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How the Arctic Convoy medal campaign was won
IT WAS, in the words of Royal Navy veteran Roy Dykes, the hardest four years of his life.
The 93-year-old former Lieutenant Commander is a veteran of 16 allied Arctic Convoy missions, supplying war ally Soviet Russia with munitions.
What Mr Dykes, who lives in Whitchurch, and his comrades had to go through almost beggars belief.
From 1941 to 1945, Royal and Merchant Navy servicemen navigated the treacherous Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to the port of Murmansk, and Archangel, on the north-west tip of the then Soviet Union.
Conditions were so cold that touching a handrail meant you risked tearing off your skin. And then there was the hidden threat of being torpedoed by German submarines.
Mr Dykes, who served on board HMS Honeysuckle, witnessed the destruction of cargo steamer SS Lowther Castle.
There were also the constant aerial attacks from hundreds from German Luftwaffe dive bombers.
“The hardest part was trying to get some rest. We had 24 hours of daylight and we were constantly attacked, not by single aircraft but hundreds at a time,” Mr Dykes told The Gazette in November last year. “It really was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. They really were battles.”
But despite 66,000 sailors risking their life during the four years of convoy missions – described by war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill as “the worst journey in the world” – no dedicated medal was ever awarded to the veterans. Until now.
On Wednesday last week, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that, finally, nearly 70 years after the last mission, the veterans will receive an Arctic Convoy Star medal.
The Prime Minister told MPs: “I am very pleased that some of the brave men of the Arctic Convoys will get the recognition they so richly deserve for the very dangerous work they did.”
Mr Dykes, who has been campaigning tirelessly since 1997, welcomed the announcement. “It is about the best Christmas present that we have had for a long time,” he said. “It is a great relief.”
North West Hampshire MP Sir George Young has campaigned on behalf of Mr Dykes since 2004. He too was delighted with the decision, and praised the “enormous dignity” with which the veterans have campaigned for recognition.
He said: “I was just so pleased for Roy, and all the people who served in the Arctic Convoys, and the families of those who served that their heroism has now been recognised.”
Mr Dykes said the strength and determination needed by sailors warranted its own medal. “There were various campaigns during the war where medals were awarded. In my view, this was a campaign in its own right,” he said.
The long campaign to recognise the Arctic Convoy heroes really came to a head when Prime Minister David Cameron came to power.
A Conservative Party election promise had included a pledge to get a medal struck for surviving veterans – but despite being elected in May 2010, Mr Cameron and the Coalition Government were still dragging their feet 18 months later.
In November 2011, The Gazette added its voice to the campaign, urging the Conservatives to honour their pledge and also encouraging people to sign a petition on the Downing Street website.
In May 2012, a review was commissioned into the rules governing the awarding of medals. Conducted by Sir John Holmes, he reported back in July that the veterans claim for proper recognition should be a “top priority”.
Following last Wednesday’s announcement it would seem that Mr Dykes’ long-battle is nearly over. But he said time is of the essence to get the Arctic Convoy Star medal actually presented to the recipients.
With fewer than 200 veterans still alive today, Mr Dykes said: “The announcement was a great Christmas present but the icing is now starting to melt as we will have to wait for about six to eight months before anything actually happens.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said further details of when the medal will be presented will be announced in the spring. For the sake of Roy Dykes and the other survivors, the happy ending cannot come soon enough.