Continuing the research into the family history of a friend, Heidi Mellings. Thomas Alfred Perry Marsh was born on 23rd Feb 1856, a younger brother of Mary Marsh, Heidi’s great-great-grandmother.
From his initials, he was known as “Tap”.
He was destined for a medical career and, following school, attended University College Bristol where he had a dazzling record, sweeping the board in terms of academic prizes – Clark Scholar in Surgery, Sanders Scholar in Medicine and Haberfield Prize Winner in Medicine, Surgery and Obstetrics. He continued his professional qualifications at St. George’s Hospital, London.
He was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons on 28th April 1881. For a short time he was house surgeon at Weston-Super-Mare hospital but then elected to join the army and was gazetted Surgeon on 29th July 1882, joining the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley.
A couple of years later he was posted to India, based in Madras and was then attached to the British force engaged in the 3rd Anglo-Burmese War of 1885-87, being the surgeon attached to a battery of field artillery. He was present at several engagements near Nyngyam and Yemethen.
By 1894, he was stationed at the garrison in Gibraltar and was promoted Surgeon-Major on 29th July 1894.
In 1897, Thomas married Cecelia Bacquera, a Spanish lady from a Malaga family who he presumably met while stationed in Gibraltar.
On 4th Nov 1899, at the outbreak of the 2nd Boer War, he sailed to South Africa on board the “SS Kildonan Castle” where he took charge of the No. 3 Stationary Hospital, set up at De Aar, a strategically important junction between Cape Town and Kimberley. Before the set-up of the hospital was completed it was inundated with wounded from three actions in rapid succession.
Then, with conditions at the hospital still very poor, and coinciding with Lord Roberts’ offensive in Orange Free State, enteric fever (or typhoid as we know it now), broke out.
It was at this point that Thomas’ own health broke down and he was evacuated to the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein to recuperate. However, once there it was discovered he had contracted typhoid himself and he died there on 22nd May 1900, aged 44.
He was buried in the hospital cemetery.
In his obituary in the British Medical Journal it was said:
William Trevor Gibbs enlisted in the British Army on 28 May 1942 at the age of 34. Here is his attestation card.
From this I identified that he was assigned to the Royal Artillery and located his Royal Artillery Tracer Card which at first glance, and indeed second glance looks like hieroglyphics. But there are some very helpful people on the interweb and a chap on a WW2 forum translated it for me.
So it translates as:
28/5/1942. 206 Heavy (Mixed) Anti-Aircraft Training Regiment 6/10/1942. 573 Battery, 172 (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment 18/12/1944. 608 Battery, 183 (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment 9/6/1945. 232 Army Troops Company Royal Engineers 21st Army Group. X(vii) List X(vii) was the standard code for “Officers and Men Seconded”
5/6/1946. Class ‘A’ Release Y/7 List (Y7 was the code for a “Standard Release” after service)
That enabled me to start tracking down the unit histories to come up with a more or less complete story for William’s service.
On enlisting, William was assigned to a training unit, of Anti-Aircraft Command, namely the 206th Heavy (Mixed) Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Training Regiment.
As a side note, the “Mixed” designation refers to units that integrated women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service into the unit’s personnel. I suppose it’s quite comical now, but while ATS personnel operated searchlights, range finders and sound detectors and even aimed the anti-aircraft guns, army rules meant that only men were allowed to fire them! Bless…
The “heavy” designation also referred to the type of guns employed by the unit. The units in which William served used the Vickers Quick-Firing 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun that had a crew of seven to operate it and could fire its 13kg shell to 30,000 feet.
Following his training period he was assigned to his first operational unit…
573 Battery, 172 (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment
This unit was formed at Woodthorpe House, Nottingham in August 1942 from Territorial Army troops and female ATS personnel. William joined on 6th October 1942. It served in and around Nottingham as anti-aircraft defence through until being disbanded in 1945.
However, William was transferred before that to…
608 Battery, 183 (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment
183rd (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment was an air defence unit of which two-thirds of its personnel were women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The regiment was heavily engaged in Operation Diver, defending England against V-1 flying bombs in 1944.
