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Russian Convoy Medal
A Soviet commemorative medal awarded to my Dad for his service in the Royal Navy during WWII. Cast in 1985, it is called the “40th Anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War Medal”, popularly known in the UK as the Russian Convoy Medal. Besides Soviet forces and partisans it was also made available to sailors who had taken part in the Arctic Convoys from Britain to the Soviet Union.
My Dad served on the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk on three Arctic Convoys, PQ2 to Archangelsk in October 1941 (and the return convoy QP2), and PQ14 to Murmansk in April 1942. There are now very few veterans remaining but I know personally one man who is over 100 years old and who served on HMS Pozarica during the disasterous convoy PQ17.
These convoys – merchant ships escorted by British, American and European warships – transported goods from the US and UK to the far north of Russia after 1941. The crews had to cope with intense cold which froze the tears in their eyes and the lubricants in their machines. Any man who fell in the sea would be dead within minutes. Everything was thick with ice and in winter at that latitude there’s almost 24 hours of darkness, which at least helped prevent attacks by the Luftwaffe or U-boats.
The civilian crews of the multi-national merchantmen were, like their vessels, drawn from around the world. Not just British and American but also Chinese, Brazilian and Sudanese sailors, often working for the lowest rates the ship owners could pay. Proportionately their chances of survival were less than any of the Allied armed forces. For a while any merchant sailor who survived his ship being sunk and found himself adrift in a lifeboat, would suddenly be unemployed and therefore would recieve no further pay – if he ever made it back to port.
Below; My Dad wearing the commemorative medal beneath his Campaign medals.
Britain had a complicated relationship with the USSR. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939 – the act which finally tipped Britain into declaring war on Germany – the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. The USSR had a non-aggression pact with Germany, provided aid to Germany’s war effort and Stalin would have been happy to see the Nazis defeat Britain. As a capitalist and imperialist state, Britain was very much the enemy of the USSR. Between 1939 and 1941 Britain alone stood against Nazi Germany.
Hitler’s decision to attack the USSR in June 1941 took Luftwaffe bombers away from raids on British cities. As a result the British people quickly developed a soft spot for the USSR. However there was always the possibility Stalin might make peace with Hitler. Churchill therefore needed more than warm and fuzzy feelings; he needed the Soviet Union to remain at war with Germany, so offered to transport goods under the Lend-Lease scheme.
Officially, the USSR barely acknowledged the efforts of the convoys. Given their horrific losses on the Eastern Front – some 27 million Soviet dead by the end of the war – they could be forgiven for expecting nothing less, although with battle tactics which didn’t involve hurling soldiers into frontal attacks and shooting those who turned and fled, that number would have been much lower.
It is often said that WWII was fought and won on the Eastern Front, echoing the then Soviet view that everything that happened in the West was just a sideshow. When you consider that 80% of Wehrmacht losses were to Soviet forces, it is easy to agree. The statistics are misleading though and Germany’s defence of the west employed personnel and machines which would otherwise have faced east. But also without the millions of tons of American and British equipment and supplies, it is very unlikely the Red Army, no matter what their number, would have been able to push the Nazis back to Berlin. Equally without an attack from the east by the USSR, the invasion of Europe in 1944 would have been unthinkable.
The reverse of the medal.
According to Wikipedia, it reads;
“War Participant 40 Years of Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945”
Although my Dad told me tales he never gave me the details, convoy numbers, dates etc. I identified those by referring to his Service Record. From this I could see what dates he was aboard certain ships, and then, referring to books and sites such as Naval-Histroy.Net, could determine where those ships were on those dates and what action they saw. The details match the dates on the document and also tie in with my memories of my Dad’s memories, which are the least reliable source of information.
It isn’t always possible to obtain a relative’s Service Record, but you should start here if you want to try;
“Arctic Convoys”, Richard Woodman, 2004
“All Hell Let Loose”, Max Hastings, 2011
Imperial War Museum
National Maritime Museum