LOCAL HEROES. A tribute for Remembrance Day 2017.

Frank Riches’ Military Medal (see later)

Whilst in no way denigrating those who rightly deserve to be called modern day heroes, it can sometimes seem that this title is nowadays conferred a little too lightly, especially by tabloid newspapers in search of a headline. When I went into the Star Inn as a young man sixty years ago, a majority of the men in there could have been said to be heroes but would have made no such claim. They were from a time when everyone “did his or her bit”. Four men could regularly be seen playing cards together. During the Second World War 1939-1945, one had been a navigator on Lancaster bombers, one had landed on the beaches at Anzio in Italy and fought his way through to Germany via Monte Cassino, a third an RAF pilot four years in a prisoner of war camp returning home half his normal weight and a fourth had been an anti-aircraft gunner in Malta. The latter island had been heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe on a daily basis. When others went to the shelters he had to stay at his post. He said little about it but I vividly remember that when he lit a cigarette, the hand holding the match would shake so violently he had to clench it with his other hand. At that time a veteran of the Great War who had lost a leg limped daily to the Manor where he worked as a gardener. He was always smiling with a kind word for everyone. I plucked up the courage to ask him about it. “Ah well, you see”, he said “I only lost a leg and many of my comrades lost their lives!” A local lad of barely eighteen, newly enlisted in the Wiltshire regiment, went up to the front before the Battle of the Somme. The soldiers told him that WILTS stood for “Will I live til Saturday?” He returned home badly injured but 20,000 of the men who were with him that morning didn’t live to see the sun set, let alone living until Saturday.

At this time when we stand in silence to remember those who didn’t return, we should also spare a thought for those who served and returned, often suffering mentally or physically, but are no longer with us. I therefore set out on the next page the stories of two local men, one who returned from the First World War and one from the Second.

Colin Wootton

 

Horse drawn limber used during the First World War for taking shells, ammunition and supplies up to the front line.

GEORGE TAYLOR – PASCHENDAELE. An account by his son, Donald Taylor,

The third battle of Ypres, often referred to as the battle of Paschendaele (a small village a little North East of Ypres), took place 100 years ago. Although it didn’t last as long as the Somme battle in 1916, it was just as bloody and even more muddy. Soon after the start, on July 31st 1917, the rain began and kept on! With the ground churned up by many thousands of shell bursts, which also destroyed the drainage, the battlefield quickly became a quagmire.

My father, George, was a horse drawn limber driver in the Machine Gun Corps, delivering ammunition and other supplies to a squadron of 12 Vickers guns which could easily fire off a quarter of a million rounds of .303 ammunition on a “busy day”! His was often a hectic and hazardous occupation as movement near the front, if observed by the enemy, would bring at least a few “whiz-bangs”, mortar shells from a ‘Nebelwerfer’ – a heavy trench mortar. Depending on the terrain it was often possible to approach the front only under cover of darkness. Soon the travelling near the front became so bad that the limbers had to be abandoned and all supplies moved up by packhorse. The limber drivers each rode one horse and led another carrying panniers. To walk leading two horses would have been too slow as journeys could not have been completed during darkness. Often considerable detours were necessary to avoid the worst of the morass. Actually on the front line, miles of duckboards were laid to give a good footing for the troops. Woe betide the soldier who slipped off the walkway into a shell hole – often never to be seen again!

Photo of the dreadful ruined landscape of Paschendaele, with supplies being taken up to the front line by limbers and pack horses.

On one occasion, George was delivering 18 pounder shells to an associated Royal Field Artillery battery near his squadron. Arriving back at base from his journey he was given a mug of rum and two fresh horses, one laden with shell fuses as insufficient had been sent with the shells. He was ordered to go as fast as possible to the battery – it would be getting light as he arrived – and to stay there under cover next day, returning at night. Despite attracting a number of missiles on this trip, he arrived safely and all was well.

The battle of Paschendaele concluded on November 6th when Canadian troops captured the completely ruined village – hardly one stone standing on another. And so on to CAMBRAI, the first ever battle where tanks were used in force, the British Army had almost 500 of them, the enemy almost more at this time, but that is another story.

Donald Taylor

 

SERGEANT FRANK RICHES MM.

