HMS Belfast restoration team edge closer to deal as veterans are honoured by Russians

By Culture24 Staff | 25 March 2010
A photo of a large group of war veterans in uniform on a ship

(Above) Surviving heroes from HMS Belfast's Arctic Convoys of World War II are honoured with Russian medals

As the last surviving ship from the Arctic Convoys which kept Russia in firepower during the Second World War, HMS Belfast has become a vessel of affection for Kremlin officials.

Yesterday, 14 soldiers from the extraordinary campaign were awarded commemorative Russian jubilee military medals by Vladimir Osipov, the Chief of the President's Directorate of State Decorations, in an emotional onboard ceremony which was major television news back in Russia. It was also the latest chapter in a lengthy campaign to improve the ship with Russian aid.

"The old boys never received medals, and there was a certain amount of sadness in that," says Tim Lewin, whose own father served on the ship and who remains perhaps its staunchest supporter.

"The Russians take the war much more seriously – you have to remember they lost 20 million people in it. VE Day is a national day of rest there.

"This is also the 65th anniversary of the victory, and many of the veterans are in their 80s now, so they might not get to see many more anniversaries. Going out to Russia is no picnic, so to be appreciated – even now – is very important for them."

Four million tons of supplies were transported to Russian shores in temperatures as low as -30 degrees Celsius between 1942 and 1944, providing thousands of tanks and aircraft against the German army on the Eastern Front in a mission described by Winston Churchill as "the worst journey in the world".

Belfast also played a crucial role in a bloody naval battle with Nazi Germany's 32,000-ton Scharnhorst juggernaut on Boxing Day 1943, using radar technology to chase the ship through Arctic darkness.

A black and white photo of a vast ancient battleship

HMS Belfast's crucial role in the defeat of the mighty German Scharnhorst battleship was a vital moment in the war. Photo: Klein, A, German Federal Archive (1939)

"It was a pretty nasty campaign," says Lewin. "It was an epochal time for both sides. Taking a big ship was very dangerous, because it was a target for overhead attacks, but it was necessary because of the Scharnhorst. It was permanently dark and snowing, but HMS Belfast was the only ship with a decently working radar."

More than 60 years after the ship's gutsiest assignment, Lewin got involved with renovation plans during a chat with the ship director.

"I offered to help after the third glass of wine, as you do," he confesses.

"It's been extremely complicated, as is anything to do with Russia. It was a boom time for Russian businesses, but they were suspicious of all the money going to foreign football clubs. They wanted to know why it wasn't being spent on domestic causes. We had to spend 18 months going through friends of friends of friends."

The estimated cost of replacing Belfast's ancient masts was more than £1 million, and a momentary thawing of Vladimir Putin’s frosty façade wasn’t quite the hand-out The Sun reported it as.

A photo of a man in a tribal hat and green military jumper smiling

Former Russian leader Vladimir Putin approved the £1 million bid to fund two new masts on HMS Belfast. Photo: kremlin.ru

"He didn't say 'who do I make the cheque out to?'," explains Lewin.

"He gave approval to the funding campaign. When we finally got that, it was just in time for the global economy to collapse."

Lewin's knowledge of the Russian market began during his time as a city trader in the 1980s. A phone call from the foreign office – "I thought it was a leg-pull, because mobiles weren't common at the time" – saw him help out with John Major and Mikhael Gorbachev's KnowHow partnership between the two countries.

During his Soviet sojourn, Lewin became familiar with some of the wealthy Russian conglomerates supporting this project, including OPK – a 300 billion rouble corporation responsible for everything from mining to real estate, biotechnology and shipyards in the country – and industrial giants Severstal and Sovcomflot UK.

"The Russian shipyards are ready to undertake the work," he says. "They are ready to fabricate the replica masts. The two new masts will last forever, so the cost isn't really the important bit, it's getting these experts involved."

A profile photo of a middle-aged man in a suit

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev confirmed his support through the formal presentation of a Government certificate. Photo: kremlin.ru

A certificate presented at the ceremony confirms Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's official stamp of approval, and the plan is for Russian architects to design the masts, bringing them to London for construction on the ship.

"The quality and sincerity of the speeches leave me in no doubt the work will happen this year," says Lewin.

"In Churchillian terms it's the end of the beginning. Now we need to let the dust settle a bit."

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