Keynsham Navy veteran honoured for Arctic Convoy role 70 years on

Published on: 04 Oct 2014

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A Keynsham veteran of the Second World War is among the British servicemen who have been honoured recently by Russia for the bravery they showed in ensuring vital supplies reached the country over the treacherous Arctic seas.

More than 70 years after sailing on the Arctic Convoys, Maurice Cross, 91, can now proudly wear the Ushakov Medal after being invited to a ceremony in Trowbridge at the end of August, where he and other Royal Navy veterans were thanked by Minister-Counsellor Alexander Kramarenko.

Uneasy diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia followed the war and the servicemen who served on the Convoys did not get a medal from the British Government.

Maurice said: “After the Cold War started, relations were not very friendly and we used to say, ‘Where’s our medal?’ Then in the 1980s we were invited to the Russian Embassy three times to receive commemorative medals, although in 1987 the ambassador couldn’t be there because he was at No.10 getting a handbagging from Maggie Thatcher!

“I feel it’s about time we finally received our medal!”

Maurice, who lived in Knowle in Bristol, volunteered to join the Royal Navy in 1941 at the age of 18, becoming a Bridge Signalman.

He was assigned to the Arctic Convoys on the minesweeper HMS Seagull in 1942 after a stint in Coastal Forces, patrolling the British coastline.

After being told of his new posting, he said: “I went to the cinema where the newsreel had all the action shots of Russian Convoys being torpedoed and
divebombed – I was riveted to my seat in horror and then staggered out straight into the first pub!”

He spent periods over the next two years sailing mainly between Murmansk and Archangel, as well as Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, protecting convoys of merchant ships as they delivered supplies to Russia – a trip Winston Churchill once described as “the worst journey in the world”.

On one trip, Maurice spotted German bombers overhead and said he stood rooted to the spot as he saw two bombs coming straight for HMS Seagull.

He recalls: “The captain was shouting, ‘Hard a-port, hard a-port’, then as we all ran about looking up it was ‘Get out of the way, Cross!’ as we all met in the middle and landed in a heap on the floor.”

Those bombs narrowly missed but it wasn’t the last time the crew came within inches of destruction. On another trip, the ship’s sonar picked up an incoming torpedo too late for the crew to divert from its path. But as they braced for the impact, there was nothing – the device had passed narrowly under them, saved only by the ship’s shallow minesweeper design. 

In 1944 Maurice was brought back from the convoys to join another mission, which was to prove a turning point in the war – D-Day.

He was part of the minesweeping flotillas that cleared the way for the Allies’ huge seaborne invasion of France, sailing in front of the ships carrying thousands of troops to Normandy with nothing but the sea and German-held territory in front. He said: “But it was the soldiers on the landing craft who had to go up the beach, crouching as bullets and shrapnel pinged off the landing flap, who had it rough.”

It was after this, while sweeping off the coast of Le Havre, that a mine exploded under Maurice’s ship and he and his crew soon found themselves in dry dock in Lowestoft, where shortly after they heard that their flotilla had been bombed and over 100 had lost their lives and two ships sunk.  

“I felt I spent the whole war in the perishing cold – but Lady Luck was with me,” he says.

After the war, Maurice worked with his father in Bath and then for SWEB until retirement. He  married Ruth and the couple raised their three daughters in Keynsham.

Those who served on the Arctic Convoys received the Arctic Star lapel badge from the British Government in 2006. It wasn’t until last year, however, that they received a full Arctic Star medal for their role in the convoys.

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