Richard Bytheway – Just Another Pointless Death in a Pointless Sideshow

Richard Bytheway, born in 1892, was a younger brother of my great grandmother, hence my great-great-uncle. He was the second youngest of 8 children, all born and brought up in a tiny, 3-roomed miner’s cottage tied to Seymour Colliery just outside Staveley in Derbyshire.

The 1911 census has him still living in the Seymour cottage but shortly after that he must have moved away because when he enlisted in the army in late August or early September 1914, no doubt responding to Kitchener’s famous appeal for volunteers, his residence was listed as Rotherham in Yorkshire.

He was duly enlisted as 14663 Private Bytheway of the York and Lancaster Regiment (known more colloquially as the Yorks and Lancs).

After basic training Richard’s battalion embarked not for France or Belgium but were assigned to what has commonly been labelled an infamous “sideshow” – they were bound for Gallipoli.

At the end of July 1915 the battalion arrived at Mudros on the island of Limnos, the common staging point for troops before crossing the final stretch of Aegean to Gallipoli itself.

It would seem that it was there that Richard Bytheway, with others, was transferred to the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers who were under-strength. The war diary of the Connaughts records reinforcements joining on 4th August when they too were at Mudros and I am guessing Richard may well have been part of that contingent. Anyway, he definitely became 3157 Private Bytheway of the Connaught Rangers.

Connaughts

Connaught Rangers moving up into position

Two days later, on 6th August, the battalion embarked on HMS Clacton at 3am and sailed from Limnos to ANZAC Cove where they disembarked at 4pm that afternoon, taking positions in the aptly named Shrapnel Gully before moving up to the front line the following week.

Here, their introduction must have been horrific as they spent the next couple of days retrieving and burying corpses from Aghyl Dere Gully which was full of bodies after an earlier attack. Remember that this was in the middle of summer in Turkey where the heat was stifling and the stench must have been appalling.

A week of back-breaking trench improvement followed this before the Connaughts were assigned to support a major attack by the ANZACs on Hill 60, scheduled for 21st August. The Connaughts’ role was to attack the wells at Kabak Kuyu on the flank.

anzac cove

ANZAC Cove with Hill 60 on the horizon

On the evening of 20th August the battalion moved up to a position behind the 4th Battalion South Wales Borderers. They remained there until the afternoon of the following day when the attack was launched.

I will let the unusually effusive war dairy entries take over the story from there:
connaught diary 1
Transcript: “Kabak Kuyu 3.40pm: The first Company (C) dashed forward with a cheer through the gap and with great dash made for the well and trenches at Kabak Kuyu. They were followed by D Company, who followed close by and in successive lines at 4 paces distance and all cheering with fixed bayonets but no firing was allowed until the line was won. The two leading companie,s as soon as they had rushed the trenches, wheeled to the right and engaged the enemy along the Sunken Road and the Communication Trench. One platoon under 2nd Lt. G R Bennett bombed and blocked the Communication Trench and forced the Turks to leave this trench.
4.20pm: A Company was sent up in support and dashed forward to reinforce the left of the line. The reserve (B Coy) moved up the Sunken Road with two platoons and supported the right of the line and got up communication with the New Zealanders who had captured a trench on Hill 60.”
connaught rangers diary 2
6.55pm: The O.C. 5th Bn the Connaught Rangers now began to consolidate the line won and when the 5th Ghurkhas came up on the left of the line night came on rapidly and as the sun went down the men of the Rangers began to dig and make their position capable of resisting any attack. A Platoon of the Rangers had been sent forward and were actually in the New Zealanders trenches and although losing their officer and many men remained there until relieved the next day (22nd Aug). The charge was most brilliantly and gallantly carried out and although the losses were severe (3 Officers killed, 9 wounded; Other Ranks killed 43, wounded 158, missing 47. Total 260; together with losses up to date, 15 killed and 119 wounded and 7 Officers = 401 casualties exclusive of sick) the Battalion held on gallantly throughout the night of the 21st-22nd August (strangely enough the anniversary of its formation) and the next evening were relieved with the exception of 1 Officer and 50 men and marched back to the bivouac of two nights ago behind the SWB entrenchments. They had done splendid work in digging saps to the New Zealand trenches and to the Well, and the position was secure when they left it.”

“Secure” it may well have been but at the cost of nearly half the battalion’s effective strength and one of those killed was Richard Bytheway.

His body was not recovered and his final resting place remains unknown so his name is just one of the 20,956 names on the Helles Memorial commemorating Commonwealth service personnel with no known grave.
helles memorial
Oddly, because he was serving in an Irish regiment when he was killed, Richard also appears in the memorial record created after the war to commemorate the “Irishmen who fell in the Great European War”:

irish dead memorial

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A Fishy Tale…

My partner, Vinnie, has never really known much about her family history so I have been doing some digging and, going back to the mid 1800s, a fishy story begins to emerge.

Vinnie’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was a chap named John Brewer who was born in Hackney in East London and, coincidentally, was baptised in a church in 1812 just round the corner from where she is currently working.

John Brewer married Martha Rumer, a local woman, in August 1835 in East Ham who had a bit of a scary adventure the following year. Together with a certain Martha Martin, Martha Brewer was committed to trial at the Essex Assizes on 17th May 1836 for “Larceny from the person”, legal-speak for pick-pocketing. Luckily for her the judge threw out the case, the outcome logged in the court record as “No Bill” which was a specific order from the judge if he was satisfied that the depositions or committal statements did not justify putting the accused on trial.

