Royal Navy veteran John Johnstone on his wedding day

Starr Hills resident John Johnstone has today (17 September) been presented with the Arctic Star medal for the role he played in daring missions of World War II.

John (92) is a Royal Navy veteran who retired in 1963. He was one of the youngest sailors on the cruiser HMS Newcastle when it became involved in the most perilous sea passage of the conflict – the Arctic Convoys.

These notoriously dangerous voyages were famously described by Sir Winston Churchill as “the worst journey in the world.”

John (pictured on his wedding day) was presented with the Arctic Star medal by Naval Regional Commander for Northern England, Commodore Gary Doyle, at Starr Hills in Lytham St Annes.

John said: “I will be very proud to receive the Arctic Star not only for myself but in recognition of all the sailors that served with me, many of whom didn’t return.”

Commodore Gary Doyle said:“It is a great honour to be able to officially award John his Arctic Star on behalf of the Royal Navy and indeed his country in recognition and gratitude for his service during the Second World War. 

“The contribution made by the men of the Arctic Convoys and indeed the Atlantic Convoys to the war effort was considerable and should never be underestimated. As Winston Churchill mentioned, it was the one thing that kept him awake at nights.  Not only did they have to compete with the ever present enemy threat, Mother Nature was also a considerable adversary with freezing conditions and mountainous seas. 

“One cannot begin to imagine the courage and fortitude young men such as John demonstrated during those Archangel runs.  We should also remember those comrades of John’s that did not return – we owe them all a great debt of thanks.”  

The Arctic Star medal recognises service between 1941 and 1945 delivering vital aid to the Soviet Union, running the gauntlet of enemy submarine, air and surface ship attacks. It is granted for operational service of any length north of the Arctic Circle (66 degrees, 32’N) from September 3 1939 to May 8 1945, inclusive. It is thought between 200 and 400 sailors – all now in their late 80s at their youngest – survive from the four-year-long campaign.

John joined the Royal Navy in 1939 at the age of 15 and his cadet training took place on HMS Caledonia. John’s first posting was as a boy seaman when, aged 16, he joined HMS Newcastle.

The ship was deployed for nine months patrolling the Arctic and John has vivid memories of his first two weeks at sea as he was both incredibly sea sick and home sick. He also remembers with sadness that two of his fellow boy seamen were lost overboard in the first week.

John recalls an incident when the ship was caught in one of many snow blizzards and as it lifted they were in the presence of the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.

His understanding was that the captain of the Newcastle made a decision not to engage based on the fact that his ship and company would be lost in any ensuing battle due to the size of the enemy ships.

John served on HMS Newcastle for two and a half years, attaining the rank of leading seaman. Whilst on patrol in the South Atlantic in 1942, the ship was involved in the Malta Convoys between Alexandria and Malta.

John was on board when Newcastle was hit by a torpedo from an E Boat which incapacitated the ship. HMS Newcastle was then towed into dock for repairs and three quarters of the company were sent to HMS Nile on mine-spotting duty.

Following his time on Newcastle, John joined HMS Inconstant and was involved in patrolling the South West Atlantic approaches in the lead up to D-Day. He later joined HMS Indomitable in Sydney and sailed to the Admiralty Islands to join the American fleet, where as part of an American led operation they would bombard Japan.

When the fleet was approximately 800 miles from its target the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a consequence Indomitable was diverted to Hong King.

In peacetime John was promoted to Petty Officer and he met his wife Joan who was a Chief Wren at the time and they married in 1956. The couple were only able to have a two-day honeymoon in Blackpool due to the imminent crisis in the Suez at the time. Joan died in 2004.

In April 1956 John received his Long Service and Good Conduct medal.

John’s last operational ship was the frigate HMS Surprise.  He remembers when she was used to escort the relic of St Paul from Civitavecchia in Italy to Malta. The Pope had given dispensation for the bones to be transported, accompanied by two Cardinals, to celebrate the Island of Malta’s Centenary.

After retiring from the Navy John spent 20 years working as a process worker for ICI in Thornton- Cleveleys on the Fylde Coast. He has been a resident at Starr Hills since 2012.


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