Frank Riches was from Culworth but was frequent visitor to the Star Inn, Sulgrave, in the years following the Second World War. I can picture him now, on his favourite stool at the bar where his son Guy (a “spitting image” of his dad) is now to be seen from time to time. I am indebted to Guy for the information contained in this account.

Frank was a regular soldier before WW2, serving in the 4/7 Royal Dragoon Guards. Stationed in Aldershot, his regiment was ordered to France two weeks after the outbreak of war on 3rd September 1939. He was evacuated from Dunkirk with the surviving British troops on 3rd June 1940. His regiment was drafted to the Middle East in 1941. He served in both the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service, operating in the desert behind enemy lines to harass Rommel’s German Africa Korps communications.

His life took a dramatic turn in 1943 when he joined the later much celebrated “Popski’s Private Army”. This unusually named unit was more properly known as No 1 Demolition Squadron PPA. It was set up in Cairo in October 1942 by Major Vladimir Peniakoff MC. The unit was run quite informally: there was no saluting and no drill, officers and men messed together, every man was expected to know what to do and get on with it, and there was only one punishment for failure of any kind: to be immediately returned to his former unit.

Frank joined PPA in 1943 when it was in Algeria and Tunisia recruiting and training new volunteers from LRDG, SAS, Commandos and Royal Armoured Corps for the fight in Italy, bringing the unit’s size up to about 35 all ranks, with two fighting patorls and a small HQ. For a short while PPA experimented with using gliders to deliver them and their jeeps behind the lines in Sicily, but their part in that operation was cancelled at the last minute.

As shown in the credits, Sergeant Frank Riches MM is third from the left.

In September 1943, PPA operations transferred to Italy where, after the Italian surrender, the Germans retreating northward were harassed by Italian partisans. PPA patrols co-operated with these groups, using three fighting patrols, each of 18 men in six jeeps. Each jeep was armed with .50 inch and .30 inch machine gunes, giving the patrols immense firepower for their size.

PPA Armoured Jeep

Throughout the bitter winter weather and fighting of 1944 and 1945 PPA undertook their operations ahead of regular forces, in support of British, Canadian, Indian and Polish armoured infantry and commando units. They located targets for the Allied Air Force, chased Germans out of rear areas, saved bridges, captured many prisoners and guns and accepted the surrender of the entire German garrison at Choggia.

PPA jeep patrol in Italy.

After the war, Popski wrote a book about these exploits entitled “Private Army”. The following two extracts from the book, mentioning Frank by name, will give some idea of their operations

Extract 1.

The Gargano Peninsula – the spur on the Italian boot – is a blob thirty-five miles by twenty-five, rising to three thousand four hundred feet from the sea on one side and the low Foggia plain on the other. Partly covered with chestnut forests, dissected by precipitious calleys, full of crags, cliffs and gullies, it was a bit of a job for ten men in four jeeps to go and winkle the Germans out of it. There was an idea that strong enemy forces might be entrenched in it – which could have made the position of our troops in Foggia mighty uncomfortable – but Bob Yunnie, Riches, Porter and their men grinned right round their heads when when they left to undertake this formidable assignment, as happy as birds released from their cage. They drove to Manfredonia on the coast, then hairpinned their way up two thousand eight hundred feet to a village called Monte Sant’ Angelo, entirely populated by tall, fair, blue-eyed Albanians, the Germans just pulling out on the other side. Here they started their inquiries: with them was Gin Missiora (battle name Mifsu), an Italian anti-fascist captured in Abyssinia and now serving with P.P.A., a brave man and cunning, who was their go-between with the local population; in those early days no one in that patrol spoke more than a few words of Italian. From crest to crest and village to village they followed on the tail of the Germans, pressing them so hard they couldn’t stop to blow up the crooked road. Right across the lovely mountains, down on to the coast road, past the seaplane base on the lake of Verano, through Sannicandro, Poggio Imperiale and Lerina (in the malarial plain), on to Ripalta Castle, where a golden haired English girl of unearthly beauty gave them a guide to a ford across the Fortore. Here they caught up with a German rearguard of engineers who were setting about to mine the crossing and engaged the battle straight away. The Germans had a field gun in the hills beyond the river; Yunnie’s four jeeps dodged about to avoid the shells and kept up in the meantime such a fire that the engineers, leaving their dead and their unused mines behind them, withdrew into the hills. Very gingerly Bob Yunnie took his jeep to the river bank and drove it into the water; the flood came over the floorboards but the engine kept running and the jeep pulled up the far bank. The others followed him, up the road to the first rise, where, seeing a staff car approaching, they lay in ambush. They got the car, but the men escaped and must have spread the alarming news: the field gun ceased firing, all went dead and quiet, and darkness coming on, Yunnie recrossed the ford, left two jeeps to watch it, and with the two others retired to Ripalta Castle and its fairy queen for a night’s rest. By the next morning he had got a message back to Jean Caneri in Mola di Bari, who forwarded it again to Fourth Armoured Brigade, that he held a ford on the Fortore. During the following days he skirmished on the north bank of the river and kept the ford clear until our tanks came up from Foggia, crossed the river and fought their way into Serracapriola and on to Termoli.