Following D-Day, once 21st Army Group had captured Brussels and Antwerp, these cities became targets for V-1s launched from within Germany, and anti-Diver or ‘X’ defences had to be established around those cities.
Anti-Aircraft Command’s experience had shown that specialist equipment to augment the guns was required to deal effectively with V-1s, but 21st Army Group’s mobile HAA units did not have experience with this equipment. Hence, in December 1944 the first overseas deployment of Mixed HAA units began, and 183rd (Mixed) HAA Regiment was one of those selected.
It was at this point that William Gibbs was transferred to the unit, 18 Dec 1944.
The regiment arrived at Antwerp in January 1945, taking over Mk IIC 3.7-inch guns in bitter weather and were immediately in action against the onslaught of V-1s.
The Antwerp ‘X’ defences under 80 Anti-Aircraft Brigade to which William’s unit was attached, involved an outer line of Wireless Observer Units sited 40 miles (64 km) to 50 miles (80 km) in front of the guns to give 8 minutes’ warning, then Local Warning (LW) stations positioned half way, equipped with radar to begin plotting individual missiles. Finally there was an inner belt of Observation Posts (OPs), about 20,000 yards (18,000 m) in front of the guns to give visual confirmation that the tracked target was a missile. The LW stations and OPs were operated by teams from the Anti-Aircraft regiments, usually ATS personnel. Radar-controlled searchlights were deployed to assist in identification and engagement of missiles at night. The success rate of the X defences had been low at first, but after the arrival of Mk IIC guns and experienced crews from AA Command the results improved rapidly, with best results in February and March 1945. The number of missiles launched at Antwerp peaked at 623 a week in February and in the last week of action the AA defences destroyed 97.5 per cent of those reaching the defence belt.
The war in Europe ended on VE Day, 8 May 1945. 183rd (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, was disbanded on 25 May.
232 Army Troops Company Royal Engineers 21st Army Group
At this point, on 9 Jun 1945, William Gibbs was transferred out of the Royal Artillery and into a specialist unit of the Royal Engineers, readying to ship out to South East Asia where the war against the Japanese was still on-going.
This unit specialised in the capture of river crossings and making them safe from traps, mines and bombs. However, before the unit sailed, the war ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and so William remained in Europe.
William was discharged from the army on 5th June the following year.
Continuing the story of three brothers who all served in the Army in the 19th century.
Edward Herman Marsh
Edward Herman Marsh (odd middle name for which I have no explanation), was born in 1827 and although we know nothing of his education, we do know more of his military career.
He obtained a commission as Ensign by purchase on 23rd November 1849 in the 34th (Cumberland) Regiment of Foot. Ensign was the lowest officer rank and the purchase price in a regular foot regiment was £450, the equivalent today of about £60,000. So from being a civilian to being an officer in charge of a unit of soldiers was an overnight change with no previous experience necessary, simply a fat bank account.
Edward joined the 34th on the eve of their posting to Barbados in 1850. The West Indies were a notorious graveyard for European troops with little protection from tropical diseases. However, Edward survived and with the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, the 34th was transferred there.
They arrived at the port of Balaklava on the 5th November 1854 on the same day as a combined British and French force defeated a Russian army in the hills outside Sevastopol.
In a letter that Edward wrote to his parents, the port was so crowded that it was nearly a week before the regiment could disembark into conditions Edward described as disgusting, with “mud up to one’s knees”, troops in the siege trenches in front of Sevastopol already on quarter rations due to supply problems and disease being rife… “The Turks are dying like rotten sheep. I saw more than a dozen carried away and heard that 300 died on one day last week.”
It was a sign of things to come. Ten days after the 34th arrived, a giant storm raged through the Black Sea, devastating the allied supply ships, sinking over thirty and taking to the bottom all of the army’s winter supplies.
