Friday, December 13, 2013

Arctic Star to Russia

On Thursday 19 September 2013, a group of British veterans of the Arctic Convoys (1941-1945), all members of the Russian Convoys Club in Kennington (Borough of Southwark, London), wishing to pay their respect to the Russian people for their heroism and the courage displayed during the Second World War and the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945, have initiated an unprecedented gesture to present the Arctic Star medal to Russia’s Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow.
Every veteran in the Club eagerly offered his own medal, so a draw had to be made. It was James Pitts (89), who defended convoys JW66 and RA66, whose medal was presented. James was also honoured to carry the Winter Olympic Flame in Arkhangelsk on 1st November this year.
The organisational responsibilities for this campaign of historic friendship and honour were intrusted with Eugene Kasevin of The Russia House Ltd., who also provided the required sponsorship funding and guarantees.
THE STAR VOYAGE: HMS Belfast, London (UK) to the British Consulate St. Petersburg (Russia)
The Arctic Star began its journey ahead of the veterans, with the ceremony on board HMS Belfast on Tuesday 5 November.
At the ceremony on board HMS Belfast the veterans were joined by the former 1st Sea Lord Admiral Lord Alan West, Simon Hughes MP for Southwark, Abdul Mohamed the Mayor of Southwark, Director of HMS Belfast Phil Reed and Russian Embassy officials. The owner of the Arctic Star, James Pitts, handed his medal over to the organiser.
Wednesday 6 November saw the Arctic Star being taken to the port of Sheerness, where she was handed over by Eugene to the Captain of M/S LINDA, Hannu Soinila, to be taken by sea to St. Petersburg in Russia.
The Arctic Star arrived in St. Petersburg on Wednesday 13 November and was officially accepted by the British Naval Attaché Captain RN David Fields on Thursday 14 November at the British Consulate St. Petersburg.
The Arctic Star voyage from HMS Belfast in London to St. Petersburg was codenamed CG in memory of Commander Eddie Grenfell – the veteran who for sixteen years led the campaign for the issue of the Arctic Star Medal in the UK.
Captain RN David Fields has delivered the Arctic Star to the British Embassy in Moscow on Friday 15 November, where she remained in British custody until the main presentation ceremony.
ITAR-TASS held a press conference at 11:00 (MSK) on Tuesday 26 November as a build-up to the Arctic Star presentation ceremony scheduled for 13:00 (MSK) on Friday 29 November in the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow, Russia.
Participants of the ITAR-TASS press conference included: British Naval Attaché Captain RN David Fields, Deputy Director of the Museum Mikhail Mikhalchev, Secretary of the Naval veterans Association Boris Davydov, Deputy Chairman of the Naval Cadets Association Valentin Soldatov and the organiser Eugene Kasevin.

The group of British veterans of the Arctic Convoys and their family members landed in Moscow Sheremetievo Airport on the evening of Thursday 28 November. James Pitts, Stanley Ballard, Anthony Snelling, Ernest Davies, James Wells, Frank Bond, David Kennedy and Fred Udell were also joined by the British violinist Litsa Tunnah and an ITN UK television team of Luke Hanrahan and Gemma Creely.
On the morning of Friday 29 November, the British veterans and the accompanying group were invited to join British Ambassador Tim Barrow at his residence on Sofiyskaya Embankment opposite the Kremlin for tea.
After the Ambassador’s tea reception and the tour of the residence the group moved on to the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War, where they were met by young Russian Navy cadets, Russian veterans and the Director and Deputy Director of the Museum: Vladimir Zaborovsky and Mikhail Mikhalchev.
Upon entering the Museum British veterans with their Russian counterparts and the guests gathered in the Alley of Tears, which leads towards the dramatic sculpture of a mother weeping for her son. The Monument of Sorrow, resembling the Biblical theme of Mary and Jesus, became the point of remembrance for Russian and British warriors fallen during the Second World War.
Flowers were laid at the memorial on behalf of British and Russian veterans; there was a Minute’s Silence with the sounds of Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem playing softly in the background.
