Diss war veteran receives medal for role in Arctic Convoys

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Second World War veteran Jacob Bowhill has spoken of his immense pride in being honoured by the Russian government for his services on the Arctic Convoys.

Mr Bowhill, 91, of Diss received the Ushakov Medal for his part in protecting the convoys, which delivered much needed supplies to the Russians as they fought the Germans.

Initially, the British Government had blocked plans from the Russian embassy to show their gratitude to survivors with the medal, which also marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. Its rules had stated that British soldiers could not receive a foreign medal if their service did not take place in the previous five years.

However, the Foreign Office made an exception to the rule allowing those who served in the convoys to receive the prestigious accolade.

And last Friday Mr Bowhill, seven decades on, received his medal with a feeling of great pride.

“It was a proud moment but I was very surprised. I wasn’t sure whether I would get it,” he said.

It was a route that Winston Churchill described as the ‘worst journey in the world’ with temperatures dropping as low as -50C and Mr Bowhill recalls how the cold weather and rough conditions made it a perilous journey.

“I remember one rough trip we had, all you could see was a wall of water around you,” he said. “When you came up on top of the waves, if you were lucky you would see one of the other destroyers.

“In the worst weather, you could see the propellers of the destroyer next to you as it went over a wave.”

The severe weather wasn’t the only a danger to the crew. In one incident his boat, the HMS Zephyr, captained by Captain JH Allison, was struck by an enemy torpedo.

“We were heavily damaged but we managed to prop the boat up and one of the other destroyers took us in tow and back to shore.”

Mr Bowhill has lived in the Diss area his entire life. Born in South Lopham, he now lives at Walcot Rise.

He was responsible for protecting the convoy from aerial attacks, using an anti aircraft gun to fight off the enemy and he remembers having to scrape thick layers of ice from the guns in order for them to work.

“We had to knock the ice off to make sure the ship didn’t get too heavy and if it was really bad weather we had to put a round through the guns every two hours to make sure the barrels were clear.”

He also recalls how the boats had nowhere to hide in the vast Arctic Ocean, and even in darkness how the Northern Lights made them ‘sitting ducks’.

The 91-year-old volunteered for the navy when he turned 18 in 1942. He had an active service, having also been deployed in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, but it was the togetherness between the troops in the Arctic Convey in such difficult conditions which made it a special unit to serve with.

“There was a great sense of comradery,” he said. “You all relied on one and other and you become very good comrades. You were relying on each other for your life as well as theirs.”

The medal adds to his collection, which includes the Arctic Star as well as recognition of his service in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

And although he is very proud of the role he and his fellow veterans played helping the Russians to defeat the Germans on the Eastern Front, Mr Bowhill is circumspect, insisting he was simply there to protect his country.

“We were there to just do our duty, and that was it.”