Russian bravery award for Tauranga man

By Stuart Whitaker of the Bay News

Bill Chapman with the Ushakov medal he has been awarded by the Russian government for bravery and valour during the Arctic Convoys of World War II. Photo / APN

They were described by Winston Churchill as the worst journeys in the world.

The Arctic Convoys supplying Russia during World War 2 were made in winter air temperatures of minus 20C, mountainous seas so cold that falling in almost certainly meant death – with the constant menace of wolf packs of prowling U-Boats.

But the convoys to Russia’s northern ports of Murmansk and Archangel were the lifeline the country needed to continue to engage Hitler’s forces and maintain the war on two fronts.

Without the convoys, the war could have taken a very different course.

Tauranga resident Bill Chapman served aboard HMS King George V on many of its 11 convoy assignments.

He recently received the Ushakov medal from the Russian government in recognition of the bravery and valour shown by all those who were part of the Arctic Convoys.

It is the fifth medal issued by the Russian government recognising these feats, and the second-highest naval award Russia can make.

In contrast, there has been no medal of recognition from the British government, with the only official acknowledgement, The Arctic Emblem awarded in October 2006 to members of the Arctic Campaigns of World War 2.

It still rankles with the veterans that, while the Russians have been prepared to recognise the bravery, dedication to duty and suffering endured, the British government still refuses to strike a medal for those who endured the convoys.

Between 1941 and 1945, 66,500 merchant and Royal Navy seamen sailed to northern Russia to keep the Soviet Union supplied with food and vital military equipment. More than 100 ships were sunk and 3000 men killed but Russia stood firm against the Nazis.

Mr Chapman recalls one storm in which he feared the ship would capsize each time it rolled.

“But each time it slowly rolled back. Sometimes when we hit the big waves, it felt like we were hitting a brick wall,” he says.

This damaged the quarter deck and took the lifeboats from the upper deck.

On the lookout for the enemy ships, Mr Chapman was often exposed to the elements with very little protection from the cold.

“We were issued with a duffel coat, long johns, woollen clothing – but we were up pretty high and the only protection was a canvas cover and we had to pull that back for the instruments – so it was cold, and one time I got hypothermia.

“But the scariest part was the Stuka dive bombers – they were the worst – they just came straight down.”

At times the weight of the ice forming on the ship brought fears that it would turn the ship over and steam hoses had to be used to remove the ice.

Mr Chapman volunteered for the Royal Navy when he was almost 18. He had a brother in the navy and did not want to be conscripted into the army. He became an able seaman aboard the King George V shortly after the battleship was involved in the sinking of the Bismarck.

The battleship left Arctic Convoy duties in March 1943, arriving in Gibraltar in May 1943. In the Mediterranean the ship was involved in the Allied landings in Sicily and bombarding the island of Levanzo and the port of Trapani. The ship also escorted part of the surrendered Italian fleet to Malta, transported Winston Churchill back to Britain from Gibraltar and, in 1945, took part in operations against the Japanese in the Pacific.

The ship, with others of the British Pacific Fleet, was at Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender.

– The Bay News


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