giving the medal?

Absolutely—I have yet to find anyone who finds the medal unpalatable, other than members of the MOD.

Does the Minister agree that enough time has already been wasted on reviews and delays? How long will the new independent review requested by the Prime Minister take, and when will it be completed? Finally, what are the scope and leadership of the review? According to the MOD, the details are expected to be released shortly—but “shortly” is not a period that we understand. What does it mean? Time is not on our side, and I ask him to be more specific. I understand that the MOD hides behind rules, protocols and precedents, but another criterion ought to take absolute priority: this is the right thing to do. Those men are not politicians, and at their age they should not have to fight for justice. It appals me that people who gave so much to ensure the freedoms that we daily take for granted should have to beg for the recognition that they deserve.

Successive Conservative leaders in opposition have committed to the medal without review. It is dreadful that it has to be reviewed again and again. I urge the Minister to ensure that it is done quickly. Time is not on the side of those brave gentlemen. It would be utterly disgusting were a medal awarded and no one was alive to receive it.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) for raising this important issue, and I congratulate her on securing the debate. She feels passionately about it, and we have discussed it in the past. There is no scintilla of difference between us about our respect for those of my father’s and her grandfather’s generation who served in the Royal Navy and the Arctic convoys in the second world war. It might be relatively cold outside, but as we sit here in our centrally heated comfort, well clothed and dry, it is difficult to imagine the conditions in which young men in their teens and 20s went to sea in the Arctic before we were born. I pay real tribute to their courage, resolution, determination and bravery when necessary—all those things were shown by the people whom we as a nation sent to war in the Arctic. We agree about that, and the question is what we should do about it.

I mentioned my father’s generation, and I was brought up immediately after the second world war, so I have a much closer feeling with it, if I may say so. My mother’s first husband was a glider pilot killed at Arnhem, and the courage and resolution shown by glider pilots were similarly astonishing. In the battle of Sicily more than half the glider force was dropped in the sea and almost all of them died, as far as I am aware, so then to get back in a glider and fly off to Arnhem and D-day was similarly incredibly brave. I pay tribute to all those from this nation who in the second world war did amazing things. Nothing that I say should detract from that. The Atlantic convoys, rather than the separate Arctic convoys, lost 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships.

The position of the Government, which my hon. Friend mentioned, is that we will have a review. It was thought that the earlier review, to which she referred, was insufficient, and therefore we are putting in place another one, for which the terms of reference and the chairman have yet to be decided. I can, however, assure her that that work is most definitely happening at the moment. It is important that the decisions be made not by me or by Ministers but independently. Neither the Ministry of Defence nor I will have any hand in those decisions, which will be made by an independent chairman and group. It is important that politicians do not have such decisions at their fingertips. The truth is that politicians should not be involved in awarding medals.

I think that politicians ought to have the decision in their gift. If they should not, why did successive leaders of the Conservative party promise the medal to veterans while in opposition? It should not be subject to review and it does not need independent scrutiny to decide that this is the right thing to do. Politicians are perfectly capable of making the decision and making the right one.

Every Member in the Chamber, pace the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) who might possibly be an exception, was born after the end of the second world war. Politicians should not revisit decisions made in the past, second-guessing those who are not around to speak for themselves and who knew the details, were much closer to them than us and would have known people who had been on the Arctic convoys, perhaps losing friends or relations on that convoy, when we do not.

The current situation is that an independent review, into which I will have no input, will investigate. However, I would like to state the facts, which are what we should deal with. The Admiralty fleet order dated October 1946 refers to

“Qualifications for the Atlantic Star”

and states:

“After qualification for the 1939-45 Star by six months’…service, in areas defined below.

(A) Six months’…service afloat as defined in Section III”,

which included time in port, and

“(B) Service in home waters, service on the convoy routes to North Russian ports, service in the South Atlantic between the longitude of Cape Horn and longitude 20° E”.

The point was that the Admiralty was trying to have one medal to cover those issues. Whether that was right or wrong, it is wrong to say that the Arctic was ignored. It was not. It was mentioned in the Admiralty fleet order, and it was recognised, but I accept that whether it should have been recognised further is a matter for debate.

The campaign suggests that the Atlantic star is not enough, and I understand the strong feeling about that. I cannot understand what it was like to be in such appalling cold. However, it was also cold in the Atlantic, and I have mentioned the 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships that went down. Most people who earned the Atlantic star must be very proud to have done so when so many died. One also reads of the deprivation on the Atlantic convoys. It was pretty tough going across the Atlantic being chased by U-boats, and many ships were sunk.