With the brush with the law behind them, by the time of the first census in 1841 John and Martha Brewer are recorded as living on Barking High Street with John’s profession listed as fisherman.

barking

Barking Dock in the early 1800s

It may seem difficult to believe now but in the mid 1800s Barking was home to the largest fishing fleet in the world. There had been a tradition of fishing there on a small scale since the 1300s but the dramatic escalation of the trade based out of Barking in the 1800s was down to one entrepreneurial family – the Hewetts – who established The Short Blue Fleet (named after the short blue emblem they flew at their mastheads).

By 1850 they had grown their business to become the largest fishing fleet in the world with over 220 boats.

Before the 1820s, fish caught off the boats were either killed and salted immediately or kept alive, in large, on-board tanks until they reached port.

Samuel Hewett felt this was not a cost-effective system because the boats, which would often sail as far as Iceland, would be forced to make frequent trips back to Barking to unload the catch. This, he believed, was wasting time that could have been spent fishing. So Samuel decided to introduce a system called fleeting.

The fish were now caught, killed, then preserved in ice, before being collected by fast boats, called cutters, and taken back to London. Every time the cutters returned to the fishing grounds they would bring more ice and provisions for the sailors, which meant the fishing vessels could stay at sea continuously for three to six months at a time.

trunkingThe picture shows “trunking” when trunks full of fish were transported from the fishing trawlers to a cutter for delivery back to base.

The new fishing system was extremely successful and helped the Hewett fleet grow substantially.

short blue fleet1

The Short Blue Fleet at sea

But the industry was savagely dangerous. We think of 19th century mining as dangerous, and it was horribly so, but for every miner killed in Britain, seven seamen were lost in the fishing industry.

By the mid 1850s John Brewer had been made master of one of the boats in the Short Blue Fleet, the Tartar, purchased by the fleet in 1852 which was one of the fast cutters that used to race back and forth between Barking and the fishing grounds.

By the mid 1800s almost every family in Barking was involved in the fishing industry in some form or other. But as the town headed into the second half of the century Barking’s fishing fortunes were to change dramatically.

In 1862 Samuel relocated his fleet head-quarters to Gorleston, Suffolk, which was at least 120 miles closer to the fishing grounds. And three years later Barking effectively lost any advantage it once had when a cheap and fast rail link was built from London to Gorleston. Many families followed the Short Blue fleet to Suffolk, while others headed to Grimsby, attracted by a newly opened dock.

John Brewer was one of those who ended up in Grimsby after the Short Blue Fleet sold off the Tartar in 1863. (Another coincidence as Grimsby is where I grew up.)

In the census of 1871 he is still listed as a fisherman, now living at the charmingly named (but probably not very charming to live in) 8 Foot Road.

John Brewer died in 1874 and was buried at St Andrew’s Church on Freeman Street which sadly was lost many years ago. The picture below is from about 1911 and shows the church as it was.

st andrews freeman street

The year before John’s boat, the Tartar, was sold off, his daughter Esther who had been born in 1844 married an Essex man called Edward Cornell, another fisherman.

grimsby docks 19th c

Grimsby Docks in the late 1800s

When her parents moved north to Grimsby, Esther and Edward elected to stay in London and were recorded as living in Bermondsey in the 1871 census. But either later that year or early in 1872 they too moved up to Grimsby like many of the London-based fishermen, a port that was fast becoming the busiest fishing port in the world.

 

Indeed, the Cornell’s ordered their own boat in 1872, a Dandy-rigged ketch of 60 tons which they named the “Edward and Esther”, the shipping order listing their address as 28 Orwell Street, Grimsby.

SBFT6-Little-Wave-1024x905There are no images of the Edward and Esther but she would have looked almost the same as this Dandy-rigged ketch, photographed in the 1890s. We know that she had a crew of 5 including Edward as skipper; an experienced first mate and three younger men working as deck hands. I’m guessing they would have looked a little like this crew from another Grimsby trawler, taken in the 1890s.

fishermen

It shows the thoroughness of the exercise of conducting a national census that boat crews were included if they were in port near enough to the census date. In the case of the Edward and Esther for the census of 1881, Edward completed the forms for his boat when docked in Grimsby Fish Dock on the 30th March. For the actual date of the census (3 April) he listed his location listed as the “Dogger Bank, No Sea“… not the most common address for a census.

edward and esther censusSadly Esther died young in 1888.

Edward did not re-marry but sailed on, spending his whole working life as a mariner until he retired and spent the last years of his life living with his daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law, George Bevers.

Edward died in April 1919.

John Mansbridge Swatton – Plod of the Met

My great-grandfather’s older brother was named John Mansbridge Swatton, Mansbridge being the maiden name of his mother, and he was born in Kings Somborne, a small village in rural Hampshire on 16th April 1847.

His father was a bricklayer and the family moved to Gosport in the 1850s when the massive fortress complex there was begun which must have drawn in building labour from all over the region.

Indeed, in the 1861 census John, then aged 13, is described as a public works labourer so I would guess he was working on one of the forts with his father at that time.

