Navy hero told he cannot accept Russian military honour

A SECOND World War hero who risked his life to keep vital sea supply lines open between the Western allies and the Soviet Union has been told by the British Government that he cannot accept a Russian medal for bravery.

David Tonge of Westhoughton, was only a teenager when he served on Arctic convoys.

During the campaign he and his colleagues helped provide Russians with supplies which helped bring about the downfall of Hitler’s Third Reich.

In April the 87-yearold was selected to receive a Russian state honour — the Ushakov medal — for his “outstanding contribution”

to the campaign.

The medal can not be awarded without the agreement of the British government, but the Foreign Office has blocked the move, because he has not provided service to Russia in the last five years, and because he has already been awarded a British medal for his service at sea — a process it calls “double medalling”.

Britain’s decision comes despite veterans in the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand having been allowed to received their medals.

Russia described the decision as a matter of “deep regret”.

Mr Tonge, of Washacre Close, served on the destroyer HMS Venus during the war.

As well as serving in the Arctic convoy campaign it was one of the first vessels to reach Normandy on D-Day and also helped take down two of the war’s most infamous enemy warships.

Mr Tonge was left deaf after the war because he was not allowed to wear ear plugs to protect him against the sound of the ship’s guns as he needed to listen for orders.

Despite already being honoured twice by Russia and once by France, his hopes of further recognition have been dashed.

Mr Tonge said: “It’s disgusting, what difference does it make to them?”

He volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1943 aged just 17.

He said: “My dad said “what do you want to join the Navy for, you can’t swim.”. He was right I couldn’t, but the water was so cold it didn’t matter, you’d only last five minutes if you fell in.”

For two years HMS Venus and its nine sister ships would escort up to 20 merchant vessels at a time from Iceland to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel in freezing conditions.

Mr Tonge said: “They carried fuel, food and there was aircraft on some of them and even locomotives. The huge locomotives would be pushed into the sea if they were slowing them down. You’d get icicles on your eye lashes and on your nose.

“You were at action stations for virtually the whole voyage and you could be on duty for 24 hours at a time.

“You couldn’t leave your post and would have to just eat bread, jam and biscuits.”

Voyages lasted about 10 days in each direction and almost every convoy came under attack from aircraft or U-boats — German submarines which would attack in groups of up to 12 called “wolfpacks”.

Mr Tonge said: “They would lie underneath the water and wait for you to pass over, then come up in the middle of the convoy and attack.

“I remember once it was pitch black, you couldn’t see anything, I was standing by the funnel to keep warm and just heard ‘whum!’, a tanker had been hit by a torpedo.

“You couldn’t stop to try and rescue them, the water was so cold they’d be dead by the time you reached them, we used to feel horrible about it.”

One rescue operation the great-grandfatherof- two was able to take part in involved HMS Hardy.

He said: “We went alongside and tied lines to it, there were men trapped in the sea between the two ships and we had to get them onboard.

“Me and a few others jumped across onto the deck to evacuate the ship. The crew were all dazed and we just had to push them.”

When the young sailors arrived in Russia they were often greeted with heartbreaking scenes.

Mr Tonge said he “never saw a man, only women” on his visits, and Russia lost more than 20 million people to the Nazi onslaught.

Despite taking part in
about 40 convoys and
coming under constant
attack, the only time
the teenager was ever
truly scared was when
the Venus was sent to
intercept the German
battleship Scharnhorst
— a ship more than 12
times its size.
When the Venus finished
its Arctic convoy
duties it was sent to
take part in D-Day —
the Allied invasion of
Europe.
But first it hosted a
tour by legendary
British Field Marshall
Montgomery.
Mr Tonge said: “He
spoke to every one of
us, he had no edge to
him. He said ‘how old
are you? How long since
you’ve had any sleep?’. I
told him I couldn’t
remember and we said
we had to paint the ship
first. He told the captain
‘send these lads to
bed’. We must have
looked like we were
dead on our feet.”
No sooner had the
troops landed, the
Venus was ordered to
Ceylon — now Sri
Lanka—where the war
against the Japanese
was still raging. Despite their reputation
for extreme cruelty
to prisoners, the Far
East held no fears for
the Venus crew.
“We were made up
because it was warm,”
Mr Tonge said.
While there the
Venus took part in the
Royal Navy’s final
action of the war and
the last ever gun battle
fought by surface
ships, when she and
four other destroyers
sank the Japanese
heavy cruiser Haguro,
a vessel described as “a
monster”.
Mr Tonge was later
awarded the Atlantic
Star — the medal
which the Foreign
Office says prevents
him from being honoured
by the Russians.
He was demobbed in
1946.
But he said despite a
dedicated campaign, he
and his comrades have
never been honoured
specifically for their role in the Arctic convoys
— a campaign
which saw the loss of 85
merchant vessels and
16 Royal Navy warships.
He said: “There are
only 80 of us left. I don’t
know why there wasn’t
a separate medal. But
the Russians have
always been grateful,
they’ve never let us forget
about it.”
A Russian government
spokesman said:
“This decision gives us
grounds for deep
regret. We consider
such rationale cannot
serve the basis for a
refusal to recognize the
heroic service of the
British convoy veterans.”
A British Foreign
Office spokesman said:
“The rules on the
acceptance of foreign
awards clearly state
that in order for permission
to be given for
an award to be accepted,
there has to have
been specific service to
the country concerned
and that that service
should have taken place
within the previous five
years. Permission cannot
be granted if they
have received, or are
expected to receive, a
UK award for the same
services. All British
veterans of the convoys
were eligible for the
WW2 Atlantic Star.
“Additionally, a lapel
badge, the Arctic
Emblem, was introduced
in 2006 and some
10,000 have been
issued.”

Comments (3)

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1:41pm Thu 25 Oct 12

_A5HA11_ says...

the British armed forces supporting there veterans again
the British armed forces supporting there veterans again _A5HA11_
  • Score: 0

3:13pm Thu 25 Oct 12

always lancastrian says...

What possible harm could it do to give this Old Warrior an award he richly deserves, from a grateful foreign nation?

A shameful decision by our Government to refuse permission.
What possible harm could it do to give this Old Warrior an award he richly deserves, from a grateful foreign nation? A shameful decision by our Government to refuse permission. always lancastrian
  • Score: 2

5:37pm Thu 25 Oct 12

trish1975 says...

yet another shinning example of this disgrace of a governments treatment of the comman man.
yet another shinning example of this disgrace of a governments treatment of the comman man. trish1975
  • Score: 0

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