THEY endured sub-zero conditions as they ran the gauntlet of submarine, battleship and air attack in the Arctic waters in a heroic campaign which helped turn the fortunes of the Second World War.
And yesterday, after a wait of almost seven decades, survivors of the Russian convoys were officially recognised by the UK government with the award of the first Arctic Star medals at a ceremony in Downing Street.
The presentation of the first 40 medals by Prime Minister David Cameron was the culmination of a 16-year campaign to get the men who took part in the war’s harshest sea campaign formal recognition.
The convoys between 1941 and December 1944, which mostly sailed from Loch Ewe in the north-west of Scotland, kept open supply lines to Soviet ports, making what Winston Churchill dubbed the “worst journey in the world”.
The campaigns accounted for the lives of around 3,000 merchant and Royal Navy sailors, around 9 per cent of all those who sailed – the highest casualty rate of any of the sea campaigns.
But after the war their sacrifice was ignored as they were deemed to have helped the Soviet Union, which was the new enemy during the Cold War.
Yesterday Prime Minister Mr Cameron said he was sorry the men had had to wait almost 70 years for a medal.
He said: “From the bottom of my heart, a really big thank you, not just from me but from everybody.”
He went on: “I am delighted you are here today, I am delighted that we are putting right this wrong and giving you the medal that you so richly deserve.”
The Prime Minister singled out two Scots – Commander Eddie Grenfell and Jock Dempster – who were at the forefront of the campaign for a medal.
Cdr Grenfell, 93, the campaign leader, was born in Peterhead and schooled in Montrose. He was presented with the first of the medals at a special ceremony in Portsmouth because he was too ill to travel to London.
To loud applause, the medal was pinned on him by the commander of the UK armed forces, General Sir David Richards, who had personally promised to present the medal to the veteran should it ever be created.
Sir David said: “It’s a very, very special day for all of us in the armed forces but especially for a small group who are still with us who did some very special things way back in the Second World War. We are here to celebrate the extraordinary bravery and fortitude of that very special group of men.”
Cdr Grenfell said he felt wonderful to be finally receiving the medal. He added: “It is just sad that so many of my comrades are no longer with us to receive their medals today.”
Mr Dempster, 84, of Dunbar, the chairman of the Scottish Russian Convoy Club, went to Downing Street with his wife Maggie. He described the day as “one of the most rewarding” of his life and said: “I can’t express my delight enough.”
Mr Dempster is one of the youngest surviving veterans, having served as a 16-year-old in the Merchant Navy in 1945.