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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Time running out to honour convoy veterans

IT CLAIMED the lives of more than 3,000 people and even Winston Churchill himself described it as “the worst journey in the world”.

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DISCONTENTED: Former Merchant Seamen Harold Wilkes, of Barrow, with his Russian service medal, left, and Arctic Star button badge JON GRANGER REF: 50040670B000

Yet the few remaining survivors of the Second World War’s Arctic convoys are still waiting for proper recognition from the British government.

Barrow veteran Harold Wilkes made the treacherous crossing between Britain and Russia 14 times between September 1942 and December 1945.

The convoys, which comprised merchant ships under Royal Navy escort, braved deadly German planes and U-boats to transport vital supplies to Soviet soldiers on the Eastern front.

But as another Remembrance Day comes around, the 88-year-old sailor is losing heart that he and his comrades will ever get the acknowledgement they deserve.

Mr Wilkes, of Ramsey Park, said: “There’s only about 200 of us left now.

“Something should be done about this.

“We want a proper medal that recognises our service.”

The reluctance of successive British governments to strike a medal recognising the Arctic convoys is especially galling given that Russia has already officially recognised the men.

While Mr Wilkes is unable to read the Russian-language citation, the medal sits proudly alongside his other British-issued service medals.

The best the British government has offered the survivors is an Arctic Star button badge, which Mr Wilkes regards as an insult to the many men who gave their lives on the missions.

He said: “They don't understand how dangerous it was and how vital what we did was.”

The father-of-five and grandfather and great-grandfather to many more, vividly recalls being just 18 when he began serving on the 8,000-tonne HMS Kent.

Mr Wilkes worked as a radar operator.

That made him responsible for detecting U-boats lurking under the ocean and ready to strike.

So formidable was the weather encountered on the journeys that the sailor remembers his eyelids freezing shut on many occasions when he was on deck to de-ice the ship.

These days the Chadderton-born man lives a much quieter life with his second wife Elsie in his adopted town of Barrow.

But as he reflects on his time in the war, his one wish this Remembrance Day is that all the men who played such a vital role in the Allies’ victory get the recognition they deserve.

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