New medal recognising bravery of Arctic convoy veterans welcomed in the Borders

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THE decision by Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to finally agree to award a campaign medal to veterans of the vital Arctic convoys which kept the Soviet Union resupplied during the Second World War, has been welcomed in the Borders.

Local MP Michael Moore said he was delighted with the recognition for veterans who took part in the convoys, regarded as one of the most dangerous campaigns of the conflict.

Artic Convoy's with Bill Laing.

Artic Convoy's with Bill Laing.

Merchant ship convoys, with escorts from the Royal Navy, helped supply the Russians between 1941 and 1945.

During the war, the route taken by the convoys was described as a suicide run by Britain’s famous wartime leader, Winston Churchill, because of the extreme danger posed by enemy submarines and aircraft.

The Royal Navy suffered heavy losses, including 20 warships and a submarine, and more than 3,000 sailors died in sub-zero temperatures and U-boat attacks as they battled to break the German naval blockade.

Convoy veterans qualified for the Atlantic Star medal, but never received a separate campaign medal for the convoys themselves.

Artic Convoy's with Bill Laing.

Artic Convoy's with Bill Laing.

But, speaking in the House of Commons this month, Mr Cameron announced that medals would now be issued to veterans following an official review.

Mr Moore told us: “The Coalition Agreement included a commitment to review the rules surrounding the award of military campaign medals as part of our work to strengthen the military covenant.

“I welcome that in response to this important review, Arctic convoy veterans will now receive a campaign medal.

“The bravery and dedication of those who sailed with the Russian convoys has never been in doubt and I am glad the contribution they made to the course of the war is finally to be recognised by a medal.”

Six years ago, Borderers were among the dwindling number of surviving convoy veterans who received special recognition for their service, but this was in the form of badges rather than specific campaign medals.

The Russian Convoy Club, which was formed by those who took part in the convoys, has been campaigning for 60 years for recognition of their involvement during the war, but many members chose not to accept the so-called ‘Arctic Emblem’, frustrated at the Ministry of Defence’s decision to award a badge rather than a medal.

Among local veterans who will qualify for the new medal is the Rev Bill Laing, from Selkirk, who celebrated his 90th birthday last week.

Among his medals, Mr Laing has the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), which he received along with nine naval aircrew comrades, for their role in protecting the convoys from U-boat attacks.

Mr Laing served as an observer flying Fairey Swordfish aircraft with the Navy’s 816 Squadron aboard the escort carrier, HMS Chaser.

Originally christened the USS Breton, she was an 11,420-ton Attacker Class vessel commissioned by the United States Navy in April, 1943, and simultaneously transferred via the Lend-Lease programme to Britain.

Following a brief spell aboard another convoy protection vessel, Mr Laing was posted to HMS Chaser and served aboard her from 1943 -1945.

“I served over two winters and they were pretty harsh conditions on the runs to Murmansk,” Mr Laing told us.

The retired Church of Scotland minister went on: “There was an interesting twist once, when on leaving the home fleet base at Scapa Flow, we received the strange order to keep our radar switched on.

“We knew the Germans had developed a machine called a search receiver and this could detect our radar and they would then dive and not keep up with the convoy. We’d fly 50-mile sweeps ahead of the convoy to make the waiting U-boats dive. We did this and got to Murmansk without losing any merchant ships. The Russians were so pleased they organised a concert party to come from Moscow and perform in the aircraft hanger.”

Mr Laing recounted how on one of the runs back to Britain from Russia, the convoy’s escort vessels and their aircraft caught six U-boats travelling on the surface, sinking four.

He told us: “The result of that was six sub-lieutenants, including myself, from the squadron being invited to lunch with the fleet commander-in-chief aboard his flagship, the Duke of York.”

Another result was Mr Laing and eight of his fellow HMS Chaser aircrew being awarded the DSC for their role.

Mr Laing, however, has a lifelong regret that he opted to receive his DSC by post rather than travel to Buckingham Palace and receive it personally from the king.

He told TheSouthern: “Having been away for almost fully two years during the Battle of the Atlantic, I didn’t want to be away from home. But what I hadn’t realised was that, if I had chosen to receive my medal at Buckingham Palace, my parents would have been invited to attend and it would have meant an awful lot to them.”

However, Mr Laing says as far as the new Arctic convoy campaign medal is concerned, he would be delighted to finally receive one, despite never actively campaigning for it to be awarded.

“I felt I’d already been recognised for my role with the award of the DSC. But now, I think this is very good news and I’d certainly accept this new medal with great pride”, he said.