A HELENSBURGH veteran of what Winston Churchill called “the worst journey in the world” was presented with the Arctic Star medal on August 7 2013 — over 60 years after undertaking the dangerous mission.
Conditions on the Arctic Convoys were some of the bleakest faced by any Allied sailors during the Second World War. Besides the ever-present threat of enemy attack, the crews braved extreme cold, gales and pack ice.
Tom Burke, who died later that year at the age of 92, was aged just 24 when he served aboard the merchant tanker San Venancio on its hazardous journey to deliver supplies to the Soviet Union.
Leaving the Clyde on March 11 1945, Tom and his shipmates ran the deadly gauntlet of German U-Boats, warships and aircraft to reach their destination at the Kola inlet, near Murmansk, ten days later on March 21.
“The tanker I was on was carrying commercial alcohol for chemical works on the White Sea,” Tom said. “We were all aware that to U-Boats we were a valuable target, so it was particularly frightening to be on the San Venancio.
“We had almost reached our destination when the convoy came under attack and all hell broke loose.
“A U-Boat came close alongside our ship, using us as cover from the Royal Navy ships in our escort. It was so close that we were actually bumping into it.
“Eventually a British Naval Destroyer dropped a depth charge almost on top of it. The explosion blew every piece of ice off the deck of our ship.”
From September 1941 when the first convoy left, to May 1945 when the missions ended, 87 merchant ships and 18 Royal Navy warships were sunk, making the loss rate higher than any other allied convoy route during World War Two.
Tom was presented with the Arctic Star medal by Commodore Mike Wareham RN, Naval Base Commander Clyde, who said: “Tom, and the brave men he served with during the Arctic Convoys, are genuine heroes.
“It was their outstanding bravery and sacrifice which ensured that the Soviet Union could fight on and which cemented the links which held the allies together, leading to eventual victory. It is an honour and a privilege to be able to present Tom with his medal.”
Tom, who was originally from Cardonald, joined the Merchant Navy while in his teens, and his life at sea reads like an ocean-going adventure.
As well as his service with the Arctic Convoys, Tom also participated in the Atlantic Convoys and was involved in laying portable, temporary harbours — known as Mulberry Harbours — during the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Serving on everything from fuel tankers ported at Dubai, to Banana boats bound for Jamaica, he eventually rose to become a Master Mariner and Ships Pilot, spending the latter days of his career on board Caledonian MacBrayne ferries.
During one trip to Jamaica the merchant seaman even had a brush with Hollywood, meeting actor Errol Flynn who asked him to captain his yacht.
Aware of the actor’s hell-raising reputation Tom turned him down, afraid of what his family back home would say if he took the job. They parted company, with the actor bidding the sailor farewell with a “so long Burkey” and a wave goodbye.
Watching the medal presentation were members of Tom’s family — his niece, Elizabeth Webb, and husband Bill, his brother John Burke, and sister-in-law Patricia and nephew John Burke who travelled from Liverpool.
Elizabeth, who lives in Abercrombie Crescent, Helensburgh, said that day: “I am very proud of my uncle. The whole family is so pleased he was able to receive his Arctic Star medal in such a nice way. It was a long time coming to him, but it was all worth it.
“If I ask him about it he will talk to me in detail and I enjoy listening because it’s quite a story.”
Tom’s wife Nora passed away in 2005. They had no family.
The Arctic Star medal is embossed with King George VI’s cipher — the letters G, R and I — and carries the words “The Arctic Star”.
The medal ribbon features colours representing the three Armed Services as well as red for the Merchant Navy and a central white stripe, emphasised by black edging, marking the Arctic.
- This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Helensburgh Advertiser, and is reproduced by kind permission of the Editor.