Obituary: Commander Eddie Grenfell, RN

Commander Eddie Grenfell

Commander Eddie Grenfell, who has died aged 93, was a leading light in the campaign for Arctic convoy veterans to be awarded their own medal.

Commander Eddie Grenfell with his Arctic Star medal in March 2013

In 1942 Grenfell was responsible for the radar which was fitted in the Empire Lawrence, a catapult-armed merchant ship (or CAM), which carried a single Sea Hurricane fighter. The Hurricane was to be launched by catapult in the event of an aerial attack on convoy PQ16, bound for Murmansk.

On May 26 Empire Lawrence’s radar was damaged by enemy gunfire. Grenfell volunteered to climb the mast to carry out a repair while another air attack developed. He clung to the masthead while cannon shells and machine-gun bullets whistled past, then scrambled to the deck past a jagged hole where the mast had been hit. He was rewarded with a tot of what he called “the best of Jamaica’s golden liquid” — and the ship’s master promised that he would be recommended for bravery in the face of the enemy.

Later that day, when the convoy was attacked by German bombers, Empire Lawrence was able to fly off her Sea Hurricane and shoot down two of the enemy. The Sea Hurricane, however, ditched into the sea and the pilot had to be plucked from the water by a rescue ship.

This single aircraft constituted the convoy’s entire airborne defence, and the next day three enemy bombers dived on Empire Lawrence. Their bombs exploded in No 2 hold, causing her cargo of ammunition to go up and turning the ship into a gigantic fireball. Grenfell recalled: “I flew through the air surrounded by large chunks of steel, one that looked like the ship’s funnel, hitting the water and going down very deep, and when I opened my eyes, I found myself faced with a swirling black turmoil instead of the green sea I had expected. With my lungs close to bursting, I prayed, even argued with my Maker. Something was hanging on my right arm. I gave a heave, and brought to the surface the body of someone impossible to recognise. A piece of metal, still there, had almost halved his head in two.”

The survivors of Empire Lawrence were landed in Murmansk, where they were left on the quayside, cold and hungry, until the next morning. They were then taken to a Russian camp where they lived on a diet of tea and pork fat. Grenfell’s wounds were slight: cuts and bruises, and incipient frostbite in his lower legs. He was repatriated in the destroyer Hussar.

William Edward Grenfell was born at Peterhead in Scotland on January 17 1920 and educated at Montrose Academy, Angus, and the Prince of Wales Sea Training School at Limehouse , which trained deck ratings for the Merchant Navy.

On the outbreak of war he joined the Royal Navy as a torpedoman, trained as an electrician, and was sent to sea, first in the cruiser Edinburgh and then in Empire Lawrence, in which his role was to operate and maintain the ship’s radio direction-finding equipment (or RDF, as radar was then known).

Post-war, Grenfell was commissioned into the Navy’s newly formed electrical branch, and after serving as assistant British naval attaché in Bonn (1961-65) he lived in Germany for 15 years, at first running an import-export business. After being seriously injured in a car accident, he rebuilt his life working as a gardener and later as a tour guide.

Apart from his tot of rum, Grenfell’s bravery in May 1942 was never formally acknowledged, and his treatment rankled. When the Russian government began to award medals on the 40th, 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Great Patriotic War, with special reference to service in the defence of the Soviet Arctic, and it began to invite survivors to commemorative events in Archangel and Murmansk, Grenfell’s sense of injustice increased. In his retirement he began a campaign for participants in the Arctic convoys to be awarded a medal.

Successive British governments resisted the argument that the Russian convoys were a distinct campaign, although naval historians recognised that the struggle in the Barents Sea, more than 800 miles from the Atlantic proper, was very definitely a separate affair from the Battle of the Atlantic.

When, in 2006, the Blair government offered a lapel badge, it was dismissed as being “like something you find at the bottom of a cornflakes packet”. Grenfell went further: “We are disgusted, absolutely disgusted. Mr Blair effectively told us we were a great bunch of fellows but there was a limit to what he could do and we would have to be happy with a badge. I am not satisfied. The only way that a campaign, especially one as dreadful as the Arctic one, goes down in history is by a medal. A badge means nothing.”

Then, in December 2012, Grenfell heard that he had won his fight. By March this year, however, he was too ill to travel to the official award ceremony in Downing Street. He was presented with his medal by the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, at the Lord Mayor’s parlour in Portsmouth.

Grenfell also received a personal letter from the Prime Minister, and he thanked the PM by acknowledging the part he had played in achieving success for the veterans: “He always supported our claim but was hampered by civil service bureaucracy just as I was,” said Grenfell. “I’m just sad that so many of my colleagues are no longer with us to receive their medals.”

Eddie Grenfell married first, in 1942 (dissolved 1967), Beryl Hodgkins; he married secondly, in 1968 (dissolved 1974), Irene Haneberg. He is survived by two daughters of his first marriage.

Cdr Eddie Grenfell, born January 17 1920, died June 28 2013