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Commander William Edward Grenfell RN (1920 – 2013)

Eddie GrenfellGRENFELL, WILLIAM EDWARD “EDDIE” was born in Peterhead, Scotland 17 January 1920 the son of William John Grenfell and Maggie Bella Taylor and was educated at Montrose Academy in Angus and the Prince of Wales Training School in London.

At the beginning of the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy as a torpedo man, trained as an electrician and joined HMS Edinburgh. Subsequently he was transferred to the SS Empire Lawrence, a catapult armed merchant vessel, in order to operate and maintain the radio direction-finding equipment as radar was then known. On May 26 1942 when in Convoy PQ16 to Murmansk the radar equipment was damaged by enemy gunfire. Grenfell voluntarily climbed the mast under fire and in extreme cold in order carry out repairs. The decoration he was promised for his bravery never materialised and the next day Empire Lawrence was dive bombed, the ammunition store exploded and Grenfell was thrown into the sea. The survivors of the ship were landed at Murmansk where they were left on the quayside until the next morning before being transferred to a Russian camp for a diet of tea and pork fat. He spent six months in hospital before being repatriated in HMS Hussar.

He also served on the cruiser HMS Leander and took part in the Norway campaign of 1941 and later sailed to the relief of Malta.

Having started his naval career as an ordinary seaman he passed through the ranks to petty officer and was promoted to sub-lieutenant in 1944. He was subsequently promoted to Commander in 1956 and recommended for promotion to Captain but retired in 1966.

As a Commander in 1961 and possessing fluent German, he was appointed assistant naval attache in Bonn, then capital of West Germany. Surprised at how few embassy staff spoke German, he set up a lecture tour and worked to forge links between the two countries. His appointment was twice extended until he retired.

After retirement he was a successful businessman in Germany before a serious car accident curtailed his activities and he became a gardener before changing to organising tours from Germany to the UK.

In 1990 he returned to live in Portsmouth and joined the Russian Convoy Club. In 1995 he was asked to lead the campaign to persuade the government to create a medal for survivors of Arctic convoys who felt aggrieved that they were not eligible for a medal specifically awarded for their part in the Battle of the Atlantic, described by Winston Churchill as “the worst journey in the world” Also, unlike the Americans and other navies they were not allowed to accept the Ushakov Medal from Russia.

In order to draw attention to the campaign Grenfell stood in the General Election of 2005 – aged 86 he was thought to be the oldest parliamentary candidate in the country – against Geoff Hoon, who had been Defence Secretary, in the Nottinghamshire constituency of Ashfield. As an Independent he won 269 votes.

In 2006 survivors of the Arctic convoys were offered a lapel badge, the Arctic Emblem, which Grenfell described as being “like something you find at the bottom of cornflakes packet”. In May 2010 he was invited to Russia to the Moscow Victory Parade and lunch in the Kremlin.

The impasse lasted until December 2012, when the Coalition government announced that a medal would finally be created. Unfortunately Commander Grenfell was too ill to travel to Downing Street to receive his from the Prime Minister in March 2013, but was the first recipient of the Arctic Star from the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, in the Mayor’s Parlour at Portsmouth. Finally the Foreign Office relented and veterans were invited to receive the Ushakov Medal at Downing Street from the Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit in mid-June 2013.

  Commander Grenfell died 28th June 2013. At his funeral in Portsmouth Cathedral the coffin, draped in a Union Jack, was met by a guard of honour of Royal British Legion standard-bearers. Representatives from Russia and Germany, as well as the Royal Navy, attended.

 [Online obituaries: The Independent, The Telegraph, The Scotsman, The Portsmouth News. Family information. The photograph is Crown copyright in the possession of the The National Archives]

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