‘Greetings comrades, I am delighted to see you’

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A veteran had a special visitor on Sunday when Russia’s Consul General in Scotland presented him with the Ushakov Medal for valour, toasting him with shots of vodka.

Selkirk’s Bill Laing, a navy torpedo bomber pilot, was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross in 1944, and a Campaign Medal 69 years later in 2013, for sinking a Nazi U-boat while shepherding Britain’s Arctic convoys, which supplied the beleagured Soviet Union with food and weapons during the Second World War, from 1941-45.

Lt Laing’s frozen run from Scotland to Russia was the first one not to lose a merchant ship to German attack, but 3,000 died in what Churchill called “suicide” missions.

Seventy years on, Russia arrived in Selkirk to say thanks.

The retired minister, who turns 92 tomorrow (Friday), greeted Andrey Pritsepov and officials in flawless Russian: “Greetings comrades, I am delighted to see you.”

Mr Pritsepov praised it as “perfect – without accent”.

Mr Laing, whose frailty forced him to forego a ceremony in Edinburgh, sat in his family home of 50 years beside his wife Sheila, sister Jean, sons Iain and Peter, and grandchildren as Mr Pritsepov began the ceremony.

“On behalf of the Russian president, and the people of Russia, I’m privileged and honoured to present to you with the highly-esteemed Russian military award, Ushakov Medal, for your personal valour and bravery shown in combat on the Arctic convoys during the Second World War.

“Wear this medal with pride and dignity. This is only a tiny bit of our debt to you as a war veteran, and you should always remember that in Russia, you are considered a war hero.”

Moved by the presentation, Mr Laing replied: “That’s a very kind statement. I am highly honoured. Thank you very much for your thoughtfulness and effort.

“I can’t claim to have been very brave, but other people were.”

Mr Pritsepov then presented a bell in memory of the visit. “How kind,” Mr Laing said. “I am going to use this to tell my wife I wish to speak to her!”

The consul added: “There is a very old Russian tradition to celebrate with a dram of vodka. Na Zdorovie –good health!”

Octogenarian Jean was curious:“I’ve never tried vodka.”Iain replied: “This should be interesting. You’re meant to down it in one.”