Conditions rapidly deteriorated. With no fodder for the supply horses they quickly died and the commissariat in charge of logistics foundered completely. As winter set in the troops, with no winter clothes or equipment, were forced to trek 12 miles from the siege trenches to their port base to fetch their own supplies. Losses from dysentery, cholera and typhus rocketed. The siege trench systems in front of Sevastopol became a vivid precursor to the conditions in WW1 sixty years later. Trench foot, a form of frost bite, rats, artillery shelling and enemy snipers became the daily life of the troops manning the front line.
In a letter to his brother in January 1855, Edward described the constant sniping and the exhaustion from the night-time piquet duties. However, he also made reference to his servant coming to wake him when it was time to go on duty… rank has its privileges so they say. If it was hard for an officer with money, his own tent and a servant, think what it must have been like for the ordinary soldier sleeping rough in the freezing trenches.
The following month, in another letter home, Edward describes the landscape around Sevastopol as being utterly destroyed, again like WW1 and describes taking pot shots at dogs in no man’s land that were eating the dead horses and men that littered the battlefield. In a somewhat cynical turn, he goes on to describe a fellow officer having a near miss when out in the open, nearly being hit by two Russian shot. The only way an officer could be promoted was by purchase or by filling a dead man’s shoes, obviously the latter requiring no expenditure… “It was rather a narrow escape [for the other officer] for both shot were within a foot and a half of him. I have been rather unfortunate about not getting one of these companies without purchase, but I hope to have a little luck yet, please God.”
By February 1855, Edward had also become totally disillusioned with the Army’s leadership and its overall commander, the elderly Lord Raglan who, amazingly, he all but insults in his letter home.
Evidently, there was no censoring of officers’ letters otherwise I think Edward would have been court-marshalled.
With the spring and better weather, conditions slowly began to improve for the British troops in the trenches around Sevastopol. The action of the siege began to hot up after stagnating through the winter. The Russians sortied out of the city and the British and French launched attacks on various strongholds surrounding the city from March through to June. Private William Coffey of the 34th Regiment won a Victoria Cross on 29th March 1855 when a live artillery shell landed in his unit’s trench and he rushed forward, picked it up and lobbed it out of the trench seconds before it exploded.
On the 18th June the 34th was part of the joint Anglo-French assault on the Malakoff and the Great Redan, the Russians’ two most powerful strongholds in the Sevastopol defences. The attacks were a disaster with both the French and British suffering great losses. The 34th’s second Victoria Cross winner, Private John Sims, won his award after the regiment had pulled back to its trenches following the failed attack when he repeatedly left cover to retrieve wounded soldiers and bring them back to the safety of the trenches.
Perhaps, in this disastrous attack Edward got his wish and was able to be promoted into a dead man’s shoes.
The siege ground on but with better weather much more artillery was brought up to the front line and the city was pounded almost to destruction. By mid-August the Russians were suffering 3000 casualties a day from the bombardment and by the end of the month their position was untenable and they abandoned their defences and retreated.
The fall of Sevastopol was the catalyst for negotiations that ended the war which formally ended the following year in 1856. Edward Marsh was awarded the Crime Medal with the Sebastopol (then the current spelling) clasp. Here is a picture of the medal and a photograph of Edward wearing it.
Although technically a victory, public opinion in Britain was outraged at the logistical and command failures of the war; the newspapers demanded drastic reforms, and parliamentary investigations demonstrated the multiple failures of the army.
However, before any reform could take place, mutiny broke out in India in 1857 and the 34th were sent there to help put down the revolt.
Within days of the Indian Mutiny erupting, major garrison towns in the north of the country were under siege… Delhi, Lucknow, and Cawnpore and others.
The 34th Regiment were assigned to the force, led by Major-General Henry Havelock, that was hurriedly put together to relieve Cawnpore, a strategically important garrison town straddling the Ganges.
(As a side note… Henry Havelock was a Captain at the siege of Jalalabad in the First Afghan War in 1841 where Edward’s elder brother, Henry Godfrey Marsh served. Odd coincidence.)
The British at Cawnpore, about a thousand in total, half of whom were women and children, held out for three weeks, suffering increasing casualties from repeated attacks and losses from disease, surrendered on 27th June having been given assurance of safe passage across the Ganges and onward to Allahabad, the direction from which the relief force would approach. General Wheeler, in command at Cawnpore, led out a column of British survivors and headed to the Satichaura Ghat on the river bank where boats were waiting to ferry them across.