However, John must have decided relatively early on that following his father’s example and being a brickie wasn’t for him. In 1866 he had seen his younger brother leave home to join the Royal Navy and the following year John packed his bags and moved to London where, just a week before his 20th birthday he enlisted as a constable in the Metropolitan Police; Warrant No: 48283.

John Mansbridge Swatton

John Mansbridge Swatton

Following training, of the 19 regional divisions within the Met, he was assigned to “V” Division; Wandsworth. As per the instructions given to police officers, he was expected to live in the vicinity of his division and in the 1871 census he was living at 16 Blesborough Place, Pimlico – just over the river from Wandsworth, not far from Vauxhall Bridge and the Tate Gallery.

He was to remain a police constable in Wandsworth for the next 26 years.
During his time on the force, the police and criminal system in general would see many changes.

It was only the year after John joined the Met that Britain witnessed its last public executions.

In April 1868, Frances Kidder was the last woman to be hanged in public, outside Maidstone jail for the murder of her step-daughter. The following month saw the final public hanging in Britain when Fenian Michael Barrett was executed outside Newgate Prison for mass murder, having been found guilty of participating in the Clerkenwell Outrage, an explosion that killed 12 people outside Clerkenwell jail the previous year.
It was in the same year, 1868, that the policy of transportation to Australia was finally abolished which resulted in the incarceration of many more convicted criminals at home. One such place they were housed was Wandsworth Prison, in John’s Division, which was built in 1851 on the “Panopticon” design to enable the “separate system” to be used for 700 prisoners in individual cells, each with toilet facilities. The main part of the prison, having four wings radiating from the centre, was for male prisoners with a smaller separate building for females. From 1870, conditions at Wandsworth deteriorated when the toilets were removed from the cells to make room for extra prisoners and the practice of “slopping out” introduced which was to remain in force until 1996.

Considering what the daily routine would have been like for a “bobby” on the beat in the 1870s and 80s I guess it could be characterised as a mix of tedium and violence. Police constables had prescribed “beats” that they walked every day at a prescribed pace with their behaviour and performance carefully monitored – it must have been a pretty boring routine. But that seems to have been regularly broken up by violence.

We think of London being a relatively violent city – it is indeed difficult to get away from the outrage and the horror presented on the news all the time about rising levels of violent crime in the city. But in reality, Victorian London was a MUCH more violent society. And the assaults on the police are a good indication of the level of that violence.
In 2017, police officers in the Met (a force numbering 31,000 officers) reported just over 2000 assaults on them, most of which resulted in no injury. In 1868, in a force that numbered under 8900 officers there were 1130 assaults leading to injury from what the wonderfully descriptive commissioner’s report described as “criminals of the most desperate and abandoned character”.

met police pc 1870It is not without reason that standard issue for officers patroling some of the rougher beats in London was a sword!

John resigned from the Metropolitan Police on 10 May 1893 whereupon it seems he chose to move back to Gosport. Once there he took over a pub, The Alma on Forton Road, with his son, George, working with him as a barman and living in the pub.

Finally, George took over the pub when John retired but John is still recorded in the census of 1911 as living at The Alma.

John died in Gosport in June 1915.

Sadly The Alma is with us no longer either. It ceased to be a pub in the 1990s and has since been demolished.

Pentonvillain to Aussie Pioneer…?

Well, coming from a line of dirt-poor working class folk it came as no surprise that in researching some of the characters in my ancestry I came across criminality. I have written previously on some of that related to military offenses but it still came as a bit of a surprise when I looked at Henry Barnaby.

He was the brother of my great-great-great-great-grandfather; so my fifth-great uncle.
As with many on my grandmother’s side he came from Harefield in Middlesex; born in May 1822 and baptised in the very same church as myself – St. Mary’s in Harefield, across the road from where my gran lived.

An agricultural labourer, and evidently completely illiterate, he signed his marriage certificate to Jane Thrift in Sep 1844 with a “x” as he could not even write his name. A year later they had a daughter, Margaret. But then things went very wrong. The following year, 1846, saw Henry and his elder sister, another Margaret, on trial at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey. Henry was charged with larceny and his sister with handling stolen goods.

The transcript of the trial still exists in the Old Bailey archives.

A quick note on terminology and abbreviations – the old-fashioned shorthand for currency was LSD: L (easier than writing £) for pounds, S for shillings (20 to the pound) and D for pennies (12 to the shilling)

“HENRY BARNABY was indicted for stealing at Harefield, 1 bag, value 6d (6 pence).; 1 purse, Gd.; 20 pieces of parchment, 20s (20 shillings).; 1 20l.(20 pound), 4 10l., and 7 5l. Banknotes; 1 600l., 4 10l., and 7 5l. promissory notes, and 1 order for 100l.; the property of John Ratcliff, in his dwelling-house; and MARGARET BARNABY , for feloniously receiving one 20l., and 2 5l. promissory notes, well knowing the same to have been stolen.”

The trial would have lasted only about half an hour with half a dozen witnesses for the prosecution being called. The defence had no witnesses and neither of the accused had defence counsel… consequences of being poor.

The key witness for the prosecution was a self-confessed poacher who admitted he had also been accused of the theft but stated under oath that Henry had admitted the crime to him. Henry’s sister admitted that her brother had given her some bank notes but she said he claimed to have found them and didn’t know what they were anyway as he couldn’t read.

