At nearly 90 years old, Diss war veteran Jake Bowhill may have wondered whether he would ever be recognised for his key Second World War naval role.
But the former Royal Navy able seaman has finally been awarded the Arctic Star Medal for his service aboard HMS Zephyr, a Z-class destroyer and flotilla leader with the notoriously treacherous Arctic Convoys.
The convoys played a crucial role braving bitterly cold weather and potential attacks from German U-boats to escort merchant ships delivering vital supplies to the Russian cities of Murmansk and Archangel. It was described by Churchill as the “worst journey in the world”, something Mr Bowhill could confirm.
“You know it’s cold when you see the sea spray freeze on your oilskins as soon as it hits you,” he said.
Mr Bowhill, has lived and worked in the Diss area all his life. Born at South Lopham, he now lives at Walcot Rise.
He volunteered for the navy when he turned 18 in 1942, serving first aboard a merchant ship which supplied mine layers setting mines in harbour entrances and river estuaries.
He was then posted to the brand new destroyer HMS Zephyr which was sent out on the Atlantic patrols, protecting convoys with food and supplies from America from the deadly ‘wolf packs’ of German U-boats.
The destroyer then switched to the North Atlantic convoys travelling up into the treacherous Arctic Circle.
“One of the things we really hated was the Northern Lights,” Mr Bowhill said. “They showed us up to the enemy. With the Northern Lights behind us, the German U-boats could see our silhouettes and then attack.”
Mr Bowhill was an anti-aircraft gunner on the destroyer’s twin boufors gun which was positioned just behind the bridge. He frequently saw his captain, Captain JH Allison, a renowned naval commander who won the DSO for gallantry, taking command. “We had the best skipper in the navy. He was always looking out for the crew and would go to any lengths to make sure we were alright, and no-one could handle a ship better than him. We always felt safe with him.”
Despite the captain’s skill, HMS Zephyr did get torpedoed, but only one life was lost. Mr Bowhill remembers the other destroyers circling round to protect the stricken ship and towing it back into Scapa Flow for repairs.
After the war, Mr Bowhill returned to the Diss area and worked for Burroughes of Bressingham for many years. He and his late wife, Ena, were married for 61 years and had two daughters. The family now extends to four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Mr Bowhill has also received the Ushakov Medal awarded for convoy duties by the Russian Federation. The new medals join his 1939-45 Star; his Atlantic Star with Bar; his Africa Star and North Africa Bar, and his Defence and War Medals.