Russia honours heroes of WWII Arctic convoys
It was a day they never thought they would see.
After waiting more than 70 years to be officially recognised for their pivotal roles in the Arctic convoys in the Second World War, elderly veterans from Northern Ireland finally received the Russian Ushakov medal.
Dressed in blazers emblazoned with their other decorations, the sailors took their place in the front row for a special ceremony in the Belfast Harbour Commissioner's Office.
Many struggled to walk, being aided by their family and walking sticks, but as Russian ambassador to the UK Dr Alexander Yakovenko approached them individually to present their medal, all who could stood proudly to attention.
For others who had passed away, their medal was accepted on their behalf by family members.
Among those there to collect his award was 91-year-old Merchant Navy veteran Tommy Jess from Co Down, who said it was a "great day" in his lifetime.
In October 2012 the decision by the British Government to deny elderly veterans the Ushakov decoration - awarded by a decree of the President of Russia to all participants of the convoys - drew criticism across the UK.
Last December, under growing pressure, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a medal could be issued to convoy veterans.
Tommy, like many others, received the Arctic Star, but had never received an official campaign medal from a grateful Russia. Yesterday he was overcome with emotion.
With tears in his eyes, he said: "It's one good day in my lifetime.
"I didn't think I would see this day.
"It's very emotional. I've had one bad day in my lifetime when the ship was sunk and I lost 180 good friends.
"Today they are very much in my mind.
"The medal is beyond my expectation.
"When I got the British one it arrived in recorded delivery, just through the post, no ceremony. But this is completely different."
The ceremony was opened by the Duchess of Abercorn, founder of the Pushkin Trust, who paid tribute to the veterans.
She said: "This is the most amazing moment that this is now possible to happen."
The ambassador acknowledged the men's bravery in his speech before a silence fell on the room as the national anthems of both nations were played.
Poignantly, as the ambassador spoke, a family member reached his hand forward to his relative about to receive his medal after all these years.
Dr Yakovenko said: "It is a huge privilege to thank you on behalf of the Russian Government for the invaluable contribution you and your comrades in arms made the defeat of the Nazi Germany. What you did 70 years ago, taking part in what Sir Winston Churchill rightly called 'the worst journey in the world', was extraordinary, and even is considered to be beyond the call of duty.
"Thousands of allied seamen lost their lives as the British ships sailed in the unwelcoming stormy waters of the Arctic Ocean under the constant threat of being attacked by the German U-boats.
"Your heroism will always be remembered in Russia and Britain.
"I'm confident it was not by accident that our nations found themselves on the right side of history."
The Arctic Convoys are credited with helping Russia resist Hitler's army as it invaded. The military supplies buoyed the Red Army to push back against the Nazis.
More than 3,000 seamen were killed on 78 convoys - which delivered 4m tons of cargo during World War II.
Eight-five merchant ships and 16 Royal Navy vessels were destroyed.
In October 2012 the decision by the Government to deny elderly veterans the Russian Ushakov medal - awarded by a decree of the President of Russia to all participants of the convoys - drew criticism across the UK.
But the decision was overturned in the House of Commons. Yesterday His Excellency Dr Alexander Yakovenko the Russian Ambassador presented 17 Ushakov medals.
Invading Nazi army kept at bay
The Arctic convoys are credited with helping the Soviet Union resist Hitler's army after it invaded. The military supplies helped the Red Army push back the Nazis.
More than 3,000 seamen died on 78 convoys — which delivered four million tons of cargo during World War II.
Eighty-five merchant ships and 16 Royal Navy vessels were lost.
In October 2012 the decision by the Government to deny elderly veterans the Russian Ushakov medal — awarded by a decree of the President of Russia to all participants of the convoys — drew criticism across the UK.
But the decision was overturned in the House of Commons. Yesterday His Excellency Dr Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador, presented 17 Ushakov medals.