Obituary: Willie Pender, veteran of Arctic convoys who went on to serve Livingston proudly as a councillor

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Born: 24 February, 1921, in Livingston, West Lothian. Died: 24 February, 2012, in Livingston, aged 92.

Willie Pender was one of the heroes who sailed on the Murmansk Run during the Second World War and transported vital supplies to the beleaguered Soviet people. The atrocious conditions demanded expert seamanship and an ability to combat savage sea and the freezing cold: also the ships had been hurriedly adapted for war conditions. Pender then served in another dangerous theatre of war – getting urgent supplies to Malta.

In peacetime he was a distinguished councillor with West Lothian Council, member of the Lothian Health Board and an inspiring member of the Livingston Development Corporation.

William Pender was educated at Bathgate Academy then started work as a dispatch clerk with a family firm in Edinburgh. He was wrongly accused of misdirecting a package and Pender, proud and resolute throughout his life, left and joined the navy.

His first ship was an adapted P&O cruiser, the Ranpure, which patrolled the high seas and diverted U-boats away from the transatlantic convoys. These patrols were perilous in the extreme and the vessels were nicknamed “coffin-ships”.

It was in 1941 that Pender was assigned to the Murmansk run. Supplies were ferried through treacherous sailing conditions and the stretch rounding the North Cape was dubbed Suicide Alley. The route was north of Norway and Sweden and into the Barents Sea.Another danger was the German battleship Tirpitz, which was known to be anchored in a Norwegian fjord.

Pender endured the conditions with heroic modesty. In the long winter months there was the intense cold to contend with while in the summer continual daylight greatly increased the convoys’ vulnerability.

Pender’s next mission was to serve on Icarus in Operation Pedestal in 1942, which was designed to transfer desperately needed supplies to the bomb-damaged island of Malta. It was imperative that the island remained open for ships and aircrafts so that essential supplies could be sent to North Africa. Pender was involved in one of the most adventurous naval incidents of the war. Icarus joined a flotilla of boats to help the badly-damaged American supply ship SS Ohio limp into Valetta harbour, being supported on either side to keep it afloat.

His next posting was to Burma, where Pender heard the news that atom bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “It was a terrible event,” Pender said years later “but by dropping the bomb, it saved my life and hundreds of thousands of other lives.”

For his devotion to duty throughout those voyages to Murmansk, Pender was awarded four badges by the Soviets and a badge for Arctic service by the British. Sir Tam Dalyell was a close friend and Pender’s constituency MP for many years. He campaigned vigorously to get some more formal and appropriate recognition for the veterans who sailed on those dangerous missions.

He lobbied successive Ministers of Defence and as recently as last year Sir Tam wrote a letter to The Scotsman explaining that all his efforts had been in vain. “The politicians,” he wrote “are sympathetic; it is the admirals who will not allow it.”

After the war, Pender worked in the shale mines and then at the new British Motor Corporation plant at Bathgate for 25 years from 1961.

But his most significant contribution to public life in his beloved Livingston was as a councillor and a board member of the development corporation of Scotland’s largest new town, Livingston.

Pender served as a councillor from 1960 to 1975 and had a vision for the area that the new town of Livingston should preserve the atmosphere of its village origins and embrace the advantages of modern urban living. Livingston, he envisaged, should have an industrial heartland and a social vibrancy that made it attractive to existing residents and newcomers.

Pender preferred not to involve himself in the union politics at the BMC plant. He preferred to concentrate his time on the local affairs in the council and on his wife and family to whom he was devoted.

A major input to council affairs was his ability to understand another person’s point of view and follow their argument. Pender was respected for his even-handedness, reasoned arguments, courtesy and charm.

Yesterday, Sir Tam was fulsome in his praise of Pender’s effort on behalf of Livingston. “As the local MP, I know the work Willie put in,” he told The Scotsman.

“Willie was directly responsible for the comparatively good relations between West Lothian County Council and Livingston Development Council – which contrasted with the poisonous relations that often existed elsewhere in Scotland.

“Those relatively harmonious meetings and negotiations were largely thanks to Willie’s cool head and excellent judgment. He was also an extraordinarily brave man.”

Willie Pender, who will receive a naval funeral with full naval honours, married Esther in 1946. She pre-deceased him and he is survived by three daughters and two sons.