Guildhall Library and the Veterans of the Arctic Convoys

We were interested to view the programme ‘An Arctic Convoy Disaster’ on BBC Two last week as the Lloyd’s Marine Collection held at Guildhall Library includes sources recording the journeys of vessels involved in these convoys.

Under attack from both German U-boats and the extreme climactic conditions whilst taking vital supplies on the route between Britain and Northern Russia, meant that life on the Arctic convoys was particularly harsh and dangerous. Churchill is believed to have called it ‘the worst journey in the world’. The convoys carried desperately needed munitions, fuel, food and medical supplies. Around 3,000 sailors and 104 merchant vessels were lost on these Arctic convoys which ran between 1941 and 1945.

In spite of the hardships and sacrifices endured by the merchant seamen and other service personnel, it has taken a very long time for a formal award to be made. However, in December 2012 the UK Government announced a new medal for veterans of the Second World War Arctic convoys to be named the ‘Arctic Star’.  It is awarded for ‘service of any length’, north of the Arctic Circle, during World War II. The Royal Mint has now produced the medal and it is thought that around 120,000 men from across the services will be eligible to claim it.

Those applying for the medal are required to demonstrate knowledge of the vessels on which the merchant seaman served and crucially to provide evidence of where those ships travelled. For the Arctic Star award this is evidence that the ship took part in an operation or convoy north of the Arctic Circle. Staff at Guildhall Library have been pleased to assist some of the medal claimants (or their families if it is a posthumous claim). 

Some of the seamen (or their families) hold their Continuous Discharge Book which shows their service record, but as they carried this with them at sea, it was vulnerable to loss or damage. In the absence of this, details of service can be gained from the Merchant Navy Registers of Service held by the National Archives at Kew. 

Once the claimant has a list of vessel names and the dates served, they can contact Guildhall Library for the relevant Lloyd’s Voyage Record Cards (VRCs). Copies of the VRCs are accepted by the MOD who grant the award (forms available from Veterans UK).

The VRCs at Guildhall Library are for merchant vessels and usually give vessel name, port of registration, net tonnage and name of master. They cover c1927 – c1975 and form an index to shipping movements in Lloyd’s List. Dates of arrivals and sailings and port abbreviations are given on the cards which generally give the user everything they need without the need to look at Lloyd’s List itself. There is also brief reference to shipping incidents and casualties.

Here is one side of a VRC for the ‘Empire Howard’ which took part in the Arctic Convoy PQ 14. As you can see she arrived at Reykjavik, Iceland on the 31st March 1942. Arrivals are written in black ink.  She sailed Reykjavik (red ink) on the 8th April but was torpedoed and sunk on the 20th April 1942 (blue ink). Look closely and you will be able to see the port abbreviations for Loch Ewe, Reykjavik, Iceland and Murmansk (and others); this wasn’t the first time the ship had made this challenging journey.

ArcticStar

We are amazed by the approachability and good humour of the people who contact us. They lived through terrifying experiences and are brave and cheerful in talking about their war service. We also witness the heart-warming goodwill shown by people volunteering for various organisations helping the merchant seamen make their long overdue medal claims.

Guildhall Library holds many printed items that may help you find out more about the convoys of World War II. A list of books on this subject can be found on our online catalogue: http://is.gd/arcticcon. Further information about the Lloyd’s Marine Collection and the Voyage Record Cards (VRCs) held at Guildhall Library can be found on our website: http://is.gd/LMCol. Visitors need to give at least three working days’ notice for us to locate VRCs for up to ten vessels at a time. The cards can also be copied and posted (charges apply) to enquirers. 

Applications for the medal can be made via www.veterans-uk.info/arctic_star_index.htm or write to: The Arctic Star, MOD Medal Office, Imjin Barracks, Innsworth, Gloucester, GL3 1HW.

Jeanie Smith
Assistant Librarian

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