By Nathan Morley
NEARLY 70 years have passed since former marine John Hale was part of one of the greatest and most decisive naval encounters of World War Two, but the memory of that dark Arctic night is as raw as ever.
This week Hale, 88, who lives in Paphos, has good cause to remember his wartime past.
He was part of an Arctic convoy serving on HMS Jamaica which braved perilous conditions to help deliver life-saving supplies to Russia and is one of about two hundred men who will be awarded the Ushakov Medal for his bravery and courage.
The award has proved to be a controversial subject as when they were announced by Moscow last year, the British government intervened, telling the remaining heroes they could not accept a medal from the Russians. Last week that decision was overturned after intense pressure by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I’m delighted that this has finally happened,” Hale told the Sunday Mail. “Russia has always recognised our sacrifices during the war, they have always held the convoys and the ships that guarded them in the highest regard. The Russians openly admit if the convoys had not reached them, they would have gone under.”
Last week during a visit to the UK, Putin presented the first of the medals to British sailors.
“We feel special respect for you and for your comrades in arms,” Putin said. “And it’s not only about the huge volume of aid provided to the Soviet Union with your help during the Second World War; the reason is that you and your comrades in arms demonstrated unparalleled heroism during that struggle and you instilled in everybody’s minds hope that the victory over the Nazis was coming soon.”
According to a spokesman, Cameron felt it was “only right” the veterans were given the chance to receive and wear a “very high honour” from the Russian state “given all the sacrifices and hardship they undertook for our collective good”.
More than 3,000 men died in the freezing waters of the Arctic in the convoys, as the British transported supplies to their allies in the Soviet Union as part of Operation Dervish.
On the December 26, 1943, Hale had no idea he was standing on history’s stage as his ship, sailing through the mountainous seas north of Norway, became the prey of Nazi Germany’s most famed huntresses the battleship Scharnhorst. But there was a twist, the entire British Arctic fleet knew Scharnhorst was at sea and were closing in.
“It was pitch black and I was an 18-year old lad and all of a sudden there are two or three star shells above us lighting up the sky and sea to daylight. It made us a sitting target. Immediately we said to each other, she is going to get us. But luckily, the shells she fired did not hit, they passed port and starboard….thankfully.”
Suddenly the unsuspecting German hunter became the hunted as British naval forces closed in on her.
When the British cruisers Belfast, Norfolk and Sheffield spotted the Scharnhorst – they attacked at once, with a long, furious, desperate running fight. After a mighty battle, the British battleship Duke of York pounded the Scharnhorst. A final torpedo attack by the cruiser Jamaica, the Belfast and four destroyers sealed her fate.
“My own memory of the engagement was our six inch guns pounding away but most of the action was by the battleship HMS Duke of York with the continuing firing of her 12 inch guns,” Hale recalled.
The mighty Scharnhorst took her death blow and went down.
Hale, with his crewmates stood aghast on deck as they watched the 26,000-ton German battleship sink into the icy waters.
“We could see the flashing orange fire, like a red glow. That was the end of her.”
Last year the British government announced that it would award veterans with their own medal called ‘The Arctic Star’, a miniature bar of which Hale received last month (ahead of the real thing).
As well as the Arctic campaign, Hale also served with the Royal Marines in Ceylon, Hong Kong and Malta, before returning to a job at the Admiralty in London. After serving 12 years he was discharged in January 1955 and joined ‘civvy street’.
Now a widower, Hale moved to Cyprus in 2005 where he is a member of the Royal Naval Association, which operates two branches on the island.
The Royal Naval Association meets once a month, with the exception of August, in the Garrison Officers’ Mess, Episkopi. For further details see: http://www.rnacyprus.orgFor details of the eastern branch contact: Robert King Address RNA Cyprus East Branch W/O and Sergeants Mess Mercury Barracks Ayios Nikolaos.