A 90-year-old Royal Navy war veteran has been honoured by Russia for his role in the Arctic convoys of World War Two. Tom Rennie, who risked his life aboard destroyer HMS Undaunted in his efforts to protect ships supplying Soviet Union forces on the Eastern Front, had already received the new Arctic Star medal from the UK government last year, but was unable to attend a ceremony in which he was to be awarded the prestigious Ushakov medal due to ill health. That being the case, Consulate General Andrey Pzhsepov made a special trip to Crosshouse Hospital outside Kilmarnock to present it to him. The Daily Record quoted the Consulate General as saying, “It is my sacred duty and privilege to honour men such as Mr Rennie who showed the utmost valour to help save Russia against Nazism. This medal is just a small token of the utmost respect and admiration we feel for Mr Rennie and his comrades.” Read more on this story here.
Every man dreaded serving in the Arctic convoys, which Winston Churchill dubbed “the worst journey in the world”. Travelling between Scotland or Iceland and Murmansk, the ships had to pass close by the North Pole. The men faced freezing conditions that meant they were often confined below deck or found the skin was taken off their fingers if they touched certain parts of the ship, and were battered by viscous winds; icy fogs and seemingly endless darkness threw many an unfortunate vessel off course, and icebergs proved a major hazard to negotiate. However, even more daunting were the patrolling Germans.
Since the German had occupied Norway in 1940, they had control of ports and airfields within easy reach of the Northern routes the Allies were forced to travel, and were perfectly placed to attack with U-Boats, aeroplanes or battleships. According to ‘Witness to World War Two’ by Karen Farrington, despite British code-breakers having the key to the secret codes of the German navy, virtually every convoy was attacked between March and June 1942, with 21 ships being lost in addition to cruisers Edinburgh and Trinidad. In fact, misinterpretation of the codes proved to be the downfall of convoy PQ17 on 27th June. On being informed that German battleship Tirpitz was on its way to intercept the convoy, First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Dudley Pound ordered the ships to scatter. By the time the armed ships realised that Hitler had in fact pulled Tirpitz away from her mission, for fear of counter-attacks, the Luftwaffe and U-boats had sunk 20 of the convoy’s 33 defenceless merchant ships. Again and again the British sailors perished before the mighty guns of the German Navy’s ‘big three’ battleships, Tirpitz, Lützow and Scharnhorst.
However, the British Navy got its own back on 31st December 1942 in the Battle of Barents Sea, after the Germans mounted an attack on convoy JW51B. The German destroyer Friedrich Eckholdt was sunk by torpedoes from HMS Sheffield, and Hitler flew into a rage and threatened to decommission the entire German fleet. Instead, Grant Admiral Radar was replaced by Admiral Karl Donitz.
Sensing that Britain was beginning to get the upper hand, the Royal Navy laid a daring plan to try to sink the three big German battleships in their anchorage at Altenfjord in September 1943. Midget submarines were delivered to the mouth of the Fjord and tasked with planting explosive charges on the vessels. Unfortunately Scharnhorst was out of harbour, and Lützow’s intended attackers were lost en route, but Tirpitz was so badly damaged that she was put out of commission for seven months. She would eventually be sunk on 12 November 1944 after being hit by a cloud of powerful ‘Tallboy’ bombs, dropped by the Lancasters of 617 “Dambuster” squadron; until then, the ships of the British Navy would live in fear of her appearance. Later in 1943 Lützow was sent to patrol the Baltic, and Scharnhorst was harried and fired upon by HMS Belfast, HMS Norfolk and HMS Sheffield after attacking yet another convoy, JW55B, on Christmas Day 1943. She was finally sunk by HMS Duke of York after the others drove the unfortunate ship right towards her. Only 31 of her 2000-strong crew were rescued. The freezing cold waters meant that any man unfortunate enough to be sunk in the Arctic would die in minutes.
So, horrific weather conditions and extreme hazards to negotiate, and if they fell afoul of either, the promise of a certain and unpleasant death. There was a lot for the men of the Arctic Convoys to look forward to! Truly, men like Mr Rennie deserve every plaudit and honour that comes their way, for they took on a terrible duty with staunch determination to do their best for both the Soviet Union and Britain.