Henry was allowed a brief statement in his own defence, quoted here in full from the Old Bailey transcript: “Henry Barnabys Defence. I gave my sister the notes, I did not know what they were.”

Henry was found guilty and his sister not guilty.

At that time, sentencing was immediate and Henry was sentenced to transportation to Australia for 15 years.

I think I should just mention here that it might seem very odd that anyone could not know what, for example, a 5 pound note would look like. However, back in the 1840s there were many local banks, each with their own style of notes and a typical note might look like this:
bank note
For someone so illiterate they could not even write their own name it doesn’t seem unreasonable that he wouldn’t know what this was.

After sentencing Henry was incarcerated in Pentonville Prison where he remained for 18 months.

It wasn’t until 9th March 1848 that Henry, together with 189 other male convicts, set sail on the Anna Maria, a 421 tonne barque under the command of Master Edward Smith.
But theirs was not to be the typical convict transportation.

Between 1844 and 1849, the British government transported 1739 convict “exiles” to the Port Phillip District of New South Wales. Unlike transportation that had occurred in other parts of Australia, the convicts sent to Port Phillip were given a conditional pardon, provided they didn’t return to England within the term of their original sentence. This was essentially a fudge to get around the local rules that convicts were not supposed to be transported to Port Phillip at all. However, cheap labour was in high demand there so the convicts were “re-badged” as “exiles”.

Some Port Phillip residents were outraged at convicts being dumped in their colony and the in-comers were labelled Pentonvillains!

Anyway, Henry’s passage to the other side of the world took three months – a fast passage for those days. First port of call, on 7th June 1848, was Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) where 27 prisoners, convicted of more serious crimes, were put ashore. Then the ship sailed on to Port Philip Bay where the remaining prisoners, including Henry, were off-loaded at Geelong and given their conditional pardon.

Unfortunately, that’s where the record ends for Henry. There is no record of him returning to England and I wonder if there is a Barnaby family over there that can trace its origin back to this illiterate exile?

Another Family Mystery… in the Empire of the Rising Sun

Firstly, some background: my great-great-grandfather was a certain Thomas Swatton (yes, another Thomas), born in about 1812 in Hampshire – so a direct paternal ancestor.
Now, he married a woman called Louisa Mansbridge from Kings Somborne in Hampshire on 30th August 1840 and they subsequently had nine children. It was common practice back then (and until recently) for children often to be given a middle name that was their mother’s maiden name. For example my dad had the middle name Owen which was his mother’s maiden name; my grandfather had the middle name Chadwick which was his mother’s maiden name… you get my drift.

So it is no surprise that I found that three of Thomas’ and Louisa’s children had the middle name Mansbridge, Louisa’s maiden name, the last of them with that middle name being born in 1849.

Clear enough so far…

So, what was I to think when I stumbled across a chap yesterday called George Swatton Mansbridge born in 1849? Here’s my theory.

I think his parents were brother and sister of Thomas and Louisa – i.e. a sister of Thomas married a brother of Louisa – which would mean their children’s surname would be Mansbridge but it being highly likely some of them might be given the middle name Swatton.

Disappointingly, I have been able to find no record of George Swatton Mansbridge in the census record – there are a few George Mansbridges but missing the middle name on the census it isn’t clear which might be the one in question. Finding him in later censuses will also be impossible because, and here’s the interesting bit, in 1875 he emigrated but not to America, Canada or Australia which were the most common destinations… but to Japan!

He became a constable in the Yokohama Municipal Police. There is another tie in here to Thomas and Louisa because one of their sons, John, became a police constable in London.

In 1880, he changed careers and joined the Mitsubishi Company, employed in the docks at Nagasaki working on ship salvage – at that time shipping was the core business of Mitsubishi. He would work for them for 28 years until he retired.

What I find most remarkable about this is the unusualness of such a lifestyle change – Japan in the 1870s was only just coming out of the rule of the Shogun warlords. It was only in 1872 they were finally defeated and the emperor regained central control of the country ending a period of 250 years of cultural isolation during which the death penalty was prescribed for foreigners entering or Japanese nationals leaving the country!

George Swatton MansbridgeLess than 5 years later we find George coming into the country to settle and marrying a local lady with whom he would have 5 children. I think this picture is great even though the two little girls at the front (who appear to be twins) look singularly unimpressed having their photograph taken!

I frankly have no idea how to go about tracing their descendants but it makes me wonder if those children, as adults about the same age as their father in this picture, might still have been living in Nagasaki at 11.01am on the morning of 9th August 1945 when Major Charles Sweeney’s B-29 Superfortress dropped the Fat Man plutonium bomb on the city. I hope they weren’t.

