Ninety-five-year-old Royal Navy veteran Alec Penstone is celebrating receiving yet another medal for bravery this week, just in time for the 75th Anniversary of VE Day on Friday. The award of the Medal of Ushakov is a tribute from Russia to mark his courage for the part he played in the Arctic Convoys of World War Two.
A total of 78 convoys took place between 1941 and 1945 delivering more than 4 million tons of essential food and military equipment from Britain to northern Russia after the Soviet Union joined the war. The deliveries played a crucial role in the war effort, saving the lives of many Soviet troops while millions of their comrades died and their lands and physical infrastructure were destroyed as they fought Germany from the East.
The Arctic Convoys were under constant threat of attack from German U-boats and aircraft as they criss-crossed the Arctic Sea. Over a hundred naval and merchant vessels were lost and thousands of Allied seamen perished during the perilous operations. The crews also had to cope with severe cold, huge waves, storms and treacherous ice flows, leading Winston Churchill to describe the route as ‘the toughest journey, the worst journey in the world’.
Originally the British Government said British veterans would not be allowed to accept the Medal of Ushakov, but former Prime Minister David Cameron made an exception to the rule on accepting medals from other nations for the 200 or so veterans of the convoys. He paid tribute to their ‘absolutely extraordinary’ contribution to the defeat of fascism and Nazism and their ‘huge bravery and courage that should always be remembered’.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has said that it was not only the ‘huge volume of aid’ they delivered that led to the special respect and love felt in Russia for the veterans, but also their ‘unparalleled heroism, which instilled in everybody’s minds hope that the victory over the Nazis was coming soon’.
As Alec faces the 75th Anniversary of D-Day in lockdown due to the Coronavirus he told the IW Observer about his memories of the day he heard the war was over, why he missed the street parties, but how he came home to a special celebration of his own.
“In early May 1945 I was at sea on HMS Campania an escort aircraft carrier, carrying out strikes against German ships off the Norwegian coast. I was a Submarine Detector. On May 8 I had just come up from the Anti-Submarine cabinet where I had been on the morning watch from 4am to 8am, when ‘Action Stations’ came over the tannoy. As my action station was back down in the cabinet, I performed a very quick turn-about and went to the cabinet, reported to the bridge and the hatches were locked down.
“Then the tannoy went once again with wonderful news: ‘This is your Captain speaking. I have just been informed that Germany has unconditionally surrendered, and all U-boats have to surface immediately and to fly a black flag with their conning hatch open and the captain on watch. All German shipping in Northern and Arctic Waters are also to obey these orders. Failure to comply will result in attack by Royal Naval ships’.
“This order resulted in keeping us at sea, looking for five U-boats which could not be accounted for until the middle of June, when we finally returned to the UK. The flags, bunting and jollyfications had all been stored away by the time we got home. All we got was ‘Ello Jack. Home Again? Got any duty frees to spare?’
“So this year I was determined to enjoy VE Day 75 – silly me! China put the kibosh on that, but at least Russia came up trumps and my 75th anniversary medal arrived in time to celebrate the end of the war in Europe.”
In 1945 Alec was over the moon to be reunited with his sweetheart Gladys, who had caught his eye while she was singing and dancing with her sister in the air raid shelter he was responsible for as an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Warden before he went to sea. It was in that role that he won his first medal, at the age of 15 for carrying bodies out of bombed buildings.
They wanted to get married, but with Alec’s next posting coming up quickly there was no time to call the banns. Their local vicar advised them to get an audience with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Westminster Abbey, who was sympathetic to their plight. After they swore on the Bible that the only reason they wanted to get married was because they loved one another, he granted them a special licence. They could now get married in any Church of England Church with only three hours’ notice. He even offered to marry them himself, but Gladys wanted her friends and family around her.
The happy couple were married at 2pm on Saturday 21st July. At 7am on the Monday morning Alec was heading off on his next assignment to the Middle East. He would not see his new bride for the next 14 months. The pair have been happily married now for almost 75 years, their only child Jackie was born 17 years after they became man and wife.
Alex has fond memories of HMS Campanula – they went through a lot together. She was built at Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, on the same slipway as the Titanic. She saw service in the Arctic and Atlantic theatres and after the war was painted white and used as the exhibition ship for the Festival of Britain in 1951. She then played her part in Operation Hurricane, testing the first British atomic bomb, travelling to the Monte Bello Islands off Western Australia before she was finally scrapped in 1955.
The couple’s grandson Ian Morgan who is looking after his grandparents during the lockdown, swells with pride as talks about his grandfather: “I’m very proud of him and all his heroic exploits in the war. He is a real character and we are all looking forward to the lockdown ending when we can have a great family party to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary” he said.
Thank you Alec for all you have done. This VE Day 75 we may not have the celebrations and street parties that were planned, but we can still reflect on the courage you and your generation showed and the sacrifices you made because of your love of this country.