We had almost reached our destination when the convoy came under attack and all hell broke loose.

Tom Burke

He continued: “We were all aware that to U-Boats we were a valuable target so it was particularly frightening to be on the San Venancio.

“We had almost reached our destination when the convoy came under attack and all hell broke loose.

"A U-Boat came close alongside our ship, using us as cover from the Royal Navy ships in our escort. It was so close that we were actually bumping into it.

“Eventually a British Naval Destroyer dropped a depth charge almost on top of it. The explosion blew every piece of ice off the deck of our ship.”

Described by Sir Winston Churchill as “the worst journey in the world”, conditions on the Arctic Convoys were some of the bleakest faced by any Allied sailors. Besides the ever-present threat of enemy attack, the crews braved extreme cold, gales and pack ice.

From September 1941 when the first convoy left, to May 1945 when the missions ended, 87 merchant ships and 18 Royal Navy warships were sunk, making the loss rate higher than any other allied convoy route during WWII.

On Wednesday, August 7, Tom Burke was presented with his Arctic Star medal by Commodore Mike Wareham RN, Naval Base Commander Clyde.

“Tom, and the brave men he served with during the Arctic Convoys are genuine heroes,” said Commodore Wareham.

“It was their outstanding bravery and sacrifice which ensured that the Soviet Union could fight on and which cemented the links which held the allies together, leading to eventual victory.

“It is an honour and a privilege to be able to present Tom with his medal.”

Joining the Merchant Navy while in his teens, Tom’s life at sea reads like an ocean-going adventure.

As well as his service with the Arctic Convoys, Tom also participated in the Atlantic Convoys and was involved in laying portable, temporary harbours – known as Mulberry Harbours – during the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Serving on everything from fuel tankers ported at Dubai, to Banana boats bound for Jamaica, he eventually rose to become a Master Mariner and Ships’ Pilot, spending the latter days of his career on board Caledonian MacBrayne ferries.

During one trip to Jamaica the merchant seaman even had a brush with Hollywood, meeting actor Errol Flynn who asked him to captain his yacht.

Aware of the actor’s hell-raising reputation Tom turned him down, afraid of what his family back home would say if he took the job.

They parted company, with the actor bidding the Cardonald sailor farewell with a “so long Burkey” and a wave goodbye.

Witnessing the medal presentation on August 7 were members of Tom’s family – his niece, Elizabeth Webb and husband Bill, his brother John Burke, and sister-in-law Patricia and nephew John Burke who had travelled from Liverpool.

“I am very proud of my uncle,” said Elizabeth Webb.

“The whole family is so pleased he was able to receive his Arctic Star medal in such a nice way. It was a long time coming to him, but it was all worth it.”

The Arctic Star medal is embossed with King George VI’s cipher – the letters G, R and I – and carries the words “The Arctic Star”.

The medal ribbon features colours representing the three Armed Services as well as red for the Merchant Navy and a central white stripe, emphasised by black edging, marking the Arctic.

Images by CPOA(Phot) Thomas McDonald