 

Alfred Swatton – a minor mystery solved

Alfred Florence Wedding

Alfred and Florence married in 1908

In the lead up to the centenary of the end of World War 1 I wrote a piece about the service my grandfather, Thomas, and his two brothers, Walter and Alfred performed during the war.
At the time, I had no idea why the oldest brother, Alfred, had been made a sergeant as soon as he volunteered. Similarly, I was puzzled why a man in his early thirties with a wife and four children, a fifth on the way, would volunteer for service.
Having done some more digging I think I have answered these questions. I have also discovered a postscript to the story which is just a little weird.
I’ll start off with the crucial information that solved the initial mystery. I found enlistment papers for Alfred for the Boer War, dated February 1901 which essentially answer everything.

boer war enlistmentSo, going through this document, it would appear that as a 21-year old Alf volunteered for service in South Africa, stating on his papers that he already had previous military experience with “1st Hants RE (Vols)”, which translates as the 1st Hampshire Royal Engineer Volunteers.
This unit was formed at Portsmouth in April 1891 with the majority of the rank and file being workers from the Portsmouth dockyard. They renovated an old drill shed for their use and acquired forty tons of gravel to lay down to form a parade ground. While their facilities may have been rough and ready it seems they became a very professional outfit.
In 1896 the 1st Hampshire took first place at a special course of instruction in fortress engineering at Chatham. Of the nine NCOs in the team from Portsmouth, six passed the examination as “very superior” whilst the other three passed “very satisfactory” placing them first in all England for the third time in the five years since they were formed. So it was no trivial matter that Alf had served with them.

hants vols

Following his enlistment in 1901 (note that on the form it was so soon after the death of Queen Victoria, no new form had been printed, and the recruiting sergeant has manually crossed out “Her Majesty” throughout), Alfred joined the Royal Engineers and was assigned to 37th Field Company.
Once serving he would probably have looked something like the soldiers in this picture (these are members of 11th Field Company RE in Durban).

royal engineers boer war
But his prior service in the 1st Hants RE (Vols) and in the Boer War explains why he volunteered again at the start of WW1. With the huge numbers of raw recruits that flooded into the army then, the authorities were desperate for recruits with previous experience who could immediately be made NCOs to help knock the untrained masses into shape.

So he volunteered in answer to the call for experienced former soldiers and was made a sergeantFlorenceand Childen1 because of his former service in South Africa.

And as for the postscript I mentioned…. unfortunately, Alf would not survive the war, dying on active service in the Balkan campaign in October 1916, probably of malaria that killed so many allied troops in that theatre.
The picture here is a family portrait his wife organised, the baby in her arms having been born within 2 days of his father’s death. I guess as a form of commemoration Florence decided to give the baby a middle name, Salonika, where his father died and is buried… and I’m not sure if that is poignant or just odd!

Len Swatton with the Glosters in Korea

This story will be the closest yet in terms of my direct relation to the subject. Leonard Frederick Swatton, my uncle (my father’s older brother), had been demobbed for less than two years after serving in World War 2 and Palestine and was still in the reserves when the Korean War kicked off in 1950.

Recalled to the colours, (on August Bank Holiday, 1950) he was posted to 12 Platoon, D Company, 1st Battalion the Gloucestershire Regiment, commonly known as the “Glosters”. This was a regiment already with a proud tradition; it had more battle honours than any other regiment in the British Army, and had its origin with the 28th Regiment of Foot.

The 28th formed part of the British expeditionary force that landed at Aboukir Bay in Egypt in 1801 to oppose Napoleon’s Army of the East. On 21 March, during the Battle of Alexandria, French cavalry broke through the British lines, formed up behind the regiment, and began to charge. With the men still heavily engaged to their front, the order was given for the rear rank to turn about, and standing thus in two ranks back to back, the regiment successfully held the line. For this action the 28th Regiment was accorded the unique privilege of wearing the regimental number both on the front and the back of its headdress.

The Glosters formally came into being in 1881 with the amalgamation of 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot and the 61st (South Gloucestershire) Regiment of Foot and, unbeknown to Len, they would enhance their fighting reputation in Korea beyond anyone’s expectations but at a cost beyond anyone’s wildest fears.

windrushThe Glosters’ Korean story began serenely enough as, with the rest of 29th Infantry Brigade, the regiment boarded ship in Southampton for the cruise to Korea. They embarked on HMT Empire Windrush in October 1950 for the voyage.

The ship is the very same one that was in the news in 2018 as it gave its name to the “Windrush Generation” of Caribbean immigrants who came to the UK in 1948 on the ship from Jamaica.

By the time the Glosters arrived in Korea, in November, the United Nations forces were in full chaotic retreat following the first major Chinese intervention in the war and their huge offensive that commenced that month. Only the winter, such a winter as the British Army had not had to endure since the Crimean War a century earlier, halted the Chinese advance. It was so cold that tea froze as it was poured into the mug. Even anti-freeze froze!

Come the new year (1951) with the Chinese over-extended and their logistics hampered by the sub-zero temperatures, the newly appointed UN 8th Army commander, Matthew Ridgway, counterattacked and the UN forces slowly began to push the Chinese back to the north.

glosters korea 3

Glosters moving up to their positions alongside Centurian tanks of the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars

The Glosters, in 29th Infantry Brigade, were attached to the US 3rd Division, part of 1 Corps, and by mid-April were holding a position on a bend of the Imjin River, north of Seoul, on a series of hills between the two major routes south towards the capital known as the Munsan and Uijeongbu “corridors”.

From intelligence gathered, UN commanders suspected a major Chinese offensive was being prepared and suspected it would strike the US 3rd Div and the Republic of Korea (ROK) 1st Div sitting astride the Munsan and Uijeongbu corridors. They also knew that the ability to hold these positions, or at least slow a potential Chinese offensive to prevent a quick breakthrough, was vital to the UN war effort.