Extract 2

(Still pursuing the Germans with the aid of Italian Partisans.)

We were coming down the hills into the river valley about a mile and a half from the bridge when a burst of automatic fire came from a farmhouse on the left, my side of the road. Some bullets hit the floor of the jeep between my legs and drew sparks: I wondered how they had got there without first going through me. I stopped the jeep to give Cameron, who was sitting on my right, a chance of answering the fire with his gun, and at the same time I turned round to warn the following trucks. Sergeant Mitchell, who was next to me, opened up, and Sergeant Beautyman, who drove the third truck, did the same. More bursts came from the farmhouse but the half-inch gun on my jeep didn’t fire – surprised I turned towards Cameron to see what stopped him, and found he wasn’t there.

I walked round and found him lying on the road, wounded and unconscious, where he had slipped out of his seat. With Sergeant Riches, who had some understanding of first aid, I laid Cameron in the ditch, undid his clothing and began to dress his chest wound by the light of a torch; but he was far gone and after a few rattling gasps he gave a deep sigh and died in my arms. Meanwhile our men had stopped firing from their jeeps, and, led on foot by Beautyman and were apparently clearing it with their tommy guns. A moment later they reported two Germans killed and some others escaped.

(Next day they drove to a graveyard)

The kind wife of the grave digger stitched up my kit, while her husband dug my friend’s grave. He made me choose a plot, offering the best of his lovely graveyard on a slope looking on to soft hills. I strolled around, looking at the tombs; in the mortuary I saw a boy laid out. Coming round once more to the grave-digger I found him making a wooden cross, and he asked me what inscription I wanted painting on it. Having written it out, I talked with him for a while, then said idly:

“You have, I see, another boy waiting to be buried”.

“It is my son, Sir, he was with the partisans: the Germans killed him yesterday morning”. He said no more; I fell silent, wondering at the humility of these people who took trouble with our dead and never mentioned their own so much more grevious loss…..I read a short service and said: “I want no other end than Jock has had: a quick death under the sky, with no fuss and no tears, amongst the friends with whom he has toiled for so long. Let us now carry on with our work”. “Amen”, said Sanders and we filled the grave.

It was for his bravery in selflessly supporting his comrades at one of these actions that Frank was awarded the Military Medal. The citation reads as follows:

 

SERGEANT FRANK RICHES MM

On 17 July 44 at Scheggia, Italy, on his own initiative and complete disregard for his own safety, stayed with his jeep under heavy mortar and shell fire, in a completely exposed position, so as to give covering MG fire to a foot patrol operating ahead of him. He withdrew only after the patrol had returned to safety.

Recommendation by Major V. Peniakoff, O.C. 1 Demolition Squadron, P.P.A.

 

NOTE:

Ex serviceman Donald Taylor is once more assiduously selling poppies on behalf of the the British Legion. If you miss him, poppies are also available at the Village Shop.

The Village Remembrance Service will take place in the Church at 6.00 pm on Sunday 12th November. The names of the eighteen villagers who lost their lives in the two world wars will be read out and their stories are set out below:

Sulgrave-Church-War-Memorial1

 

A.W. Berry, W.E. Carpenter, W. Fenemore, A.W. Franklin, R.C.W. Hadley, F. Jeffs, J.W. Muddiman, L. Shellard, W. Smith, Lilian A.M. Taylor, J.R. Tyrell, F.G. Wade, H.J. Webb, Leslie Whitehead, L. Whitehead, G.E. Whitton, H.L.J. Wootton, H. Wootton.

