Remarkable Ron

BRIXINGTON S Ron Pettitt DSM probably did more for Russian-British relations over the last 10 years than most officials in the Foreign Office – and his achievements at home are no less impressive.

BRIXINGTON'S Ron Pettitt DSM probably did more for Russian-British relations over the last 10 years than most officials in the Foreign Office - and his achievements at home are no less impressive.

To say that Bristol-born Ron, who died last week, aged 90, had his fingers in many pies is something of an understatement, writes David Beasley.

During his long life, Ron, a former petty officer on the HMS Duke of York, was personally awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by King George VI, was feted in parades held by the Russians for his naval exploits and designed and drove the building of the Knappe Cross Community Centre.

But Ron, who lived in Partridge Road for 39 years, was also a central plank in a high-profile campaign against the Ministry of Defence to ensure that his comrades-in-arms were properly honoured for keeping open Russian supply lines that ultimately led to Hitler's downfall.

Born on December 9, 1918, the son of Lucy and Harold Pettitt, who owned an engineering business, he was one of three brothers, and was born less than a month after the official end of World War One.

His family was steeped in naval tradition - his great grandfather, James Westbeare, fought in the battle of Trafalgar on the HMS Scipion.

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After leaving Temple Technical School in Bristol in 1934, he continued his studies at the Merchant Venturers' Technical College in Bristol, specialising in electrical engineering and graduating in 1938.

The same year, he met Mary, his wife-to-be of 58-years. They had met after he spotted her shopping with her mother in Woolworths in Bristol, became enamoured and they soon got engaged.

But, like many, their marriage plans had to be put on hold with the outbreak of war, and in 1939, at the age of 21, he joined the Royal Navy.

His first assignment was to HMS Defiance, a training ship, as a wireman before being sent to his first ship, the renamed HMS Chesterfield and was thrust into one of the most terrifying and under-valued theatres of the war - convoy duty.

Their brief was to escort defenceless merchant ships from the coast of Canada to the freezing waters of Iceland and the Arctic Circle. They carried munitions, tanks and supplies to the Soviet Union who were being besieged by Hitler's Blitz Krieg.

If the Soviet empire fell, Churchill knew Hitler would then turn his attention to an ill-prepared Britain, still licking its wounds after Dunkirk.

It was veterans like Ron who braved predatory U-Boat packs and the terrifying knowledge that, if they were attacked, they would either face a freezing tomb or a fiery death.

And, if by some miracle they did make it to a lifeboat, they knew friendly ships would not be looking for them - U-Boats frequently lay submerged in wait for rescue vessels following attacks.

But if this was not bad enough, HMS Chesterfield was one of six ancient, rusting 40-year-old World War One destroyers grudgingly lent to the British by the Americans.

"Life on the destroyers was a disaster," Ron told the Journal in 2007. "They had been designed for use in the warm dry atmosphere of The Pacific.

"I was glad to get off them. They were ugly, rusting things and falling to bits."

While still on active service in 1941, Ron finally got enough leave to marry Mary, an air-raid warden

However, with food rationing and convoy attacks at their zenith, they relied on a family friend to send a delivery of icing sugar for the wedding cake.

"Sadly, this never arrived," recalled Ron. "The assumption was that the ship carrying it was torpedoed."

So they had to settle for a chocolate cake before embarking on a honeymoon for a precious few days on a farm in a village on the outskirts of Bristol. A honeymoon complete with air-raids.

Soon after, Ron was unexpectedly promoted to chief petty officer wireman and assigned to HMS Duke of York, The Flagship of the Royal Navy Home Fleet and one of the most powerful, impressive and technologically advanced capital ships in the World - a far cry from a rusting destroyer.

"It was a surprise," he admitted. "It was even more of a surprise when I found out I was responsible for a staff of eight and for the maintenance of the main armaments..."

This assignment led to more convoy duty, protecting merchant ships from the UK to Archangel and Murmansk in Russia, ensuring the beleaguered Soviets stayed in the fight against the Third Reich.

This culminated in one of the most famous naval engagements of the war, the sinking of the German Pocket Battleship, Scharnhorst, in the Barents Sea in 1943. "She had a crew of 2,000 men, but only 36 survived," Ron reflected with sadness. "I still have the signatures of every man."

In 1945, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by King George VI. "My wife came with me, although she was expecting our son Stephen.

"It was certainly an occasion which I shall never forget."

After the war, Ron worked variously for the electricity board as a heating engineer before moving to Partridge Road, Exmouth, in 1970, landing a job at Marsh Barton before, in 1972, setting up his own heating and ventilation business.

In 1981, at the age of 63, Ron decided to take early retirement to spend more time with Mary and to become more involved in the Brixington community - in 1983 he joined the Knappe Cross Community Association.

He became secretary, then chairman and their first president - in 1988 he spearheaded a campaign, raising money and designing and helping to build the Knappe Cross Community Centre.

In 1989, he retired from the position, but, sadly, just 10 years later his wife Mary, following complications from a heart condition, died.

In 1992, he became a member of the Russian Convoy Club, a group formed to reunite personnel who manned the convoys - this led to a series of high-profile annual visits to the Russian Federation.

Over the next 15 years he attended parades, dinners, and functions with Government dignitaries, ministers, mayors, generals and admirals - and even the Russian Ambassador to Britain.

He and his comrades maintained links despite worsening British-Russian Government relations, ranging from criticism over human rights abuses in the consecutive Chechen wars, concerns about the supply of gas to the European Union and doubts about the fairness and legitimacy of the Russian elections.

But, to the Russians, people like Ron were considered heroes, helping them fight - and win - their Great Patriotic War against Germany and each year they were feted by crowds as heroes.

This culminated in a visit he organised with the Royal British Legion for four Russian veterans to Exmouth in November 2007.

His involvement with Russian Convoy Club also led to the end of his 50-year fight to ensure that fellow convoy veterans were awarded with a separate citation for valour in The Arctic.

In 2006, when the Ministry of Defence finally relented and issued The Arctic Star, it was a fitting and lasting tribute to Ron, who is sadly one of the last of a dying breed of bona-fide naval heroes.

His son Stephen said: "He was a perfect dad, always there when you needed him and he was very sociable and enormously proud of his DSM.

"He often went to schools to talk about his experiences and used to draw people's attention with his charm and personality."

Ron leaves two brothers, Ivor and Tony, and a son Stephen.