A quick word on tactics…

The Chinese army was short on heavy artillery, tanks and, most significantly, airpower. They were a predominantly infantry-based army utilising small arms, machine guns and light artillery such as mortars. But what they lacked in military technology they made up for in numbers and the tactics they implemented sought to play to that strength.

Consequently, their approach to battle was to mass in secret, moving only at night so as to avoid UN air reconnaissance and when they launched an attack it was also inevitably at night to minimise the UN’s advantage of artillery and air support. Their tactics were to quietly infiltrate around the flanks of UN positions and then to launch mass “human wave” assaults on those positions, to close as fast as they could, and annihilate their opponents in close-quarters combat. Mao had said he would rather see a single enemy unit destroyed than see 10 defeated but allowed to retreat to fight again and the Chinese army faithfully adhered to this doctrine – infiltrate, surround, destroy.

…and a word on equipment

gloster kit

Glosters’ winter uniform during the campaign

The battle was to prove to be one of close contact; that’s what the Chinese excelled at and they were better equipped for it than the British and their allies. The Chinese had superior automatic weapons, particularly the Type 50 machine gun. The British were still largely armed with the Lee Enfield rifle which was an excellent rifle but required aiming at specific targets; not easy at night. The Sten machine gun used by the British had a slower rate of fire than the Chinese equivalent and was prone to jamming. Thankfully each infantry section was also armed with a Bren gun which was very reliable and was used to devastating effect. Where the British had a distinct advantage was in the quality of their grenades – the fragmentation and phosphorous grenades the British were armed with had a much bigger kill radius than their Chinese equivalents and the British had an ample supply of them

The other advantage the defenders had was in air and artillery support.

45 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery attached to the brigade with their 25 pounder guns were to prove life savers many times during the battle, as were the air strikes the Glosters could call in from US Air Force fighter bombers, at least during daylight hours.

glosters korea 1Lastly, a word on a specific weapon that is significant to the story – the 2” Mortar. This light mortar was very portable, weighing about 5kg and was fired by a two man crew – one to hold the tube and manually aim it, the other to load.

The guy second in line in the photo here is carrying one on his back.

Len Swatton was a section mortar firer in 12 Platoon, D Company.

The Eve of Battle

In the days leading up to the battle the Glosters and their companion battalions in the 29th Brigade had sent armoured patrols across the Imjin searching for the enemy and had come away empty-handed. The Chinese forces, experts at quietly assembling for an attack, evaded them and slowly but surely moved forwards to their jump off positions.

While the British suspected an attack was coming they thought the main body of the Chinese army was still 30 miles or so to the north. They had no idea an entire army comprising three divisions and totalling over 30,000 men would be launched at them.

The Battle

The first night: Sunday, 22 April / Monday, 23 April

map0111.30pm

A patrol under the command of 2nd Lt Guy Temple sent down to the river ford (later known as Gloster Crossing) in front of the Gloster’s position detected Chinese troops wading into the river – these were the lead elements of the Chinese 187th Division. When the Chinese were half way across the river his men unleashed on them. Calling in artillery support from 45 Field Regiment they massacred the first wave of enemy troops. But the Chinese kept coming and eventually Temple’s troops ran out of ammunition and retired back to the main battalion lines.

The Chinese, now having crossed the Imjin, began to mass troops at the base of Hill 148 preparing to attack the Glosters’ A Company and across the Route 5Y below the Hill 182 occupied by D Company where Len was positioned. They also began to infiltrate around the battalion position to cut them off.

Midnight

The Chinese launched their attacks on A and D Companies.

Both units poured small arms and mortar fire down their respective hillsides  and called in artillery support from 45 Field Regiment. In between firing high explosive rounds, Len’s mortars fired parachute flares so that the British could see something to shoot at. The carnage on the hillsides was appalling but somehow a Chinese machine gun unit managed to infiltrate through the A Company barrage to site themselves high on the hill from where they could pour fire onto the paths linking the forward platoons of A Company with their company HQ stopping them from being re-supplied with ammunition and preventing casualties from being removed.

Lt. Phil Curtis led 1 Platoon in an attack on the machine gun position and single-handedly destroyed it but was killed in the process, posthumously earning the Victoria Cross.

As the Chinese massed for another attack on A Company they were hit by a barrage from 45 Field Regiment that broke up the assault. Now the focus turned to Len’s  D Company on Hill 182. There the Chinese attacks got to within 35m of the British line before they were cut down. The attacks came in one after the other and the left flank 11 Platoon was hammered by particularly heavy attacks. Acting Company Commander Capt. Mike Harvey finally ordered 11 Platoon to fall back to a new line around the company HQ. By that time they had lost 23 out of 36 men in the platoon.

Dawn: Monday, 23 April (St. George’s Day)

A and D Companies had grimly held onto their positions on their respective hills all night but A Company could hold on no longer. Their CO Maj. Angier had been killed as had the Lieutenants in charge of 1 and 2 Platoons. All surviving officers were wounded and the company was now being commanded by the company sergeant-major.

7.50am

Both companies were still in close combat with the enemy and aerial reconnaissance reported about 1000 more Chinese troops readying to join the assault with others outflanking their positions. The companies had to be withdrawn but that was easier said than done.

Colonel Carne, the Glosters’ CO, decided to pull back the companies one at a time with A Company the first to go.

