BOB Hinwood rarely talked about the horrors he faced as a young sailor on the Arctic Convoys during the Second World War.
Seven decades later, his family still knows little about it apart from the few stories he told and the official records they have managed to research.
But now, six years after his death aged 83, his widow Joan finally has the medal commemorating one of the most desperate episodes of the conflict.
Bob, who owned the Foxley Road Nursery now run by son Mike, already had medals including the Atlantic Star. But veterans of the convoys in the Arctic Circle were not officially recognised until last year.
He lied about his age and was still 16 when he joined the Royal Navy in 1939. He was posted to Scapa Flow in Scotland and served in HMS Obdurate on several convoys between 1941 and 1945 as part of a gun crew.
When he came home on leave just before his first voyage to Russia the women of his family immediately jumped into action and knitted him a jumper to take back with him. He wore it all through his service and for years afterwards.
“After he came home he gave it to me and I wore it when I was at the nursery, then I handed it over to Mike,” said Joan who met him in 1946 Many were tightlipped about their experiences in the campaign which cost more than 3,000 lives.
“Eventually he told me one or two things and said I’m not telling you any more,” said Joan, 93.
One was when the ship almost capsized due to the weight of ice. It was listing heavily. “They didn’t think it was going to get up. They were all ready to go.”
Immersion would have meant certain death within a matter of minutes. Desperately they hacked away at the ice and the ship returned to an even keel.
Crews of merchantmen that were sunk knew their chances of being picked up by other ships were almost non-existent. The orders were to carry on regardless. Stopping to help survivors would present another target for the U-boat commanders.
Bob was also aboard Obdurate during the Battle of the Barents Sea when the British destroyers saw off an attack by much bigger German ships including the Admiral Hipper.
A salvo from the Hipper straddled Obdurate and one of Bob’s best friends was killed alongside him.
Occasionally, in his later years Bob would allow his family a glimpse of the horror, describing the ship steaming through survivors and dropping depth charges as it went because the ASDIC equipment had pinpointed a submarine below.
Conditions were gruelling even without the constant threat of U-boats and enemy bombers. Sailors lived in wet and freezing conditions.
In rough seas the galley fires could not be lit, denying them the comfort of a hot meal for days on end.
The captain, who suffered badly with seasickness, insisted he was lashed to his chair on the open bridge to stay functioning.
Tuberculosis was rife. It wasn’t until some years after the war that doctors spotted a scar on Bob’s lungs suggesting he’d had the condition during the convoys.
“They said it would cause him problems in later life and it did. He died of pneumonia,” said Joan.
After being demobbed he returned to his horticultural career and eventually he and Joan, who he married in 1952, started running the nursery.
Part of the site became a caravan campsite and they built up a regular clientele, including a German visitor and his wife.
But it wasn’t until Bob and Joan invited the couple in for drinks one night that they discovered he had been a submariner in a U-boat attacking the convoys and that they had probably been trying to kill each other. They remained friends until death.
Joan’s daughter Anne Bouët applied to the Ministry of Defence for the medal when it became available last year.
It was a struggle because the family no longer had Bob’s service number. But eventually Anne returned to her home in Sussex one day to find a padded envelope left on the doorstep.
Determined to give Bob proper recognition they arranged a presentation ceremony for Joan with the help of Malmesbury Royal British Legion president Dr David Williamson, a former naval officer.