Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Eddie Grenfell deserves to win his final battle for recognition

Eddie Grenfell
Eddie Grenfell

Eddie Grenfell told himself he was too young to die. The icy waters of the arctic were numbing his legs as he clung on to a floating barrel, oil and debris from what used to be his ship swirling in the blackened waters around him.

Seconds earlier he had risen to the surface of the sea clinging on to a colleague whose head had been cleaved in two by a piece of shrapnel. He watched the man float away and at the age of 22 prepared to die.

That he did not is one of many remarkable things about Eddie. Picked up later by a Royal Naval corvette he and the survivors of that terrible day, May 27, 1942, were taken to the Russian port of Murmansk where for days, as he recovered, he listened to the screams of pain as colleagues had frostbitten limbs amputated with a local anaesthetic, if they were lucky, and the most rudimentary of instruments.

Today Eddie is the grand old age of 93 and walks along Portsmouth harbour front most days. He is still fighting for the men who lost their lives that and other terrible days during what became known as the Russian Convoy Campaign of the Second World War. Thanks to Eddie it has not been forgotten but the damage Hitler's war machine did to him and his friends angers him not half as much as the decades of indifference and downright bone-headed arrogance of his own government.

Unheralded at the time, the Russian Convoy Campaign is now reckoned to be a crucial factor in the winning of the war. The Soviet Union, at the time an ally, was coming under real threat of collapse on the eastern front as the Germans moved inexorably forward. Supply lines were cut.

One of the only ways to keep Stalin in the war was to supply arms and food via the Arctic Ocean. Hundreds of British sailors of the Royal and merchant navies sailed through that desolate place where minus 20c was a good day.

But worse still was that the Germans knew what the plan was and the Luftwaffe from the air, destroyers on the surface and U-boats from below attacked the convoys on a daily basis.

In two years more than 3,000 men lost their lives in the most horrible ways imaginable and a fifth of the ships that sailed were sunk. But the campaign succeeded in keeping the Soviets in the war and the rest is of course history. So why is Eddie still angry? Over something that perhaps we might not understand today. It's about a little piece of metal he and other veterans would like to pin to their chests.

For the men of those convoys were never awarded a campaign medal. Instead many were given an Atlantic Star, a manifestly inappropriate award from another theatre of war.

And it really matters to Eddie and the ever dwindling band of veterans that their sacrifice and, more importantly, that of the young men who never came home, is recognised.

I declare an interest here. In another newspaper life I joined forces with Eddie and the veterans to campaign for justice for them.

Space here does not allow me to detail the double talk and dissembling that came from the UK government, particularly the MoD and a succession of useless politicians captivated by Whitehall mandarin inflexibility. Last week they twisted the knife yet again by denying them access to a medal the Russians wanted to give them.

So Eddie is still waiting. Many who campaigned with him are gone. He knows he hasn't got long left. Earlier this year he had a heart attack. If he loses this fight after winning the greatest of them all it will be a stain our Government will never be able to wash clean.

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