I do not believe that anyone here wants to get into a competition about who suffered most, although we must recognise the appalling conditions endured by the Arctic convoy veterans. The Minister is rightly sticking to the facts, but the facts are that the Arctic convoys were a separate theatre of conflict, and a precedent was set with the Canal medal. If it was thought that an error had been made, for understandable reasons—my right hon. Friend alluded to what they might be—we could revisit a decision. I do not believe that politicians should make those judgments, but it is our job to raise the concerns of our constituents throughout the country. There is a great feeling that we should revisit the facts, and there is a precedent for change if we think an error has been made.

I am saying that that determination is possible if people in the past got it wrong. We are saying in this debate that those in the Admiralty who determined who would receive medals got it wrong and that in some way we who were born after the second world war know better than those who were in that war. Actually, they were people like us, who are sitting in our centrally heated Chamber. Mountbatten was not on the Admiralty Board because he was Viceroy of India at the time, but he had commanded Kelly during the war, and ended up an admiral. That was not unusual for experienced people. We are in danger of saying that we should gainsay their knowledge and disparage their decisions, which were made by good people with experience.

No, I will not.

The intention post-war was not to cover everyone with medals. Medals in the UK mean something, and we pay tribute to the people in the Public Gallery who are showing the medals that they won through risk and rigour. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport mentioned the USSR. Authoritarian regimes and dictators, such a Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, often throw medals around. North Korean generals are covered with medal ribbons. We have traditionally taken the view in this country—hon. Members may disagree—that medals will be awarded only for campaigns that show risk and rigour.

Veterans who hold the Russian Arctic medal may think the Minister’s comment about regimes that give away medals is disparaging. I hope that he recognises that. Under Winston Churchill, the Government discouraged the award of the Russian medal, but the fact that it was given and that the brave men who received it were recognised should be mirrored in this country. I should be pleased if he made a different comment from the one that he made earlier.

I apologise if my comment was taken in the wrong way. That was not the intention. I am not sure when the Russian medal was given to our veterans, but I believe that it was after 1990. There are not many Soviet survivors from the second world war, but generals in the Soviet army were covered in medals, which is not the tradition in this country. That is the point I was trying to make.

The Minister’s comment about the Russians giving out that medal disparages what the Russians clearly recognise as the unbelievable commitment and bravery of gentlemen such as those in the Public Gallery to whom he referred. We are now in the habit of giving out medals to people who have not committed acts of bravery. Next year, the Queen’s diamond jubilee medal will be given to people who may have spent five years driving a desk in the Ministry of Defence.

That is a fair point, but the diamond jubilee medal is a commemorative medal, not a campaign medal. That is the difference, but I agree with my hon. Friend. She made a reasonable point. I apologise again if she took my comment the wrong way. My point was that some regimes give out a large number of medals, whereas traditionally the United Kingdom does not.

I commend Commander Grenfell and his colleagues on their campaign. It seems to have started in 1997, which was 51 years after the Atlantic star was awarded, so I am not entirely clear what prompted it. Two Members in the Chamber have been on their parties’ Front Benches, and the last Government, under a lot of pressure, decided that they would award a special medal, but they awarded the Arctic star. In Portsmouth, The News stated, under the heading, “We’ve Won” and “Historic victory in long battle to win honours for heroes of the Arctic convoys”, that Commander Grenfell said:

“I am really very happy with what we have achieved. It has been a tough campaign, but we have finally got the recognition the Arctic veterans deserved.”

It also quoted the hon. Member for Portsmouth South who said:

“This is a tremendous result, and it is wonderful that the Arctic veterans have at last won recognition.”

I must tell Opposition Members, particularly the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), that their Government believed that the matter had been put to bed.

Finally, the facts are that the decision is not one for politicians. I have huge respect for my father’s generation, who gave up their youth in the service of our country and deserve to be continually respected. The Arctic convoy veterans served in the particularly appalling conditions of the Arctic, but we should not pretend that we know better than experienced people who had taken part in the second world war and who had served on Royal Navy ships at sea. A decision will be taken, rightly, by the medals review. It should not be a political decision; it should relate to those who look at all the facts, take a view dependent on their respect for our veterans and make their decision accordingly.