The British embarked on the boat but then, suddenly, the rebels opened fire on them. Boats collided in the chaos, overturning, then rebel cavalry rode into the river and systematically killed all the men in the British party with pistols and sabres.
The surviving British women and children were moved to a large villa complex at Bibighar where other European women captured elsewhere were already being held. In all there were about 200 women and children held captive.
Nana Sahib, the local rebel leader, intended to use the captives to bargain with the British, under General Havelock, approaching from Allahabad when they defeated another rebel force sent to try and stop them. When it became clear to Nana Sahib that the British commander wasn’t going to negotiate, he ordered the women and children held at Bibighar to be killed.
Nana Sahib’s mistress, Begum Hussaini Khanum, was in charge at the villa but the rebel sepoys refused to obey her orders to kill the captives in cold blood. At this, she employed a group of butchers and slaughtermen from the town and they massacred the women and children with knives and cleavers, stripping them and throwing their bodies down a dry well.
There were no survivors. It was the 15th of July and Havelock’s force finally re-took Cawnpore the following day, to find a scene of utter carnage at Bibighar.
While Havelock set off with part of his force to try and break through to the besieged residency at Lucknow, 48 miles away, Brigadier General Neill, left in charge at Cawnpore, immediately began a program of swift and vicious retribution, executing any sepoy rebel captured from the city who was unable to prove he was not involved in the massacre.
The 34th Regiment was not part of Havelock’s relief force that set off for Lucknow so must have remained in Cawnpore during this period. Despite being so appalled and infuriated by the massacre, the horrific way in which many of the captive sepoys were executed was shameful and not an episode of which the British Army can be proud.
Meanwhile, Havelock fought his way into besieged Lucknow but his losses, through battle casualties and sickness were too great to enable the garrison to fight their way out again. So he took the decision to use his remaining troops to reinforce the Lucknow garrison and await a second relief.
That was led by the newly appointed overall commander in India, Sir Colin Campbell (he of the “thin red line” fame from Balaklava). The 34th Regiment was assigned to his column which, after much heavy fighting relieved Lucknow in November 1857.
The 34th remained in India, under Campbell fighting actions against various rebel units all through 1858 and 1859.
The 34th left India in 1868 and returned to England, based at their depot in Carlisle, but they sailed out to India again in 1875, returning to Bengal and proceeding to Burma when the Third Burma War started. They stayed until 1890.
Now, I’m not sure what service Edward Herman Marsh did during this later period. All I know was that he was in England for each census between 1861 and 1901 inclusive. In 1861 he was presumably at home on extended leave as the regiment was still in India. In the 1871 census he was staying at his sister’s house, again presumably on leave while the regiment was based in England.
I am guessing that he retired from the army some time before the regiment redeployed back to India in 1875, having been promoted to Major as his occupation entry on the 1891 census is “Major in the Army, on Retired List”.
Edward never married and never seems to have owned his own home. On each of the census returns he was living either in his father’s house or with one of his sisters.
This story records the lives and careers of three brothers who all served in the British Army during the peak of the British Empire. They are Henry Godfrey Marsh, born in 1812, Edward Herman Marsh, born in 1827 and Octavius John Blake Marsh, born in 1829.
Henry Godfrey Marsh is my friend’s great-great-great-grandfather.
They were the sons of Henry Marsh, a gentleman of independent means and grew up in privileged comfort in Somerset.
Henry Godfrey Marsh Henry Godfrey Marsh was born on 10th September 1812, (to give that some context, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars… in the middle of Napoleon’s march on Moscow, three days after the Battle of Borodino). He would inevitably have attended public school but I haven’t determined where, however, later he continued his education at universities in Prussia, in both Berlin and Bonn. It was in the latter where he met and married Josephine Wassermeyer (possibly Wassermeier) in 1832.
It is unclear when he joined the 13th Light Foot (later renamed the 1st Somersetshire) Regiment, but it would have been in the mid-1830s, when the regiment was on garrison duty in India.
