They sailed in the most challenging conditions, the cruel sea and freezing weather as big a danger to them as the enemy surface ships, submarines and aircraft that hunted them around the clock.
The heroics of the brave men who served with the Royal Navy to protect the vital Arctic Convoys and the sailors of the Merchant Marine who crewed the supply ships from Iceland and Scotland to Russia during some of the darkest days of the Second World War were finally recognised with the award of the Arctic Star Campaign Medal last December.
Last month a Falkirk-born veteran of the harrowing escort duty Churchill reportedly called the “worst journey in the world” was presented with his.
Peter Gray was born in Maryfield Place in Camelon in 1924. He left the local school aged 14 to take up an apprenticeship as a fitter at the Sunnyside Foundry but, by the age of 18, had quit the job and joined the Royal Navy, serving on the aircraft carrier HMS Furious based with the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow.
The converted cruiser was a key part of the force which patrolled north of the Arctic Circle in the most hellish of weather protecting the armada carrying vital war supplies to the northern ports of the Soviet Union.
Apart from the constant threat from the guns, torpedoes and bombs of the German Navy and Luftwaffe, freezing conditions and mountainous seas made the patrols the most hazardous imaginable and every day was fraught with danger.
Around 1400 merchant ships, escorted by the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and the US Navy, navigated the treacherous seas between the UK and Archangel and Murmansk. In the five years, 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships, including two cruisers and six destroyers, were lost at the cost of more than 3000 lives.
The route around occupied Norway to the Soviet ports was particularly dangerous not only from the constant threat of attack by the German air, submarine and surface forces but also because of the likelihood of severe weather.
Freezing fog, ice and strong currents were a constant hazard making life tough for the lookouts watching for any threat. Navigating in the darkness and keeping the convoy together in rolling seas and fierce winds added to the drama.
In July 1942, convoy PQ17 suffered the worst losses of any convoy in the Second World War. Under attack from German aircraft and U-boats, the convoy was ordered to scatter following reports that a battle group which included the battleship Tirpitz had sailed to intercept. While this information proved to be wrong, only 11 of the 35 cargo ships succeeded in running the gauntlet of enemy fire and making it to port.
Aboard HMS Furious able seaman Peter Gray took his turn on watch and endured the conditions as best as he could and without complaint.
He recalls: “Convoy duty was harsh for everyone, navy and merchant navy alike. Aboard Furious though I always felt we were a bit better off than most. She was converted from a cruiser to a carrier and I remember that thanks to the 16 boilers on board which we needed to make our way the heat they generated below decks made life a bit more comfortable. Of course it was very different on the flight deck.
‘‘It was always very very cold there. We spent a lot of time chipping the ice off the rails and nets and other equipment, particularly at the bow and stern which were open to the elements. But the crews on the smaller ships in the convoy had to do that constantly because they were in danger of turning over because of the extra weight. We would sail from Scapa Flow and form up off the Norwegian coast then make the run to Murmansk. We engaged with the German navy’s supply ships and during my two years on board we also saw action against the German battleship Tirpitz which was eventually forced into a Bergen fjord and finally sunk by the RAF.
“I don’t think of myself as any sort of hero really. I was in the Royal Navy during war time and serving on the Arctic convoys was part of that. I was proud to serve and have to consider myself one of the lucky ones.
“One day before I left Plymouth to catch the train to Scapa to join Furious, I bumped into Alex Deans, a friend from Camelon who had grown up in the same building as me. He had just finished his gunnery course and was joining HMS Maharatta.
‘‘We had a quick chat and then went our seperate ways. A few weeks later I heard his ship had gone down with all hands. That’s what happens in wartime.
“I was delighted to be told I would be receiving the Arctic Star. I was awarded the Freedom of Falkirk with other veterans in 2005 and being presented with this medal by Provost Pat Reid was another event which made me feel just as proud.”
Peter completed his naval service on HMS Bermuda in the Far East before being demobbed and returning to ‘Civvy Street’ in 1946.
He went back to Sunnyside Foundry for a time then switched to Camelon Foundry before joining the Fire Brigade in Falkirk in 1948. After 26 years he retired with the rank of sub officer at the age of 50 and started his own school of motoring in the town, a business he ran successfully for 15 years before finally retiring for a final time in 1989.
Now aged 89, Peter lives with his wife, Isabel (73), in Falkirk’s Belmont Tower.
The Arctic Star Medal was created in 2012 after a 16-year campaign for a specific award to recognise the contribution made by the seamen who served on the Arctic convoys to the war effort. Convoy veterans were previously eligible for the Atlantic Star.