William Carpenter was the son of Mr W.T. and Mrs M.A. Carpenter of Sulgrave. He was a private in the 7th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. At the age of 19 he was killed on the Western Front in France on 20th March 1918. Having no known grave, his name is commemorated on the Arras Memorial in the town of the same name together with almost 36,000 other servicemen from the United Kingdom, South Africa and New Zealand who died in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916 and 7 August 1918. Given the date of his death he would almost certainly have died in resisting the last great German offensive in the Spring of 1918.

British troops march into position at Arras

Albert Franklin and Frederick Wade are linked together here because they were both in the 1st Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and died within months of each other in the same theatre of war. Albert Franklin was a Lance Serjeant (contemporary spelling) in that battalion. He died in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) on the 12th November 1915. He was the son of William Henry and Mary Anne Franklin. Frederick Wade was a private in the battalion. He died on the 7th April 1916, also in Mesopotamia.  His age is not given. They were volunteers who joined up before conscription was introduced in January 1916. Were they perhaps friends in the village who decided to “go and do their bit together”? They and 40,500 others with no known graves are commemorated on the Basra Memorial in Iraq. Allied operations in Mesopotamia were against the Turks, staunch fighters and allies of the Germans. It seems likely that Albert Franklin was killed during the allied advance from Basra towards Kut-el-Amara and Frederick Wade during the First Battle of Kut, said to have been the greatest humiliation to have befallen the British Army in its history leading to demands for a parliamentary inquiry into what had gone wrong in Iraq!

 

British soldiers in Mesopotamia (Iraq)

W Fenemore was a gunner with “B” Battery of the 74th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery. He died on the 26th July 1917 and is buried in Bleuet Farm Cemetery near the village of Elverdinge in Belgium. From the date of his death and the location of the cemetery it seems likely that he was a casualty in the Third Battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele. Ground conditions during the whole Ypres-Passchendaele action were atrocious. Continuous shelling destroyed drainage canals in the area, and unseasonable heavy rain turned the whole area into a sea of mud and water-filled shell-craters. The troops walked up to the front over paths made of duckboards laid across the mud, often carrying up to one hundred pounds (45 kg) of equipment. It was possible for them to slip off the path into the craters and drown before they could be rescued. The trees were reduced to blunted trunks, the branches and leaves torn away, and the bodies of men buried after previous actions were often uncovered by the rain or later shelling.

British soldiers struggle through the dreadful ruined landscape at Passchendaele

Robert Hadley was a Royal Navy sick berth attendant on HMS Invincible. He was killed at the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916 at the age of 32. HMS Invincible was the flagship of the 3rd Battlecruiser Squadron. She was hit in her “Q” turret by a salvo from the German battleship Lutzow which blew the roof of the turret over the side. It was either this shell hit which caused a flash down the magazine or a second shell in the same salvo that penetrated the armour and exploded in the magazine, causing a massive explosion. The ship broke in two and sank with the loss of all but six of her crew of 1,021. Jutland was the last, and largest, of the great battleship battles. Never again did battle fleets meet again in such numbers.  While the Royal Navy suffered more losses, the battle effectively ended any threat from the German High Seas Fleet, which now knew it could not contest control of the North Sea with the Royal Navy.

HMS Invincible

Frank Jeffs was a private in the 5th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He died on the 26th October 1918 at the age of 22. He was the son of Charles Owen Jeffs and Sarah Elizabeth Jeffs, of Sulgrave. He is buried in Ste Marie Cemetery, Le Havre, France. During the First World War, Le Havre was one of the ports at which the British Expeditionary Force disembarked in August 1914. Except for a short interval during the German advance in 1914 it remained No 1 Base throughout the war and by the end of May 1917, it contained three general and two stationary hospitals, and four convalescent depots. In all 1,689 Commonwealth casualties of the First World War are buried or commemorated in the cemetery. It seems conceivable that Frank Jeffs died of injuries at one of the hospitals in Le Havre. No one knows, but at 22 he was perhaps already a “veteran” in a conflict where boys became men overnight. He may have soldiered on through several years of the war only to die so near to home and a mere 16 days before it all came to an end.

