Almost 70 years after the end of the Second World War, Selkirk veteran Bill Laing is finally being awarded a campaign medal for his service in the Arctic convoys, which kept the Soviet Union resupplied against the Nazis.
Local MP Michael Moore said he was delighted with the Government’s recognition for veterans who took part in the convoys, regarded as one of the most dangerous campaigns of the conflict.
Merchant ship convoys, with escorts from the Royal Navy, helped supply the Russians between 1941 and 1945. The route was described as a suicide run by Britain’s famous wartime leader, Winston Churchill, because of the extreme danger posed by enemy submarines and aircraft.
The Royal Navy suffered heavy losses, including 20 warships and a submarine, and more than 3,000 sailors died in sub-zero temperatures and U-boat attacks as they battled to break the German naval blockade. Convoy veterans qualified for the Atlantic Star medal, but never received a separate campaign medal for the convoys themselves.
Mr Moore told us: “The bravery and dedication of those who sailed with the Russian convoys has never been in doubt and I am glad the contribution they made to the course of the war is finally to be recognised by a medal.”
Rev Bill Laing, who celebrated his 90th birthday in December, already has the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), which he received along with nine naval aircrew comrades, for their role in protecting the convoys from U-boat attacks. Mr Laing served as an observer flying Fairey Swordfish aircraft with the Navy’s 816 Squadron aboard the escort carrier, HMS Chaser, from 1943-1945.
“I served over two winters and they were pretty harsh conditions on the runs to Murmansk,” Rev Laing told us.
The retired Church of Scotland minister went on: “There was an interesting twist once, when on leaving the home fleet base at Scapa Flow, we received the strange order to keep our radar switched on.
“We knew the Germans had developed a machine called a search receiver and this could detect our radar and they would then dive and not keep up with the convoy. We’d fly 50-mile sweeps ahead of the convoy to make the waiting U-boats dive. We did this and got to Murmansk without losing any merchant ships. The Russians were so pleased they organised a concert party to come from Moscow and perform in the aircraft hanger.”
Mr Laing recounted how on one of the runs back to Britain from Russia, the convoy’s escort vessels and their aircraft caught six U-boats travelling on the surface, sinking four.
He told us: “The result of that was six sub-lieutenants, including myself, from the squadron being invited to lunch with the fleet commander-in-chief – the Duke of York – aboard his flagship.”
Another result was Mr Laing and eight of his fellow HMS Chaser aircrew being awarded the DSC for their role.
Mr Laing says as far as the new Arctic convoy campaign medal is concerned, he would be delighted to finally receive one, despite never actively campaigning for it to be awarded.
He said: “I felt I’d already been recognised for my role with the award of the DSC. But now, I think this is very good news and I’d certainly accept this new medal with great pride.”