Captain Thomas D.W. McCulloch: Veteran of the Murmansk Convoys in the Second World War

From notes submitted by Captain Tom McCulloch 2013

Tom McCulloch

Captain Thomas D.W. McCulloch (Photo from the McCulloch collection.)

In late November of 2012 I received the following communication from the Russian Embassy in Ottawa.

Dear Mr. McCulloch – I am pleased to inform you that by decree of H.E. Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, of September 30 2012, you are awarded the Ushakov Medal. This is a proof of the President’s high respect of your merits and accomplishments during the Second World War. In particular it is indicative of your courage and bravery displayed during the Murmansk Run in these difficult times in the history of our nation.

The letter was received by me with a mixture of surprise and elation. It had all happened a long time ago – sixty–nine or seventy years ago and almost forgotten – but now out of the blue it was there – recognition of a hazardous undertaking. The memories came flooding back- the excitement – the terror – the feeling of achievement!

Ushakov Naval Medal

Canadian and Russian Recipients of The Ushakov Naval Medal (Russia) (Photo from the McCulloch collection.)

I was a Cadet Officer with the Henderson Line of Glasgow. In November 1943 I joined the cargo ship Ocean Viceroy in Merseyside (UK) where she was loading war materials bound for Russia, meanwhile being fitted our with a lot of anti- aircraft equipment. We departed the Mersey in mid-December in a small convoy bound for Loch Ewe in Northwest Scotland. Loch Ewe was a gathering point for convoys to Northern Russia. On the 20th December our convoy of about twenty merchant vessels of various sizes and types sailed from Loch Ewe up past Scapa Flow where we were joined by additional merchant ships from North American ports and by our close escort of destroyers. The convoy formed into seven columns and we proceeded northward. Enemy submarines attracted the attention of our escort and the rumble of depth charges could be heard from time to time. Two ships on the outermost columns were sunk. Enemy aircraft had a run at the convoy but the combined anti-aircraft barrage from the convoy dented their ardour. The weather was foul and our deck cargo of boxed aircraft needed much attention. Approaching the North Cape the convoy became the target of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst. Luckily for us she was intercepted by the British Battleship HMS Duke of York and the Cruiser HMS Belfast on Boxing Day 1943 and sent to the bottom.

Ushakov Naval Medal

The Ushakov Naval Medal (Russia) (Photo from the McCulloch collection.)

We entered Murmansk harbour the following day. It was being bombed nightly by German aircraft based in Petsamo a mere ninety miles away. We discharged our cargo while joining the Russian anti–aircraft batteries in their quest to destroy these intruders. Later in January 1944 we loaded manganese ore for ballast. I had my 19th birthday while lying at anchor in Kola Inlet. I found the Russians to be friendly and appreciative of our efforts. In early February we sailed safely in convoy back to the UK.

Presentation of the Ushakov Naval Medal, February 1 2013, at the Kerrisdale Royal Canadian Legion, Vancouver B.C.

The ceremony was conducted by Dr. Artem Tcherkassov, Honorary Consul of the Russian Federation, and members of his staff. About 150 to 200 persons attended the event including numerous Russians. There were nineteen medals to be presented in British Columbia with about sixty–two in all of Canada. The Consul emphasized the importance of the medal noting that it was only awarded for bravery in action against the enemy and that Admiral Ushakov was looked upon as the patron saint of the Russian navy and that he never lost a battle.

To my surprise I was the first to receive the medal and took the opportunity to thank the consul and to say a few words about my own personal experience on the Murmansk run in 1943–1944. It was very well received with a standing ovation – much to my astonishment. My wife was then presented with a bouquet of flowers. Another Canadian then stepped forward to receive his medal, and then an additional medal was awarded to a Russian present followed by a series of medals to relatives of those who had passed away. That still left about five medals unclaimed. The consul promised to try to get the remaining Ushakov medals to their rightful recipients.

Much talk then ensued in Russian and English between the recipients and other Russian dignitaries present, most of it general but some specific to particular convoys. Most interesting! By this time I was dying for a drink – wine – beer – water – anything! But the bar stayed closed. However, the situation improved when a talented group of Russian entertainers arrived- headed by a magnificent baritone who had the Russians in the audience singing along with him in a wonderful chorus. It was a fitting end for a wonderful event. It should also be noted that a lot of Royal Canadian Legion Brass were present together with representatives from the Royal Canadian Navy. All together a grand affair! I feel very proud to be a recipient of the Russian Ushakov medal – not forgetting all those who perished on the run to Murmansk.

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