The Ceremony was officially opened by the Museum’s Deputy Director Mikhail Mikhalchev, followed by British and Russian national anthems performed by the Rimsky-Korsakov Central Exemplary Orchestra of the Russian Navy. Deputy Director read out the letter from the Buckingham Palace, which conveyed the appreciation of historic importance of the Arctic Star to Russia event and the best wishes to all the veterans from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The Museum’s Director Vladimir Zaborovsky, addressed the veterans and the guests with an in-depth description of the Arctic Convoys and their tremendous input during the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945 and the subsequent Victory in May 1945.
British Naval Attaché Captain RN David Fields, offered his thanks to the veterans, the Museum and the organiser for the opportunity to be part of the historic event of the Arctic Star presentation to Russia, he underlined the close friendship that historically exists between the Royal Navy and the Russia Navy.
British veteran James Pitts, whose medal was presented to Russia on behalf of himself and all of the British veterans, offered his heartfelt thanks to the Russian people for the bravery and the heroism during the Arctic Convoys campaigns and the Great Patriotic War.
The organiser Eugene Kasevin relayed to veterans and guests the complete story of the Arctic Star voyage from HMS Belfast on the Thames to Moscow.
The British veterans, the Naval Attaché and the Museum’s Director were invited to stand for the final handover ceremony of the Arctic Star to Russia. The Star was given from the hands of Captain David Fields through the hands of each British Arctic Convoys veteran, who had made the journey from the UK: Fred Udell, Anthony Snelling, Frank Bond, James Wells, Ernest Davies, David Kennedy, Stanley Ballard and James Pitts, who in turn handed his Star Medal to Vladimir Zaborovsky, Director of the Russia’s Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
The Presentation continued as Vladimir Zaborovsky conveyed his deepest gratitude to James Pitts and the veterans for the historic gift – the Arctic Star, which is now permanently displayed in the main section of the Museum.
The Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow receives over 1 million visitors every year, and the Arctic Star was accepted in the Museum’s collection as one of the most precious and historic displays.
Following the handover ceremony, every British veteran was presented with the St. Andrew’s Commemorative Medal of Saint Fiodor Ushakov, an 18th Century Admiral of the Russian Navy.
To end the ceremony the veterans and guests enjoyed performances by the British violinist Litsa Tunnah, who performed Paganini’s Caprice No.24 and Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, ‘The Swan’ dance of Saint Saens by ballerina Marina Malikova (accompanied by Litsa Tunnah), Russian war-time song ‘Dark Night’ was sung by Viacheslav Fiodorov and culminated with a song from one of the British veterans, Stanley Ballard with a moving rendition of a very poignantly worded song called ‘The Way We Were’.
The morning of Saturday 30 November saw the British veterans taken to the Eternal Flame at the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’ alongside the Kremlin Wall where they laid red carnations in the memory of all the fallen heroes.
A quick souvenir shop on Stary Arbat Street was followed by dinner in the Museum’s restaurant, which was crowned by an evening cruising along Moskva River on the Radisson Royal Flotilla boat.
The veterans returned home on Sunday 1 December.
The Arctic Star event and the visit of British veterans to Moscow took Russia by storm of emotional excitement, with all prime Russian channels covering the ceremony across the whole country. The British ITN television team, who accompanied the veterans on their trip to Russia, produced an excellent short film that deserves to be in the national archives.
However, every successful campaign of national and international interest has its setbacks, and the Arctic Star to Russia did not waive its rights to incidents and worries that only the organiser can relate.
Thursday 28 November
The expected travel group of nine British veterans (members of the Russian Convoy Club) was shortened by one – Ernest Kennedy, whose back pains kept him in bed making it impossible for him to travel to Russia. Thus, only eight veterans set off from Heathrow on this historic journey to Moscow.
Friday 29 November
Only 20 minutes before the ceremony was due to start at 13:00 one of the Russian Navy veterans, Yuri Kalyakanov (1927-2013) collapsed in the Museum foyer and sadly could not be resuscitated after suffering an extensive myocardial infarction and died in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Later it transpired that the veteran’s daughter after trying to keep her father home, was told by him ‘Darling! This could be my last, but very important trip.’