Attending to a wounded soldier of the Great War

J.W.Muddiman was a driver in the Royal Engineers attached to the 10th Divisional Headquarters in Greece where he died at the age of 36 on the 23rd June 1917. He was the husband of Emily Muddiman of Sulgrave. He is buried at Lahana Military Cemetery in Greece, about 56 kilometres north-east of Thessalonika. In October 1915, a combined Franco-British force of some two large brigades was landed at Salonika (today called Thessalonika) at the request of the Greek Prime Minister. These included the 10th (Irish) Division to which Driver Muddiman was attached. The objective was to help the Serbs in their fight against Bulgarian aggression. But the expedition arrived too late, the Serbs having been beaten before they landed. It was decided to keep the force in place for future operations, even against Greek opposition. It is impossible to draw any conclusions as to the fate of J.W.Muddiman in this complex and little known theatre of war but it was said of the Salonika campaign that for every casualty of battle three died of malaria, influenza or other diseases.

The Entente in Macedonia. From left to right: a soldier from Indochina, a Frenchman, a Senegalese, an Englishman, a Russian, an Italian, a Serb, a Greek and an Indian

Leonard Shellard was a private in the 5th Battalion of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. He died in Belgium on the 14th December 1917 at the age of 21. He was the son of Mrs Sarah Shellard of New Lane, Sulgrave. He has no known grave and is commemorated at the Tyne Cot Memorial. He gained the Military Medal for an act of outstanding bravery which, sadly, is not recorded. The granting of this award is recorded in a Supplement to the London Gazette on 23rd January 1918, as follows:

His Majesty the KING has been graciously
pleased to approve of the award of the Military
Medal for bravery in the Field to the
undermentioned Non-Commissioned Officers
and Men: —

201850 Pte. G. Sheldon, S. Staff. R. (West
Bromwich).
10126 Pte. L. Shellard, O. & B. L.I. (Banbury)
1122 Pte. J. Shelley, Labour Corps (Fenton,
Stoke-on-Trent).
60984 Sjt. R. Shepherd; R.F.A. (Beverley).

As the entry in the London Gazette states, the Military Medal was awarded to Non-Commissioned Officers and Men and, it seems, there was sometimes only one copy of the citation setting out the reasons for the award. It is not known if Leonard Shellard gained the award before his death or if he died in gaining it. Sadly, it seems possible that his relatives in the village might never have known of his bravery. Certainly, there is no mention of his award on the memorial plaque in the church.

Wallace James Smith, born in 1898, who in 1911 was living with his grandparents, Martha and James Smith, in what was then Great Street. He is described as a Grocer’s Errand Boy. His parents, George Henry and Maria Smith, were both still alive and are buried in the churchyard (he is mentioned on their headstone). A member of the 7th Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment, he was declared missing in action on 30th November 1917 in Flanders during the battle of Cambrai. He is commemorated on the Cambrai Memorial. He was 20.

The Cambrai operations from 20th November to 30th December 1917 comprised a British attack, originally conceived as a very large scale raid, that employed new artillery techniques and massed tanks. Initially it was very successful, with large gains of ground being made, but German reserves brought the advance to a halt. Ten days later, a counter-attack regained much of the ground. Ultimately a disappointing and costly outcome, Cambrai is now seen by historians as the blueprint for the successful “Hundred Days” offensives of 1918.

British tank of the type used in large numbers at Cambrai.

Lilian Taylor is commemorated both on the memorial plaque in the church and on a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone in the churchyard, as shown in the picture below.

The War Graves Commission records add that she was the daughter of William and Harriet Taylor, of Sulgrave.

Lilian Taylor before the Great War

The Taylors are a very old established family in Sulgrave and Lilian’s nephew Donald is a familiar sight in the village today. His father told him that she had served in France during the Great War and died of influenza at the end of it. More than 40 million people world wide died in this dreadful epidemic and it is said that there were more deaths in Britain from it than from the Great War itself. Since the headstone is in the churchyard it can only be assumed that she came home very ill and died in the village.

Commonwealth War Graves headstone in Sulgrave churchyard in memory of Lilian Taylor

J R Tyrell was the second son of Thomas Rubin and Emma Tyrrell of Little Street, Sulgrave. Born in 1897, he was described as a plough boy in the 1911 census. His older sister, Constance, worked for the Whittons (see below) as a domestic servant. He was discharged (presumably wounded) from 2/6th Royal Highlanders (the Black Watch) on 26th February 1916 and died of those wounds) just over a year later in the Spring of 1917, aged 20. It is not recorded where he is buried.

