Sixteen Second World War veterans have finally received medals for taking part in the harrowing Arctic convoys crucial in helping Russia fight off Nazi Germany.
The former Royal Navy sailors from Sandwell, Walsall and Dudley were awarded the Ushakov medal after president Vladimir Putin passed a decree to honour the war heroes.
The veterans were this week presented the award by Alexander Kramarenko, Minister-Counsellor of the Russian Embassy.
Russian dignitaries, Sandwell Mayor Councillor Derek Rowley and members of the Royal British Legion also attended the service at Age UK Sandwell Day Centre.
The vital aid which included tanks, weapons and most importantly lorries, has been credited with keeping the Russians in the war.
Joseph Jones, 91, from Rowley Regis, told of the severe conditions he endured when he took part in the convoys, aged just 19.
He said: “It was the most dangerous time of my life – not just because of the threat from the enemy but because of the weather conditions we had to endure.
“There were gale force winds, mountainous waves, snow and fog to contend with. It was a terrible way to fight a war. You couldn’t complain to anyone, though. We just got on with it.”
Mr Jones, who has one son, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild, added that he was “incredibly proud” to be finally recognised for the role he played in the war.
More than 100 ships were sunk by the Germans while carrying vital supplies to Russia. Wartime Prime Minister Churchill called the mission “the worst journey in the world”.
The Medal of Ushakov is given to sailors who displayed courage defending Russia or her interests.
The Soviet honour was created in 1944 and was named after Fyodor Ushakov who was credited with never losing a battle and was made patron saint of the Russian Navy.
Fred Thompson, 91, from Stourbridge, said: “It’s an honour to be given this recognition at last because what we did was certainly not fun. It’s just a shame that it has taken so long to get to us.”
The Foreign Office initially blocked the Russian Embassy from awarding veterans the Ushakov medal. Rules state that British soldiers cannot receive foreign medals for events that took place more than five years ago – but an exception was finally made for the Arctic convoy heroes.
John Child, 92, from Quinton, said: “It’s nice to be commemorated by the Russians because I don’t think we would have won the war without them.
“More than 3,000 people died in the campaign. I lie in bed at night when it’s blowing a gale and I remember all the people we lost. People who were my friends and comrades.”
His daughter Corinne Ray added: “He doesn’t talk too much about the war but when he goes through horrible things now, like hospital appointments, he always says ‘well, I survived the Arctic convey, I can survive this’. It’s become his motto in life.”
The Mayor of Sandwell Coun Rowley told veterans: “You were a sitting target for some of these U-boats and it was really only by the grace of God that you survived.
“Nearly 69 years after the Second World War it is great that you are finally receiving these medals – better late than never, as we say.”
Mr Kramarenko added: “It is a huge privilege for me to thank you on behalf of the Russian government for the contribution that you and your comrades made to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
“Thousands of allied seamen lost their lives as they sailed in the unwelcoming waters of the Atlantic ocean. In all my years of diplomatic service I have never had a mission as important as this one and I’m sure I never will.
“Your heroism will always be remembered in Russia and Great Britain.”