When Galashiels teenager Bob Thomson joined the Royal Navy back in 1943, he was a month shy of his 18th birthday.
But he grew up quickly, serving on escort carrier duties, shepherding convoys of vital supplies from Britain above the Arctic Circle to beleagured Soviet Union troops during the Second World War.
And nearly 70 years since the conflict ended, Bob and some of his fellow surviving Russian convoy veterans filed into St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh’s Palmerston Place last week to be honoured by the Russian Federation.
Bob – now a great-grandfather who lives in Innerleithen with wife Mary – and his former comrades were presented with the Ushakov Medal in gratitude by the Russian Federation for their service.
The Edinburgh ceremony was one of four medal events which took place in cities across Scotland. The Ushakov Medal, a Soviet award retained by Russia after the break-up of the USSR, is strictly a military one and given for “bravery and courage in naval theatres”.
The medals were presented by the Consul General of Russia in Edinburgh, Andrey Pritsepov.
Family members of deceased veterans received medals in their relative’s honour.
Bob already holds the British Arctic Star medal for his service on the dangerous convoys – a mission that Britain’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, once famously acknowledged as being “the worst journey in the world”.
Bob, who spent most of his working life with Rodger (Builders) Ltd, of Earlston, told The Southern that coming just a few days before Remembrance Sunday had made the medal ceremony all the more poignant.
“The escort carrier I was on was HMS Premier, a lend-lease ship from America, and we were based at Scapa Flow,” explained Bob.
“The merchant ships assembled at Loch Ewe. We’d link up with them and escort them up to Kola Bay in Russia.
“Churchill called it the worst journey in the world, which pretty much sums it up.
“There was the threat from U-boats, of course, but the biggest danger to us came from low-level attacks from Junker 88 bombers,” said Bob, a gunner who manned the ship’s Bofors or Oerlikon anti-aircraft weapons. “We were fortunate we didn’t suffer any real damage from the German attacks – the storms were a different matter, however.”
Bob said he didn’t spot anyone else he knew at the ceremony in Edinburgh.
“I had one friend from the Borders who served on the convoys, but he emigrated to Canada many years ago and I lost touch. But it was a very nice ceremony and I felt very privileged to be there,” he added.