A 91 year old Ramelton veteran of the Second World War has been honoured this week with medals of bravery from Russia for his part in the legendary Arctic Convoys.
Hugh McCrea of Aughnish Road in Ramelton has been honoured 70 years after he was part of the legendary Arctic convoys that delivered essential supplies to the Soviet Union at the height of the Second World War.
By John McAteer, editor of the Tirconail Tribune
The Russian Embassy said the Ushakov Medal awarded to Hugh McCrea is according to the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir V. Putin – “For personal courage and bravery shown during the World War II with the participation in the Northern Convoys”.
The Medal was awarded on behalf of the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Ireland H.E. Maxim A. Peshkov by the Defence Attache to the Embassy of the Russian Federation Colonel Alexey Y. Korkach and Assistant Defence Attache Major Victor E. Milyutin.
The medal commemorates Admiral Fyodor Ushakov who never lost a battle and was proclaimed patron saint of the Russian Navy.
Hugh joined the Royal Navy in Liverpool in 1943 and served for three years in the service during the darkest days of the conflict.
More than 3,400 seamen died over four years from 1941 on missions to keep open supply lines to Soviet ports, travelling what Winston Churchill dubbed the “worst journey in the world”.
Hugh served in the Royal Navy for three years at the height of the war as part of the Artic Convoy Protection Patrols.
Now seventy years on, he’s been presented with the medal for his contribution to the patrols that guarded cargo vessels from German bombers and U-boats as the war raged across Europe.
Hugh is one three surviving Irishmen to be presented with the honour this year. He has described the presentation as a very emotional and proud occasion and said he was one of the very lucky ones to survive.
“I feel very honoured and very humbled and I’m lucky to have survived a shocking period in our history,” he adds.
He also recalls meeting his future wife, Renee Corry while home on shore leave from the Navy. They later married and had a family of four. Renee, who was one of stalwarts of the Ramelton Pantomime for a generation passed away ten years ago.
Hugh served as a telegraphist with the British Navy between 1943 and ’46 and was part of the huge war effort to protect commercial shipping on the North Atlantic routes and to the port of Murmansk in Russia. Hugh recalls ‘celebrating’ his 21st birthday aboard a British escort sloop HMS Magpie on escort duty off the Russian port in 1944.
He received the medals from officials of the Russian Embassy on Tuesday morning when they visited his home.
With naval escorts, around 1400 merchant vessels sailed from Britain, Iceland and North America to the Soviet ports of Archangel and Murmansk.
Sailors braved freezing conditions to deliver essential food and munitions to the Soviet Union and Hugh McCrea has the most vivid recollections of the hardships, the bravery, the loss of lives and ships and the freezing conditions they had to endure.
The convoys carried food, munitions, weapons and vehicles donated under the Allies’ lend-lease agreement. These supplies were vital to Russian troops on the Eastern Front, particularly those resisting the siege of Leningrad.
85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were lost over the course of the campaign. 3000 lives were lost and Hugh pays tribute to the bravery of all his colleagues whose contributions defeated the forces of Hitler in what was the darkest period of the Second World War.
The crewmen of the convoys endured constant threat of attack by enemy submarines, aircraft and surface ships as well as atrocious polar weather conditions. If ships were sunk, sailors died in minutes in freezing waters.
Of the many who served in the Arctic convoys, it is thought that between 200 and 400 sailors, all now at least in their late 80s, are still alive.
Hugh McCrea is proud to be among them as he prepares to celebrate Christmas with his daughter and family.
Hugh trained as a telegraphist in Belfast and Portsmouth before joining the Royal Navy and later came home to Ramelton to help run the family auctioneering business on the Mall. Basil McCrea’s firm was among Donegal’s most important selling agents and shortly after coming back, Hugh took over the business and also began importing coal when RJ Gamble’s opted out of the fuel services.
Hugh McCrea says his brother, Bill who is now 93 served for over 20 years in the Royal Airforce and was also highly decorated for his bravery and services to th war effort.
Hugh McCrea’s son, Basil is currently an MLA in the Northern Ireland Assembly.