Obituary: Commander William Edward ‘Eddie’ Grenfell – Arctic medal campaign leader

Eddie Grenfell was awarded an Arctic Star medal in March. Picture: PA
Eddie Grenfell was awarded an Arctic Star medal in March. Picture: PA
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Born: 17 January, 1920, in Peterhead. Died: 28 June, 2013, in Portsmouth, aged 93.

Commander Eddie Grenfell is best known in Britain for leading the Arctic medal campaign, but in Germany was honoured as the man who brought reconciliation between its navy and the Royal Navy after the Second World War and introduced mass German tourism to the UK.

The defining episode of his life took place in 1942, when he served as the radio officer on the Cam ship Empire Lawrence as it sailed in a convoy to the Soviet port of Murmansk. The convoy soon came under heavy attack. Grenfell showed extraordinary courage climbing the ship’s mast in appalling freezing conditions to fix the radar cables that were essential for the convoy. At one point he could see the face of the Luftwaffe pilot firing at him. The ship’s captain wanted to recommend him for a medal for bravery, but never got the chance.

The next day the dive bombers were back and six of them simultaneously hit the Empire Lawrence, blowing it up in a huge fireball killing all the senior officers. Somehow, Grenfell survived for ten minutes in the freezing water before being rescued.

He spent several months in a Soviet military hospital and camp very close to the fighting. It was an experience that later led him to his role in the Russian Convoy Club and the campaign for a medal.

Cdr Grenfell was born in Peterhead to William Grenfell, the cut-off son of an English aristocratic family, and a Scottish mother, Maggie Bella. He always considered himself to be Scottish first but was also proud of his Grenfell heritage and wanted to “make myself worthy of the great name I bore”.

He attended Montrose Academy and then the Prince of Wales Sea Cadet School, where he excelled and won a prize as one of the top cadets.

He joined the Royal Navy at the outbreak of war and served on the cruisers HMS Edinburgh and HMS Leander, taking part in the Russian convoys, Battle of the Atlantic, the first commando landings in Norway in 1941 and relief of Malta. He was one of the first RDF officers dealing with radar.

After the war, he took various Royal Navy postings, including a year in Australia in 1954. Then in 1961, in what would prove to be a turning point, he was made assistant naval attaché to the British embassy in Bonn .On his arrival Grenfell was shocked to discover how little the embassy staff did “apart from attending cocktail parties” and how few of them spoke German. He immediately set about finding himself work to do and, as a fluent German speaker, started a lecture tour.

His task was to help the German’s set up a new navy and to make sure that it had close ties with the Royal Navy. He was a huge success, which delighted his superior officers back in Britain, while he became a close friend of many in the German navy. His two-year appointment was extended by first a year and then a second.

However, his reconciliation work provoked anger in the embassy. In particular, an occasion in 1964 where he gave a speech praising the humanity of a German U-boat captain for rescuing the survivor of a British ship infuriated the ambassador.

Then in 1965, just before he was due to finish in Germany, Grenfell’s career came to an end when accusations based on gossip were made against him. While no formal charges were brought, Grenfell was told he would not receive promotion because “another government department objects”.

Not to be defeated, Grenfell soon returned to Germany as a successful businessman with the German press regularly referring to him as “Britain’s second ambassador”.

After a terrible car accident, he was forced to rebuild his life again and went on to become a gardener to Karl-Heinz Rudig, who headed a major tourism business. Soon, Grenfell was organising a new line of coach trips to the UK.

Against the wishes of the Foreign Office, Grenfell was allowed by the Queen to accept the Ehrenkruz (Iron Cross) der Bundeswehr Silber from the West German government, the equivalent of the CBE.

In 1990, he settled in Ports-mouth and became involved in the Russian Convoy Club (RCC). In 1995, he was elected to lead the campaign to persuade the government to create the medal that was denied the veterans after the war. It was a role he was suited to with natural leadership qualities and an ability to inspire devoted loyalty in others. Grenfell set about the campaign with characteristic energy, but New Labour broke its promise to institute the medal.

He refused to quit. After a showdown in 2003 with the then veterans’ minister Lewis Moonie, the campaign mushroomed with the support of The Scotsman’s sister paper the News in Portsmouth. For the next three years, he ran the campaign from the newspaper’s offices. A protest march of hundreds of veterans through Westminster in 2004 was followed in 2005 by him becoming the oldest parliamentary candidate, standing against defence secretary Geoff Hoon.

In 2006, John Reid came in as defence secretary and agreed to an emblem designed by Grenfell. However, the Conservatives had promised to create the medal and in 2010, when they returned to power, Cdr Grenfell started the campaign again. In December 2012, after a review ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron the Arctic Star was finally agreed and Cdr Grenfell was one of the first to receive it on 19 March this year.

Grenfell’s lasting legacy is the recognition of the Second World War’s Arctic Campaign, which went from being the one the government tried to wipe from history to the most decorated campaign of the war. Thanks to his unwavering determination, veterans now can claim the Arctic Emblem, the Arctic Star as well as four Russian commemorative medals and Russian Ushakov medal. The Ushakov medal was a final victory for Grenfell against the Foreign Office, which had tried to stop veterans accepting it.

Cdr Grenfell was married twice, to Beryl, known as Bobs, in 1941 and a Norwegian, Irene in 1968.

He was devoted to his children and grandchildren and died with his daughter Trudie and his grand-daughter Michelle by his bedside.

He is also survived by his other daughter Erika and her children Toby, Eloise and Henry, and Trudie’s son Jonathan and four great grandchildren.