8.00 am

While Len’s D Company poured in covering fire across the valley that separated them, the survivors of A Company retreated down their hill to rendezvous with Oxford carriers (lightly armoured, tracked troop carriers) sent forward from battalion HQ to help move them back to Hill 235 where the battalion was concentrating.

Just minutes after A Company evacuated their positions atop Hill 148 the Chinese had occupied them but these troops were obliterated by a napalm strike from American F-80 Shooting Stars called in to pound the hill.

8.30am

With the remnants of A Company safely away D Company broke contact with the enemy and dashed down the rear slope of Hill 182 while every gun in 45 Field Regiment pounded the hilltop.

Whether because of exhaustion or the bombardment, the Chinese decided not to pursue the Glosters, and Len and his company reached Hill 235, soon to become famous as Gloster Hill.

C Company, not yet engaged in battle, occupied high ground directly to the front of Hill 235. B Company who would have been left isolated on their hill by the withdrawal of D Company were moved to Hill 314 a few hundred metres to the east of C Company on the same ridge line from where they had to drive away a Chinese occupying force with an old-fashioned bayonet charge. The whole battalion was now concentrated on high ground controlling route 5Y below them.

However, the Chinese had infiltrated around both flanks and now encircled the Glosters, cutting them off from all other allied forces. Carne discovered this when he sent for supplies from his rear echelon base 5 miles south to find it had been captured by the Chinese.

Knowing they were surrounded, the Glosters spent the day digging in for the attacks they knew would come after dark.

The second night: Monday, 23 April / Tuesday, 24 April

11.00pm

The fresh Chinese 189th Division arrived on the battlefield and began to launch attacks on B and C Companies.

The Chinese attacked in a human wave which the Glosters met with a hail of gunfire. As one wave would stall, they would fall back, re-group and come on again sustaining hundreds of casualties.

3.30am

The Chinese broke through the C Company perimeter and overran 8 and 9 Platoon’s positions. Colonel Carne ordered C Company to retreat to Hill 235 which left B Company isolated and the Chinese immediately concentrated their attacks on that beleaguered unit which would continue for the rest of the night.

Dawn: Tuesday, 24 April

B Company had reached breaking point; low on ammunition and with so many wounded they were lying on the floor of company HQ.

8.00am

The Chinese launched their seventh human wave attack, concentrating on 4 Platoon’s front where they outnumbered the defenders by ten to one and were able to overrun them by simple weight of numbers. B Company collapsed and was forced to retreat with every man fending for himself. Their route to the relative safety of the rest of the battalion was down the reverse slope of Hill 314, across the valley floor, crossing Route 5Y and up the steep slope of Hill 235. The other companies spotted the survivors emerging onto the valley floor and opened up a hail of covering fire on the hillside behind their fleeing comrades but just 15 men of B Company made it to the top of Hill 235. B Company was effectively destroyed as an effective fighting force.

10.00am

Col. Carne consolidated his remaining force within a smaller perimeter at the top of Hill 235 where they spent the hours of daylight digging in, knowing that come the darkness would come the attacks.

The third night: Tuesday, 24 April / Wednesday, 25th April

10.00pm

The first attacks hit the sections of the perimeter being held by the depleted A Company and a scratch force made up of the remnants of B and C Companies. As the Chinese scrambled up the slope, Len’s D Company positioned on the ridge at an angle to their approach could pour enfilading fire into their flank as they attacked causing massive damage. The series of attacks was driven off.

Midnight

The next series of attacks followed exactly the same pattern as before; massive human wave attacks supported by mortars and machine gun fire. This carried on throughout the night but each in turn was broken up by the stubborn Glosters.

Dawn: Wednesday, 25 April

6.05am

Brig. Brodie, in overall command of 29th Brigade, radioed the Glosters’ command post and gave them permission to try and break out.

Col. Carne gathered his surviving officers and briefed them. They knew that because of the overwhelming numerical superiority of the enemy, trying to break out as a single unit would be easily spotted and destroyed. Instead, he ordered the men to try and make their own way back to UN lines individually and in small groups. He also ordered the wounded to be left behind. The Glosters had over 100 wounded at the Regimental Aid Post who were in no shape to break out from behind enemy lines. These men would remain and become prisoners. The medical officer, several medical orderlies and the battalion chaplain volunteered to remain behind to look after them, knowing they too would be taken prisoner.

For the unwounded the prospects were poor – all had gone for three days with barely any sleep; food and water had run out.

Meanwhile, the Chinese attacks had increased in ferocity again, falling on A Company’s sector. D Company assisted by continuing to rake the attackers’ flank with enfilading fire but the situation remained desperate until the early morning mist began to clear when the American F-80s screamed through the valley to drench the Chinese troop concentrations at the base of the hill with napalm.

With daylight and the threat of air strikes the human wave attacks ceased.

10.00am

The Glosters began to evacuate the hill top.

map02Most men headed south but the Chinese on the hills surrounding could spot them moving along the valley floor. There were simply too many Chinese troops in the area and all the Glosters who headed directly south were captured quickly.

However, the fate of Len’s D Company was different.

Company CO Capt. Harvey decided to disregard the directive to split the men up and decided to keep his remaining 81 men together. He also decided to break out via a less predictable route – heading northwest further into enemy lines!

They scrambled down the steep scree slope below their position and formed a loose file with the best shots in the company at the front. After a few minutes five Chinese appeared in their path but the Glosters at the front of the file cut them down and the exhausted troops plodded on.