Leslie Whitehead was a private in the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. He died in France on the 1st June 1916 aged 19. He was the son of William and Elizabeth Whitehead, of Sulgrave. The main event on the Western Front in 1916 was the Battle of the Somme which began on July 1st. Leslie Whitehead was killed in this area a month before the battle began and it is not possible to speculate that he died in any particular action. Leslie Whitehead is buried in the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez, in the Pas de Calais, France. Souchez is a village 3.5 kilometres north of Arras on the main road to Bethune. The “Cabaret Rouge” was a house on the main road about 1 kilometre south of the village, at a place called Le Corroy, near the cemetery. On the east side, opposite the cemetery, were dugouts used as battalion headquarters in 1916. The cemetery now contains 7,655 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, more than half of them unidentified.

 

British soldiers attack on the Somme

 

 

George E Whitton, born in 1887 in Wormleighton, the only son of John and Clara Isabel Whitton who in 1911 lived in Sulgrave. John and Isabel also had three daughters. John is described as a farmer. George was a member of the 14th Battalion, the Canadian Infantry (No. 63928). He died on 23rd May 1915, aged 29, and is buried in the Choques Military Cemetery in the Pas de Calais in France. At the time of his death (or, at any rate, the erection of the headstone) his parents lived in Warwick Road, Banbury.

It seems likely that he was killed in the Battle of Festubert (15 – 25 May 1915). On 18 May, the First Canadian Division attacked but made little progress in the face of German artillery fire. The British forces dug in at the new front line in heavy rain.The Germans brought up reinforcements. From 20 to 25 May the attack was resumed and Festubert was captured. The offensive had resulted in a 3 kilometres advance at a cost of 2204 Canadians killed, including George Whitton.

Harold Wootton was a private in the 2nd Battalion of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. He died in Flanders (Belgium) on the 21st October 1914 aged 21. He was the eldest son of Joseph Butlin Wootton and Catherine Elizabeth Wootton, of Little Street, Sulgrave. Prior to 1914 he had been a member of the local yeomanry, the forerunners of the territorial army. In the wave of patriotism that followed the outbreak of war with Germany in August of that year these units waived their right to serve only for “homeland defence” and within weeks he found himself with the British Expeditionary Force in France.

 

Harold Wootton (front right) just before leaving for France in 1914

Harold and the 2nd Ox and Bucks arrived on the Western Front as part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division– one of the first divisions of the British Expeditionary Force to arrive in France.

Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force arrive in France in 1914

The Battalion took part in the first British battle of the war, at Mons where the British defeated the German forces that they had encountered on 23rd August. The Battalion subsequently took part in the retreat that began the following day, then halting the German advance at the First Battle of the Marne (5th to 9th September). The 2nd Ox & Bucks later took part in all the subsidiary battles of the First Battle of Ypres (19th October to 22nd November) that saw the heart ripped out of the old regular army, with over 50,000 casualties.

 

Going up to the front at Ypres

Harold Wootton was killed at the height of this battle, attempting to stem the German advance at the tiny Belgian village of St Julian. This village, today known as St. Juliaan, can be found a little to the north-east of Ypres, on the N313. Here and at nearby Langemarck was where, in the words of  the military historian G.S. Hutchinson, “the tiny army of seven Divisions of 1914 stood it’s ground before the pick of the world’s greatest military force”. It is said that the rate of fire and accuracy from their bolt action rifles convinced the Germans that they were equipped with machine guns. Largely as a result of superior German field artillery at the time, the bodies of Harold and many of his comrades were never identified and his name is commemorated on the famous Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial with 54,000 others with no known graves.

H.L.J. Wootton was a private in the 1st/15th Battalion of the London Regiment (Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles). He died on the Somme Battlefield in France on the 7th October 1916, aged 20. He was the son of Leonard Henry and Rhoda Jane Wootton, of 8, Council Houses, Sulgrave. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave. The Thiepval Memorial is off the main Bapaume to Albert road (D929). Each year a major ceremony is held at there on 1 July. On 1 July 1916, supported by a French attack to the south, thirteen divisions of Commonwealth forces launched an offensive on a line from north of Gommecourt to Maricourt. Despite a preliminary bombardment lasting seven days, the German defences were barely touched and the attack met unexpectedly fierce resistance.

