Unveiled by the British government in 2012, the Arctic Star is the latest decoration for service in the Second World War and recognizes military service “north of the Arctic Circle”. In 2014 Veterans Affairs Canada began distributing 227 of the medals to Canadian veterans and the federal government announced that those who received the Arctic Star could wear it alongside their Canadian service medals.
Earning one didn’t come easily; the so-called Murmansk convoys to Russia (41 in total) begun in the late summer of 1941 were among the most hazardous and arduous of the Second World War, with winter weather as lethal a foe as the Germans. No man who ever served on one of these convoys ever forgot the experience: 24-hour darkness, waves up to 75 feet high, sub-zero temperatures and ice build-ups that could capsize ships if not removed by men chipping away with axes. Instead of bringing relief, summer brought extended hours of daylight which aided the enemy in finding and attacking the convoys with submarines, surface ships and aircraft.
It was the price paid to deliver four million tons of vitally needed military supplies and fuel to the Soviet Union. More than 20 per cent of all cargo on the Mursmansk run was lost, one hapless convoy of 33 ships losing 24 vessels. Even to be disabled was a death sentence, ships being forbidden to stop for any reason…
In 2015 a spokesman for the Canadian War Museum noted that the convoys were “physically important in a real practical sense but…also symbolically important. [They were] an indication to the Soviet Union and to the people in Canada and the United States and other places that the Western allies [were] helping to support the Soviet Union.”
How unfortunate that the British government took so long to recognize these heroic seamen, many of them Canadian, and many of whom had passed away by 2014. Unfortunately, too, awarding of the Arctic Star didn’t include the men of the merchant ships, every bit as heroic — some have claimed they were more so — than the men on the fighting ships.