St Albans Arctic Convoy veteran gets recognition

John Clifford with the veterans medal he received at Mansion House

John Clifford with the veterans medal he received at Mansion House - Credit: Archant

A ST Albans man who delighted hundreds of customers throughout the district when he sang operatic arias while delivering eggs and potatoes is feeling “humble” after receiving a Veteran’s Badge.

Ninety-two-year-old John Clifford, who moved to the city over 50 years ago from Scotland, was recently given the medal at a ceremony at Mansion House after serving five years with the Merchant Navy during the Second World War.

John’s service for the country included going to Murmansk, Russia, on Arctic convoys, of which “there are reputed to be only 200 of us still alive”.

It is understood that while 66,500 men sailed on the convoys, where supplies helped Russia during a Nazi invasion, 85 merchant shops and 16 Royal Navy vessels were destroyed.

The Veteran’s Badge given to John and fellow former merchant seafarers in London is one of a handful he has received over the years, including a Commemorative Medal for the 60th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War 1941-45, in recognition of his contribution to the fight against fascism during the Arctic convoys.

John voluntarily joined the Merchant Navy as a steward at the age of 19 and worked on oil tankers during the war, going on convoys escorted by Royal Navy vessels.

He explained: “We were the Royal fleet auxiliary. We were the ‘oiler’, so when they ran out of fuel, they came to us and we refuelled them. Also, when the Navy used up the depth chargers, we had depth chargers strapped to the deck - one hundred of them - each with 100-weight of TNT.”

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John credits his mum’s prayers for keeping him safe during the war.

Convoys gathered near the Island of Skye, at Lochalsh and headed out to Murmansk.

He recalled: “We went over the top of Norway and Sweden, right into the Arctic Circle, where there are 23 hours of darkness. It was awful. We slept with our clothes on, just in case anything happened.”

John added: “As a young man it was a bit of an adventure but before my second convoy I saw a shop being torpedoed and no one could do anything to help them, and I realised the seriousness of the situation.

“I was glad when it was all over so I could get back to civvy life.

“The fact that I am one of only 200 left to receive this medal - I’m a very fortunate and lucky man.”

When the war ended and he had been demobbed, John got a grant to study singing and music at the Royal Academy in London for four years. He then joined an opera company, touring many festivals. After 10 years in opera, he performed in West End musicals.

John spent 20 years in the theatre as a professional singer.

But with a growing family and the need for a steady income, John started a delivery business - Farm House Eggs and Potatoes - in St Albans, where he was dubbed “the singing egg man”.

He had 400 customers across Harpenden, St Albans, Radlett and Hatfield.

John, who still loves singing, retired at the age of 83.