Arctic Convoy hero finally gets medal 70 years on

George Eyre from Codnor with his Arctic star medal.
George Eyre from Codnor with his Arctic star medal.

A Codnor war hero has received the Arctic Star - a military honour awarded to him more than 70 years after he played a vital role in World War Two .

George Eyre of Stirland Street, now 89, served was just 19 when he served as a wireless telegraphist on the HMS Duke of York as part of the Arctic convoys to Russia - dubbed by many who sailed in them as a ‘suicide mission‘.

The former Royal Navy man and later photographer for The Ripley and Heanor News, was part of a fleet of ships charged with protecting Russian merchant ships running supplies to North Russia to aid the allied forces there.

These supplies were vital to the war effort as German forces battled the country on the Eastern Front.

But the Government decided not to award the fearless crews of the convoys with a separate medal, which many believe was because of tensions between Britain and the Soviet Union in the post war years.

Convoy veterans were previously eligible for the Atlantic Star but a Commander Eddie Grenfell, 93, who served on the mission, campaigned for 16 years for a specific Arctic medal. Its creation was announced by David Cameron in December.

George was glad the British Government finally recognised the bravery of those on the missions.

He said: We are pleased to get it - hardly anyone knows anything about the convoys - we never got any publicity for it then and we barely did afterwards.

It’s good that it will bring it to the public’s attention.”

George still has vivid memories of his time as part of the convoys, which saw him leave the quiet mining village of Codnor for minus 50 degree temperatures on the Arctic Sea.

He was mainly stationed in the hull of the ship with the other telegraphers - except for when he was charged with climbing the ship’s 180ft mast with an engineer, to repair broken radio machinery.

He recalls one of the key battles of in December 1943, when his ship was providing cover for the Russian merchants. They they were attacked by the German battleship Scharnhorst, flanked by five destroyers and seven U-boats.

After a pitched battle - one of the Duke of York’s shells hit the Scharnhorst boiler room, sinking the battleship.

George remembers a ‘distinct rumble’ as her boilers imploded on sinking.

He recalls the fear of the moment: ““The scariest moment was just before we engaged, the captain said “we’ve got a large echo on the radar”. We knew that he meant it was a German battleship.”

“You never knew when you were going to hear a thud on the side of the ship - and it would be ‘goodnight sweetheart’.

More than 3,000 allied troops perished in the icy waters of the Arctic during the convoys.

Even Winston Churchill himself described the missions, which took place from 1941 to 1945 as the “worst journey in the world”.

The Germans threw everything they had at us,” George said. “From the Luftwaffe, constant U-boat attacks and the heavy warships of the Kriegsmarine.

“It was almost certain death for the crews of any ships that were sank, unless they were picked up inside two or three minutes from the freezing cold water.”

And the image of the sinking German battleship Scharnhorst has stayed with the Codnor man to this day.

Some 300 went into the water, which George said would have been a worse fate than being killed by a shell impact. The HMS Duke of York carried just 36 survivors back as prisoners.

He said: “I felt sorry for them, they were outnumbered and they fought to the end.

“I remember they even tried to fire a torpedo at us while it was listing.

“It still worries me that we killed so many.”

George is one of 200 men expected to have received the new Arctic Star - although it is believed 66,000 men took part in the convoys, most of whom have now died.