With the Marines in Murmansk
Volume 49, Number 2, February 2011
Opening a can of worms The subject of who gets what medal and why has always been a thorny one—from how long someone has to serve with an exemplary record to get an LS&GC, through to why an MC is awarded rather than a CGC. There are always those with differing opinions, and never more so than when it comes to the subject of campaign medals. The criteria for campaign medals will always provoke debate: there will always be those who feel their service wasn’t recognised properly whilst others, who seemingly did little, are feted and rewarded with a chestful of gongs. The very fact that so many unofficial “commemorative” medals exist shows the strength of feeling amongst veterans that “they should have got a medal” and, sadly, the attempts by the last government to put a lid on the issue by instituting badges rather than medals has pleased few, if anyone. The debate was rejoined in January of this year when Prime Minister David Cameron announced in the House of Commons that he had “been in contact with the Ministry of Defence” about the idea of instituting a medal specifically for the Arctic Convoys: something veterans have been campaigning for for many years. Currently those Royal and Merchant naval personnel who served aboard the ships that helped supply the Soviet Union during World War II are eligible for the Atlantic Star (subject to six month’s service and the award of the 1939–45 Star). However, their argument is that this medal is also awarded to those who served for that length of time anywhere in the defined area (Atlantic or home waters) and whilst those who didn’t serve on the convoys were still subject to the usual dangers of war, their service was far less dangerous than those serving in the Arctic. They have a point—Churchill himself praised those who took part in the convoys and recognised just how dangerous they were and the Russian Government has, on many occasions, awarded its own medals to veterans as a mark of appreciation (the 40th anniversary medal, awarded in 1995, has been “recognised for wear” and so may be mounted alongside British medals, subsequent awards have not). On the surface it seems logical that those who faced the hardships of the Arctic Circle should be honoured with a different medal to those who patrolled the English Channel or Irish Sea and apparently faced less hazards (U-boats notwithstanding). But the simple fact is, if you do that, where do you stop? Take the France and Germany Star for example—that was awarded for service from June 6, 1944 until May 8, 1945 in France, Belgium, Holland or Germany. In the Army service in “any operation” counted. Of course “any operation” in those fraught days would have been dangerous, but surely those who went in to the normandy beaches on June 6 itself faced more danger than those who went in to the Operational area a few weeks later. Don’t they deserve a special medal? It could be argued that those parachuted in behind enemy lines or who crash landed the gliders just short of Pegasus Bridge faced far more danger than those who came in the boats later on that week, so why don’t they have a specific medal? And what of those in the first wave on the beaches themselves, when casualty rates were expected to be between 50 and 80 per cent? Couldn’t those veterans argue that they deserved some more recognition than those who came in on the third or fourth waves? Then take Operation Market Garden? Couldn’t those who fought at Arnhem argue that they faced greater danger than those who fought at Nijmegen? Don’t they deserve their own medal? look at the humble Defence Medal: there were towns and cities in Britain that suffered devastating enemy action (London, Bristol, Coventry, Plymouth, Exeter and so many others) and those on the Home front during those raids routinely put their lives at risk, whereas in other towns and cities around the country the Home Guard and other eligible personnel had little to do but “keep calm and carry on”. Do those who were unfortunate enough to live in a place regularly targeted by the luftwaffe deserve more recognition than those who escaped the constant bombings? Yes, the criteria for the World War II medals are perhaps inadequate and, yes, I can fully see why there are those aggrieved by what they see as having been “cheated” out of proper recognition and they do have my sympathy; but I cannot help but feel that by opening up the Arctic debate again, the Prime Minister is in danger of opening the flood gates to a torrent of appeals from other aggrieved parties, all of whom believe they too have been “cheated”. every one of those parties will have an excellent argument for why they should get a medal. every one will be able to back up their claim with cold hard facts and it will be difficult to ignore them. far better, I say, to leave things as they are—no it’s not ideal, and yes, there will be some who feel hard done by. But the trouble is, there always will be, no matter what criteria are laid down, and sometimes it is better just to stick to the rules rather than try to bend them. You start bending rules and all too often they break and then they may as well not be there at all—and that will be of no help to anybody.
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