By a Newsnet reporter
A Conservative MP is facing calls to resign after he compared sailors who took part in the notorious WW2 Arctic Convoys with decorated members of the Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi regimes.
Tory MP Andrew Robathon provoked outrage yesterday after apparently dismissing the veterans’ appeal for recognition, saying that Britain did not “throw around” honours like the Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or North Korea. The Tory defence minister said the UK only awarded medals for “risk and rigour”.
The role of Scots, English, Irish and Welsh seafarers in delivering four million tonnes of supplies to the Soviet Union during WW2 was crucial in maintaining the Soviet war effort and preventing the UK from facing Nazi Germany alone.
In 1985 the then Soviet Union issued its own convoy medal to the veterans, but the British government has so far resisted pressure from veterans’ organisations to follow suit. Only around 200 veterans are still alive.
Despite the Tories promising to strike an Arctic Star medal when they won power, the UK government has reneged on the pledge to honour the veterans of the icy Arctic waters. Now Conservative MP and minister for veterans Andrew Robathon has added insult to injury.
The Veterans Minister’s comments prompted accusations from veterans’ organisations and opposition politicians that he was “belittling” the sacrifice made by thousands.
Mr Robathon’s comments were made in the House of Commons on Monday in response to a question from fellow Conservative MP, Carol Dinenage, the member for Gosport, home to an important naval base.
Ms Dinenage lamented the lack of a UK medal for convoy veterans and urged the government to issue one as soon as possible. Addressing MPs Ms Dinenage said:
“It appals me that people who gave so much to ensure the freedoms that we daily take for granted should have to beg for the recognition that they deserve.
“Successive Conservative leaders in opposition have committed to the medal without review. It is dreadful that it has to be reviewed again and again. … Time is not on the side of those brave gentlemen. It would be utterly disgusting were a medal awarded and no one were alive to receive it.”
However Tory minister Mr Robathon dismissed the veterans’ appeal for recognition saying that the government would only commit itself to holding an independent review, and noted that the existing Atlantic Star medal included recognition of the Arctic convoys.
Mr Robathon said: “It is wrong to say that the Arctic was ignored. It was not. It was mentioned in the Admiralty fleet order, and it was recognised, but I accept that whether it should have been recognised further is a matter for debate.
“… The intention post-war was not to cover everyone with medals. Medals in the UK mean something, and we pay tribute to the people in the Public Gallery who are showing the medals that they won through risk and rigour.
“Authoritarian regimes and dictators, such as Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, often throw medals around. North Korean generals are covered with medal ribbons. We have traditionally taken the view in this country that medals will be awarded only for campaigns that show risk and rigour.”
Of 1,400 ships on 78 wartime Arctic convoys, 85 merchant and 16 Royal Navy vessels were lost between 1941 and 1945. More than 3,000 sailors died as a result of enemy action or appalling conditions in freezing temperatures which reached as low as -60C. Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the hazardous route to Russia through the Arctic waters north of Nazi-occupied Norway as “the worst journey in the world”.
SNP MSP Rob Gibson condemned the comments from the Tory veterans minister and has called on him to apologise to the “brave men” who risked their lives on the most dangerous convoys of the war.
The Caithness, Sutherland and Ross MSP has lodged a motion calling on Mr Robathan to resign. Sailors from the North of Scotland were heavily represented amongst the seamen who kept the vital wartime supply route open.
Mr Gibson said:
“It was absolutely disgusting to hear these comments – especially from the UK veterans minister. Even people from his own party said his remarks were ‘sickening’.
“He must apologise immediately for the offence he has caused to these brave men who delivered the war materials for Russia to defeat Fascism along with the Western Allies. These efforts helped turn the tide of the war – and this must be recognised.
“How much longer will the Prime Minister stand by and allow constant delays to stop these men being acknowledged for their heroic efforts, given the Tory party’s promise in opposition to consider issuing a medal.
“Over 3,000 men lost their lives on the Arctic Convoys to Russia. It was extremely welcome for the Russian Federation Government to show its appreciation and it is time for the UK Government to do the same.”
Prior to winning power back in 1997, Labour said it would create an Arctic Star, only to refuse to allow any recognition and then eventually grudgingly producing an Arctic Emblem in 2006 after a long campaign by veterans.
Remembering the Arctic Convoys