Exhibition gives front-row seat on ‘worst journey in the world’ taken by Arctic convoy

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THEY were the brave sailors who took part in some of the most daring and dangerous episodes in Britain’s military history.

Now the veterans of the notorious Arctic Convoys from Scotland to the former Soviet Union are to be honoured with a major exhibition.

Soldiers in the Arctic convoy.

Soldiers in the Arctic convoy.

Edinburgh Castle’s War Museum will be staging the first major display in Scotland dedicated to the 3,000 men who lost their lives on the convoys from 1941 and 1945.

Rarely seen photographs, uniforms, diaries, letters and other personal possessions from veterans will be going on display for almost a year at the attraction.

Plans for the exhibition have been revealed just weeks after it was confirmed that veterans of the Arctic Convoys would finally get military medals following a lengthy campaign to see them recognised.

The supplies and ammunition they transported were vital to the war effort, as German forces had completely block-aded any access by land.

The operation was launched to help ensure vital supplies could get through to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel after Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, to ensure that the Nazis would remain occupied on the Eastern Front.

But they were dubbed the “suicide missions” by many of those who served on them, as the convoys had to run the gauntlet of submarine, air and battleship attacks in harsh sub-zero conditions through the Arctic Ocean.

Then prime minister Winston Churchill admitted the mission to keep the supply lines of munitions, tanks, lorries, fuel and food open was “the worst journey in the world”.

Of the 78 convoys from the UK and Iceland over that period, 19 departed from Loch Ewe, in Wester Ross, in the north-west Highlands, with others leaving from Oban and the Clyde.

About 20,000 Royal Navy and merchant navy sailors were involved in the missions to transport almost four million tonnes of supplies, with 16 warships and 85 merchant vessels being lost throughout the campaign.

A spokesman for National Museums Scotland (NMS) said the exhibition, which is due to run from May until March of next year, would focus on the “fraught and difficult” journeys the veterans undertook from the north of Scotland.

Objects and memorabilia from private collections, as well as loans from the Imperial War Museum, and museums in Russia itself, will be brought together. Surviving veterans will also be recording personal testimonies for the castle exhibition.

Elaine Edwards, senior curator at NMS, said: “We’ve been building links with Russia over the last few years, with exhibitions like Catherine the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra, and now seemed like a good opportunity to put together the exhibition with the campaign that has been running for the veterans to be recognised, which was just confirmed by the government.

“There has also been a big campaign to have a permanent Arctic Convoys museum opened in Loch Ewe and we’ve been working closely with the people behind it to help gather the material for the exhibition.

“A lot of those who ended up taking part were not in the navy and were simply merchant seamen or fisherman who were called up for duty. Their stories are amazing.”

Jacky Brookes, manager of the Russian Arctic Convoys Museum Project in Loch Ewe, said: “We’re delighted the exhibition is happening and hope it will help raise the profile of getting a permanent museum”

The museums exhibition, Arctic Convoys: 1941-45, is due to run from 24 May until March of next year.

Treasures wait to be discovered

The people of Scotland should make more effort to discover the historic artefacts and works of art on their doorstep, it has been claimed.

The Scottish Government wants to raise the profile of little-known museum and gallery collections across the country.

Ministers are urging people to spend time seeking out the treasures held at 38 separate sites described as being of “national significance”.

Among the collections highlighted are the Charles Rennie Mackintosh one held in Glasgow, the Scottish Railway Preservation Society’s in Bo’ness; the Pier Arts Centre’s in Orkney, and those at the National Mining Museum, in Midlothian.

Humza Yousaf, minister for culture and the arts, said he wants “all Scots” to spend more time in museums and galleries in 2013.