Henry does not appear in the 1841 census which suggests he was out of the country, presumably still with the army and, over this period, the 13th Foot was in for some adventures!
In 1837, Persian troops, allied to the Russians, occupied the Herat region of Afghanistan. The British, who feared Russian intervention in the area, decided to remove the emir of Afghanistan and to replace him with a pro-British monarch, Shuja Shah Durrani. Accordingly, an expeditionary force, known as the “Army of the Indus”, was formed. The 13th Light Infantry formed part of the invasion force, joining the other units in November 1838. The army passed into Afghanistan in March 1839, taking Kandahar in April without resistance and the 1st Afghan War had begun.
The 13th Light Infantry took part in the decisive victory at Ghazni in July 1839, a night-time storming of the fort followed by bitter hand-to-hand fighting in the dark streets.
The British fought their way into the centre of the city and by dawn the city was captured. The British forces suffered 200 men killed and wounded while the Afghans lost nearly 500 men and 1,600 taken prisoner, with an unknown number wounded.
The British initially achieved their objective of enthroning Shuja in August 1839. The 13th formed part of the occupation force that attempted to enforce the rule of the new monarch; but, in October 1841, a popular uprising against Shuja broke out. The 13th found itself engaged in operations against the rebels who had overthrown Shuja and attacked the capital, Kabul. In November 1841, the regiment was forced to retreat to the fortified town of Jalalabad.
Meanwhile, General Elphinstone, the senior British officer in Afghanistan, had decided to evacuate his Kabul garrison and fall back on Jelalabad to unite with the British troops there. However, they were cut off by the rebel Afghan forces and annihilated, there being just one survivor of Elphinstone’s force to reach Jalalabad, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon.
Whereupon Jalalabad was soon encircled, leading to a lengthy siege.
Almost simultaneously, news arrived from India that the force under General Wilde, lying at the base of the Khyber Pass, could not begin its advance, so the Jelalabad garrison could expect no early relief. Following this dismal news, a series of communications arrived from the Afghans demanding that the Jelalabad brigade abandon the town to an Afghan governor and withdraw to India. Brigade Sir Robert Sale, commanding the Jelalabad force, held a council of war with the senior officers of his regiments and decided that the town must be held.
On 12th February 1842, a further demand that the town be given up arrived from Kabul, but the demand was rejected and the officers resolved to hold Jelalabad to the end. The Afghans, now commanded by Akbar Khan, invested the town closely.
At the beginning of April, Brigadier Sale resolved on a major sortie by the entire garrison, in an attempt to drive the Afghan besiegers away. The odds were not in the garrison’s favour. Akbar had some 5,000 to 6,000 men. The garrison numbered around 1,500 men.
At dawn on 7th April 1842 three columns issued from the Kabul Gate into the open country outside Jelalabad. The columns advanced in line towards Akbar’s camp, some 3 miles away, its right flank resting on the river. Despite being temporarily separated, the columns coordinated well. The artillery came up in support and a heavy fire was opened on the Afghans, as the three columns advanced into Akbar’s camp capturing his artillery and driving his soldiers away in rout.
By 7am on 8th April 1842 the Afghan besieging force had fled and the British were able to march back into Jelalabad in triumph. The garrison had raised the siege without assistance.
On 13th April 1842 the British relief force finally arrived, to be played into Jelalabad by the band of the 13th Light Infantry with the Scottish song “Oh but you’ve been a lang time acoming.”
In the following year the regiment’s official name was changed to 13th (1st Somersetshire) (Prince Albert’s Light Infantry) Regiment of Foot… a bit of a mouthful!
The regiment returned to England in 1845.
Although Henry Godfrey Marsh gives his occupation on the 1851 census as Captain in the 1st Somerset Regiment, by that time the regiment had been posted to garrison duty in Gibraltar so I think by that time he had begun to settle into the life of the landed gentleman and would let his younger brothers take up the warrior mantle.
James Banks was born on 29th May 1820, in Kington, Herefordshire. He was the second eldest of six children of Richard Banks, a solicitor from Cornwall and his wife Esther, the daughter of an apothecary from Talgarth in the Brecon Beacons.
