Seventy years after his service in the Second World War – Charles ‘Joe’ Cook has finally been presented with the esteemed Ushakov medal for service on the Russian convoys.
Mr Cook, a ninety-one-year-old widower, travelled to the Russian Embassy in London last month to meet the ambassador and receive the honour for ‘one of the hardest journeys of his life’.
He explains: “After hearing the medals had been issued on the HMS Belfast in London… I rung them out to find out if there was any presentation ceremony in the Bristol area…They had no knowledge of any but said if I wanted I could be presented at the embassy…”
The Ushakov Medal is a Soviet military award given to those that served on the Russian Arctic convoys, a journey that Winston Churchill himself described as “the most dangerous journey in the world.”
Mr Cook – who has lived in Knowle West since the age of 13 – clearly agrees, deeming it the “journey from hell … you didn’t get any respite.”
He was just 19 when he took part in the first of three convoys. He served as a Radar Operator on the HMS Howe – where his primary duty was to intercept the German submarines and ensure they didn’t get among the convoys.
But Arctic temperatures often posed a bigger threat, with Mr Cook describing the bitter cold “a far bigger enemy to us than the German submarines”.
He recalls: “I’ve seen boiling water spill and freeze as it lands…it would freeze solid!”
Nowadays Mr Cook prefers to reminisce on lighter moments, such as causing a can of baked beans to blow up – something his crew mistook for an enemy bomb exploding!
He also remembers climbing to the top of the mast in biting winds to help do an urgent repair on a broken radar.
He smiles: “I didn’t mind heights… we collected clothing off anyone who was nearby as it was so bitter cold.”
Mr Cook has now received a total of ten medals for his services, including seven from the British government and three from the Russian, although he says he is “more proud of this (medal) than any other” – with only 3,000 being issued worldwide.
A popular figure in Knowle West, he still leads an active lifestyle, attending his local gym twice a week, where he has recently started volunteering to help others with the equipment.
He playfully adds, “I help anyone who doesn’t know what to do… but I’m the oldest by far!”