They turned south and channelled into a narrow defile through which a stream ran.

Suddenly machine guns opened up from the ridges either side of the defile they had entered. The men scrambled between rocks in the valley floor, their only cover. Some, who still had ammo returned fire into the hills but more and more started to be hit. The survivors couldn’t stop to help the wounded who had to be abandoned.  They struggled on, gradually being whittled down. It began to look like none of them would escape the gorge but ahead they suddenly saw the valley widen and there, on the flatter ground, they spotted tanks – Shermans of the US 73rd Heavy Tank Battalion.

The remaining Glosters broke cover and started running towards the tanks who turned their turrets towards them and opened fire – they hadn’t expected to see friendly forces in this sector and assumed they were Chinese. A squad of Glosters were mown down while the rest dived for cover again.

mike harvey

Mike Harvey, Len’s company CO

Desperately, Mike Harvey waved his Gloster beret on a stick above his head and it was riddled with machine gun fire from the tanks. Miraculously, an American spotter plane circling overhead had seen the Glosters escaping from Hill 235 and now swooped down on the tanks – the pilot dropping a message attached to a streamer to inform the American tanks of the true identity of their target. Realising their terrible mistake the American tanks turned their turrets towards the ridges overlooking the gorge and pounded the enemy machine gunners whereupon the surviving Glosters made a final dash down the valley.

Running forward they crouched behind the tanks, using them as shields as they slowly withdrew out of range of the Chinese machine guns.

It must have been at this last moment that Len was wounded. He couldn’t have been hit earlier or he would have been left behind to be captured so it must have been in the final dash for the tanks that he was hit; a bullet in the leg and shrapnel in his arm.

Once out of range of the Chinese small arms fire the exhausted surviving Glosters clambered aboard the tanks… it was 12.30.

Of the 81 men of Harvey’s breakout group just 41 made it out and of those 16, including Len, were wounded. Just 9% of the battalion got out – effectively the Glosters had been annihilated.  Capt. Mike Harvey was awarded the Military Cross for his leadership.

Aftermath…

The news of the last stand and ultimate destruction of the Glosters spread around the world. Len appeared in the local newspaper back home when he was still recuperating in hospital.

len in newspaperFor their heroic stand the Glosters were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest American award for collective gallantry in battle:

The Citation Reads

The 1st. Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment, British Army and Troop C. 170th Independent Mortar Battery, Royal Artillery, attached, are cited for exceptionally outstanding performance of duty and extraordinary heroism in action against the armed enemy near Solma-ri, Korea on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th of April 1951.

The 1st. Battalion and Troop C were defending a very critical sector of the battle front during a determined attack by the enemy. The defending units were overwhelmingly outnumbered.

The 63rd Chinese Communist Army drove the full force of its savage assault at the positions held by the 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment and attached unit. The route of supply ran southeast from the Battalion between two hills.

The hills dominated the surrounding terrain northwest to Imjin River.

Enemy pressure built up on the battalion front during the day, 23 April. On 24 April, the weight of the attack had driven the right flank of the battalion back. The pressure grew heavier and heavier and the battalion and attached unit were forced into a perimeter defense on Hill 235. During the night, heavy enemy forces had by-passed the staunch defenders and closed all avenues of escape. The courageous soldiers of the battalion and attached unit were holding the critical route selected by the enemy for one column of the general offensive designed to encircle and destroy I Corps. These gallant soldiers would not retreat. As they were compressed tighter and tighter in their perimeter defense, they called for close-in air strikes to assist in holding firm. Completely surrounded by tremendous numbers, these indomitable, resolute, and tenacious soldiers fought back with unsurpassed fortitude and courage. As ammunition ran low and the advancing hordes moved closer and closer, these splendid soldiers fought back viciously to prevent the enemy from overrunning the position and moving rapidly on the south.

Their heroic stand provided the critically needed time to regroup other I Corps units and block the southern advance of the enemy. Time and again efforts were made to reach the battalion, but the enemy strength blocked each effort. Without thought of defeat or surrender, this heroic force demonstrated superb battlefield courage and discipline. Every yard of ground they surrendered was covered with enemy dead until the last gallant soldier of the fighting battalion was overpowered by the final surge of the enemy masses.

The 1st. Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment and Troop C. 170th. Independent Mortar Battery displayed such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing their mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set them apart and above other units participating in the same battle.

Their sustained brilliance in battle, their resoluteness, and extraordinary heroism are in keeping with the finest traditions of the renowned military forces of the British Commonwealth, and reflect unsurpassed credit on these courageous soldiers and their homeland.

BY COMMAND OF LIEUTENANT GENERAL VAN FLEET

len in koreaOf course, the version I have presented here focuses solely on the Glosters. It would be churlish not to point out the desperate and heroic fighting undertaken by the other elements of the 29th Brigade – but theirs is another story to tell.

Similarly I have said nothing about the hundreds of Glosters taken prisoner at the Imjin who went on to spend two years as PoWs, 28 of whom died in captivity; thankfully that was a fate Len was spared.

I remember as a kid that Len rarely spoke of his time in Korea but in his later years he became much more involved with veterans’ associations and was lucky enough to make a trip to South Korea with other 29th Brigade veterans. Apparently their South Korean hosts treated them like royalty – I’ll bet Len loved it!