Heroes from the past


Their navy service on the freezing seas of the Arctic Circle may have been 70 years ago, but recognition of their exploits still remains strong within the Russian government.

About 60 members of the Russian Convoy Club live across the country, and 10 of them, including Hawke's Bay navy veteran Bill Gallie, were on hand at a special ceremony in Wellington last month to receive the Ushakov Medal for service and gallantry in doing "their bit" to get wartime supplies through to Soviet forces and people.

Like many veterans, Mr Gallie had previously received commemoration medals for his service, but the Ushakov Medal was specifically created as a medal of honour for what the veterans went through.

"It is a real honour to receive it," Mr Gallie said. "It is recognition and that's important." He joined the Royal Navy in 1935 when he was 16, and served until 1959 when he emigrated to New Zealand.

During his Arctic service in 1942 he was aboard the battlecruiser HMS Renown which was stationed at Reykjavik in Iceland. He carried out three convoy runs in freezing and dangerous conditions as the Germans attacked from on the water, under the water from U-boats and from the air.

"We were an out-flank escort, and aware that the Tirpitz (the German battleship) was about."

It was the presence of the Royal Navy fighting ships that kept the giant Tirpitz at bay.

The convoys ran a treacherous route to Murmansk and from 1941 to 1945 delivered about four million tonnes of cargo to the under-seige Russians. But it came at a great cost with about 120 ships lost as the Germans threw everything at the allied naval and merchant seamen.

The memories returned when Mr Gallie, 93, stood before Russian Federation Ambassador to New Zealand Andrey Tatarinov to receive the honour.

"It was really something," he said, adding that to be recognised for what he and his comrades went through meant a lot - given that some countries were still "backward in coming forward" with delivering their own medals of service.

Like those who were unable to attend the service, fellow Bay convoy veterans like Stan Douglas of Napier would be receiving theirs by courier.

He served aboard the destroyer HMS Javelin and described the rough and unrelenting Arctic seas as "living hell".

While conditions were almost unbelievably tough he said the comradeship and devotion to duty, and knowing their work was helping get much-needed supplies through kept spirits high.

Mr Douglas said while some of the bigger and heavily laden cargo ships were able to plough through the waves, the crews aboard lightweight destroyers and other escorts had to endure a rollercoaster ride.

"Two words described it," he said. "Hellish for the living conditions and atrocious for the weather. But they were conditions which simply had to be endured."

Mr Gallie said that stoic spirit lived on.

"The rapport among the members of the convoy association is terrific - despite the numbers who are now a little less agile than they used to be," he said with a smile.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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