A world-wide appeal has been launched today this week to trace the last remaining veterans of the World War II Russian Arctic Convoys in time for a landmark anniversary.
A memorial event is being planned on 16 May to mark the end of the war and the Russian Arctic Convoys (RACs) which provided four million tons of supplies and munitions to Russia between 1941 and 1945.
The then Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, called the missions, carried out in freezing and dangerous conditions and amidst enemy attacks, the “worst journey in the world.”
The event will be held at Loch Ewe in Wester Ross, a gathering point for many of the convoys and now the site of the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum.
Already 19 RAC veterans have confirmed they will take part in the historic event, including one who lives in New Zealand, and almost 100 families of the surviving and deceased heroes have registered to attend.
Four Russian World War veterans have also signed up to be part of the occasion.
Organisers are now trying to track down any other veterans from the UK and Russia to join the commemoration which will be attended by senior members of the military and leading dignitaries.
These include Churchill’s granddaughter, Celia Sandys, who said:
“History will remember the heroes who were part of the Russian Arctic Convoys and the significant role they played in World War II.
“My grandfather’s comment at the time underlined the perilous nature of the expeditions and many made the ultimate sacrifice.
“It will be an honour to be part of the 75th anniversary event and to be able to pay tribute to the surviving veterans and those who lost their lives serving their country.”
Seventeen countries have been identified whose nationals were involved in the Arctic convoys and Russia, Germany, India, New Zealand and Denmark will all send senior representatives.
Commercial and charity sponsorship has been arranged to help as many of the surviving sailors as possible attend the commemoration.
This includes funding for qualifying veterans and their carers if they are in need of travel assistance, through the HM Treasury fund D-Day Revisited.
John Casson, co chairman of the Russian Arctic Convoy Project, which runs an exhibition centre at Aultbea in Wester Ross, is coordinating the 75th anniversary.
“The convoys provided Russia with much-needed supplies to help them continue the fight against the Germans on the Eastern Front, providing the opportunity for the Allies to launch D-Day.
“The brave sailors who endured unimaginable conditions, freezing and under almost constant enemy fire, deserve to be remembered for their heroism and sacrifice.
“Many lost their lives at the time and others have passed away over the years.
“The remaining survivors are now elderly and, sadly, this will be one of the last occasions we have an opportunity to thank them in person for their incredible wartime efforts.
“Therefore, this anniversary is a momentous occasion and one when we can again raise awareness of this incredible episode in history and the remarkable people who were part of it.
“We aim to contact as many veterans or their families as possible and hope they will be able to attend this commemoration.”
One of the veterans attending the event at Loch Ewe will be Francis Lee, 93, who joined the Merchant Navy in January 1943, aged 16.
The first ship he was supposed to join was hit by a mine on its way into the port with the loss of all its crew.
He was then sent to join the Empire Ploughman as a cabin boy.
The ship sailed from Loch Ewe with a cargo of aeroplanes and ammunition, which were boxed up and stored in the hold, as well as fully assembled tanks stored on deck.
During the three-month round trip, the convoy came under attack by ten U-Boats.
Francis witnessed the crew of one ship abandoning the vessel after it was attacked.
His own ship survived the attack and continued to Murmansk and then to Archangel and Bacaritsa where the river had frozen.
Traffic was crossing the frozen river in front of the sailors and was stopped by a policeman as an ice breaker created a path for the convoy ships.
Within 15 minutes of sailing through, the ice had re-frozen and traffic was again crossing the frozen river behind them.
Francis, who was awarded the Arctic Star Medal in 2013, lives independently in the same house he has lived in for more than 60 years in Harlow, Essex.
“As the years pass, there are unfortunately fewer of us able to attend these events.
“I hope as many as possible respond to today’s appeal and are able to make the 75th anniversary commemoration.
“It is vitally important we remember these historic missions and my colleagues who lost their lives on them.”
Veterans or their families wishing to attend the event should contact John Casson on firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on the Russian Arctic Convoys and the 75th anniversary visit www.theracmproject.org