German machine gun troops await a British attack

Losses were catastrophic and with only minimal advances on the southern flank, the initial attack was a failure. In the following weeks, huge resources of manpower and equipment were deployed in an attempt to exploit the modest successes of the first day. However, the German Army resisted tenaciously and repeated attacks and counter attacks meant a major battle for every village, copse and farmhouse gained. At the end of September, Thiepval was finally captured. The village had been an original objective of 1 July. Attacks north and east continued throughout October and into November in increasingly difficult weather conditions. It can be surmised that it was during one of these autumnal attacks that Private H.L.J. Wootton was killed.

 

British soldiers injured in mustard gas attack

Hector John Webb was a Leading Aircraftman in the Royal Air Force. He is the only serviceman from the Second World War to be mentioned on the Sulgrave memorial. There is no information on any relative in the village in official records. He served in Malaya during the war against Japan. There is no record of his age.  He died on the 29th November 1943 and the manner of his death makes for sober reading. He is commemorated on the Memorial in Kranji War Cemetery, 22 miles north of the city of Singapore. On 8 February 1942, the Japanese crossed the Johore Straits in strength, landing at the mouth of the Kranji River within two miles of the place where the war cemetery now stands. On the evening of 9 February, they launched an attack between the river and the causeway. During the next few days fierce fighting ensued, in many cases hand to hand, until their greatly superior numbers and air strength necessitated a withdrawal. After the fall of the island, the Japanese established a prisoner of war camp at Kranji. It would have been here or in Changi that Hector Webb spent the next twenty-one months as a prisoner of war of the Japanese.

The Kranji Memorial records him as having died at sea: in the Japanese ship  “Suez Maru” and goes on to state that this ship was:

“Sunk by USS Bonefish, off Kangean Islands 6º 22′ South by 116º 35′ East. Japanese Captain Kawano orders the shooting of the prisoners in the water. From 14.15 – 16.30 the Minesweeper W.12 massacres the survivors using machine gun and rifles. No survivors.”

This is the full and appalling story from a contemporary account:

In 1943, the Japanese decided to ship the sick back to Java. A total of 640 men, including a number of Japanese sick patients, were taken on board the 4,645-ton passenger-cargo ship Suez Maru. In two holds, 422 sick British (including 221 RAF servicemen) and 127 sick Dutch prisoners, including up to twenty stretcher cases, were accommodated. The Japanese patients filled the other two holds. 
Escorted by a minesweeper W-12, the Suez Maru set sail from Port Amboina but while entering the Java Sea and about 327 kilometers east of Surabaya, Java, Netherlands East Indies, the vessel was torpedoed by the American submarine USS Bonefish commanded by Cdr. Tom Hogan. The ship started to list as water poured into the holds drowning hundreds, many managed to escape the holds and swam away from the sinking ship. The Japanese mine sweeper W-12 picked up the Japanese survivors, leaving between 200 and 250 men in the sea. At 14.50, the minesweeper, W-12, under orders from Captain Kawano, opened fire, using a machine gun and rifles. Rafts and lifeboats were then rammed and sunk by the W-12. The firing did not cease till all the prisoners were killed, the minesweeper then picked up speed and sped off towards Batavia (Jakarta) at 16.30 hours.
Sixty-nine Japanese had died during the attack, 93 Japanese soldiers and 205 Japanese sick patients were rescued by the Japanese. Of the 547 British and Dutch prisoners, there is reported to be one survivor, a British soldier, Kenneth Thomas, who was picked up twenty-four hours later by the Australian minesweeper HMAS Ballarat, this has not been confirmed. 

 

World War II Japanese minesweeper

Click here for more on this atrocity.

I am indebted to Ian Salisbury for the information in respect of W. Smith, J.R.Tyrell or G.E.Whitton.

When the names are solemnly read out at the Remembrance Service and the two minutes silence follows, perhaps something of the courage, hardships and final sacrifice of these eighteen young men and women will pass through our minds.

Those unable to attend the service might perhaps give them a thought during the two minutes silence at 11.00 am on November 11th, wherever they happen to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to “LOCAL HEROES. A tribute for Remembrance Day 2017.”

  1. Jeremy Griffiths says:

    Colin,
    What an absolutely terrific article.
    The research and detail is incredible but the thought provoking element of your piece is the personal connection that you have shared.
    Your recollection of villagers who survived the horrors of war and frequented the Star in the 1960’s goes to show that in historical terms the First World War was a relatively recent event.
    Thank you Colin.

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