THEY braved icy waters to maintain vital supply lines, now Wearside’s unsung heroes of the Second World War are to be honoured with an official medal by the country they helped save.
A total of 2,800 lives were lost on the 78 Arctic convoys and 100 allied vessels were sunk, many the target of German U-boat attacks, between 1941 and 1945 as they made their way along the perilous route through Scapa Flow.
Those who served on the journeys to Murmansk and Archangel endured “one of the most brutal campaigns of the war” to keep Russia supplied with desperately-needed materials and provisions.
However, they have been repeatedly overlooked by UK authorities, which have refused to recognise their bravery with their own official medal.
Now, 67 years after the end of hostilities, the Russian Federation has stepped in to offer them the Medal of Ushakov.
Veteran John Clayburn, 86, from Fulwell, was chairman of the former North East Russian Convoy Club (NERCC).
“This is a huge honour,” he said. “It was a surprise. I don’t think any of us expected it, but it is the first official medal specifically for those who served on the convoys.”
In 2005, the Government caved in to pressure to honour the heroes, but sparked anger by not giving the Arctic Star the same status as other medals.
Previously, the sailors were grouped in with those who served in the Atlantic, after an Honours and Awards Committee decided in the 1940s that operations in the Arctic and Atlantic were not separate campaigns.
The Government released the new Arctic Star emblem, which could be pinned to the Atlantic Star or the 1939-45 campaign star, one of which all veterans should have.
However, despite veterans being pleased by the formal recognition of their service, many were also left disappointed that it was a badge rather than an actual medal.
“Some of them said that badges are for Boy Scouts,” said Mr Clayburn. “Most appreciated it, but there were some who refused to wear it. There have always been calls for an official medal.”
Most members of the NERCC were merchant seamen, but Mr Clayburn served in the Royal Navy escort as a radar mechanic on HMS Queen.
The club, which met regularly in South Shields, folded two years ago after falling membership due to ill health.
“There are only a few of us left now,” he said.
“Like many groups of its kind, it suffered from a dwindling membership as time went on.
“We don’t know yet if the medal will be awarded posthumously.
“We’re still waiting for the UK government to say that we can be awarded it.
“But we’re hopeful it’ll be given the go-ahead.”