Saturday 30 November
It was a very cold day in Moscow, with the Arctic wind making it very appropriate for the occasion. The group of British veterans, gathered by the Kremlin Wall to lay the flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when Anthony Snelling (90) became very unwell with the onset of pneumonia. Being a true gentleman and despite his condition, Anthony insisted he lay his red carnations at the Eternal Flame and salute the fallen heroes. So accompanied by Eugene Kasevin he battled his way slowly up the steps in the bitter Arctic cold and laid his flowers.
The group then had to return quickly to the hotel to keep Anthony warm and seek medical assistance. On the way back Anthony was adamant and insisting that Eugene promise not to change any of the remaining schedule for the other veterans because he was ill. Of course Eugene gave his promise.
ITN’s correspondent, Luke Hanrahan, performed way beyond the call of duty, immediately offering his help and quickly getting in touch with the British Embassy and arranging for a doctor to visit Anthony in the hotel while at the same time keeping Anthony’s family informed. Once Anthony had settled in his sleep, cared for by the veterans’ friend from Murmansk Ekaterina Yermolina, Eugene re-organised the schedule for the rest of the group.
Later that evening after a visit from the doctor it became apparent that Anthony would have to stay in a private clinic, to where he was transferred later that day. The returning party on Sunday 1 December was therefore missing two members: Anthony the veteran and Eugene the organiser!
During daily visits to the clinic Eugene was frequently joined by Captain David Fields and his assistant Lieutenant commander Adrian Coghill who were bringing Anthony fresh British newspapers, which kept Anthony smiling. Anthony’s family were in constant contact with Eugene and Dr. Robert Young in Moscow. Luke had finished his programme and it came out on British national news on Monday 2 December.
As the second week was coming to an end, the day for the return flight for Anthony and Eugene was set for Saturday 7 December – thanks to Hon. Tim Lewin, who swiftly organised the flights to London. Dr. Young proclaimed Anthony fit to travel and the clinic presented the bill to Eugene! Having had to borrow the money for the trip in the first instance and with no surplus funds left, this was a very worrying time for Eugene, so after much deliberation he turned to the only person he thought would be able to help. Mr. Peter Hambro (Chairman of Petropavlovsk Plc.) – a constant supporter of the Victory Day London celebrations on board HMS Belfast whose only question was ‘How do I pay?’
Despite the fact of the current bureaucratic system in Russia preventing the Government from awarding the visiting British veterans the expected Ushakov Bravery Medal, the organiser identified and made available the St. Andrew’s Commemorative Medal of Saint Fiodor Ushakov (an 18th Century Admiral of the Russian Navy) issued by the Russian Orthodox Clergy, which was presented to the British veterans at the Ceremony on 29 November.
On Thursday 19 December Eugene Kasevin will present the St. Andrew’s Commemorative Medal of Saint Fiodor Ushakov to Ernest Kennedy at the monthly meeting of the Russian Convoys Club in Kennington. This will conclude the story of the Arctic Star to Russia for this group of Arctic Convoy veterans.
This very memorable and truly historic trip has shown a number of people at their very best and at a time of unexpected difficulties and unpredictable circumstances. Their dedication to a worthy cause that links generations through history reached the apex of admiration from everyone involved in the event and the organiser in particular.
The organiser sincerely thanks the following people and institutions:
Deputy Director of the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War Mikhail Mikhalchev and his team, without whose personal dedication and efforts the event would not have taken place! Barry Martin and Margaret Rowse of The Russia House Ltd, without whose personal support the event would not have taken place! Very special gratitude to Peter Hambro (Petropavlovsk Plc)! Sincere Thanks to Hon. Tim Lewin, Musa and Zalim Marshenkulov (RidgeNC Alliance), Mikhail Rozin (Moscow), Igor Sukhanov (St. Petersburg), Luke Hanrahan (ITN), Dr. Robert Young (GMS Clinic), Golubovich Foundation, Intourist and Novotel (Moscow), The Russian Standard, Containerships Ltd, Blackthorne International Transport Ltd, Siberian Alliance Group, Russians in the City and many others.
Report prepared by Eugene Kasevin
The Russia House Ltd., Chapel Court, Borough High Street, London SE1 1HH / Tel: +44 (0)207 403 9922 / Mob: +44 (0)7961 000766

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