James Banks attended Repton School, a boarding school in Derbyshire established in 1557. Obviously highly intelligent, James was admitted to Christ’s College Cambridge on 15th June 1839.
For some reason I haven’t been able to establish James did not complete his studies at Cambridge but instead migrated to Oxford, matriculating at St Mary Hall on 29th Oct. 1841, age 21. He continued his studies at Lincoln College obtaining his M.A. in 1846 by which time he had already been ordained as a deacon (1845). In 1847 he married Frances Young, daughter of a “gentleman”, with whom he would ultimately have twelve children, and became Perpetual Curate of Christ Church, in the Forest of Dean, a role he maintained until 1853 when he became Head Master of Ludlow Grammar School.
Rev. James (get it?) remained Head Master at Ludlow Grammar until April 1857 when he inherited Moor Court, a large estate in Herefordshire, from his great uncle, James Davies, on condition he changed his surname to Davies which he duly did the following year by royal appointment.
In later life, the Rev. James Banks, now Davies became a Justice of the Peace for Hereford and Radnor, assumed the role of Diocesan Inspector of Schools for Hereford. He was a Prebendary of Hereford Cathedral, 1875-83 and distinguished classical scholar and translator of classical works.
He contributed classical articles for many years to the Saturday Review, and had a number of classical translations published.
Moor Court was a large estate comprising the mansion itself, a church, six farms and various other houses, cottages and land. The mansion was impressive, with eight live-in servants.
James died after a long decline on 11th March 1883.
So, what happened to the Moor Park estate and the family fortune? The simple answer is we don’t know. All we know for sure is that the estate was broken up in 1914, sold off as fifteen separate lots in an auction but that was thirty years after the death of James Davies.
What I suspect is this… of the Davies’ twelve children, eight of them were daughters, none of whom married but all were recorded in later years’ censuses as living off their own means, as was their widowed mother. So I think James’ widow, Frances, sold the estate not long after her husband’s death and split the money from the sale between her children to facilitate their subsequent independence. Three of her four sons lived to adulthood and all had professional careers, one as an inspector of schools, one as a clergyman who emigrated to South Africa and one as a solicitor.
Ellen Swatton was my grandfather’s cousin. In February 1908, she married a man from Jersey who had Irish ancestry called Patrick Murphy (I know, how much more Irish can you get!).
Together they had four sons, two of whom, James and George, joined the Royal Navy and served in WW2.
George, born in 1919, was the younger of the two and was the most junior rank of Electrical Artificer when he served aboard HMS Fiji, a light cruiser launched just prior to the war.
Fiji was assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet commanded by Admiral Andrew Cunningham.
British intelligence received information that the Germans would attack the island of Crete on 17 May and Admiral Cunningham ordered his ships to sea on the 15th. Fiji and the light cruiser Gloucester (designated Force B) were tasked to patrol west of the island. The Germans began landing paratroopers on 20 May when Force B was en route to rendezvous with the battleships Warspite and Valiant and their escorts west of Crete. The ships rendezvoused the following morning and German air attacks began a few hours later. They caused little damage but served to run down the ships’ anti-aircraft ammunition. That afternoon, Cunningham ordered the cruisers to disperse and search for any German troop convoys in the Aegean. The Germans spotted Force B shortly after dawn on 22 May as the cruisers were steaming south to rendezvous with the battleships again and re-commenced air attacks.
By 08:30 that day Fiji was down to only 30% of its anti-aircraft ammunition remaining.
But at 14:02 and 14:07 respectively, Fiji and Gloucester were detached to provide anti-aircraft support for the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston, the two destroyers having already been ordered to rescue the survivors of the destroyer Greyhound, which had been sunk at 13:50.
The Luftwaffe focused its attention on the four ships dispatched to Greyhound and they were under near-constant attack for several hours. By 15:30, Fiji had exhausted its supply of anti-aircraft ammunition but she closed on Gloucester at 15:50, right when that ship was struck by four bombs. Fiji dropped life rafts, but was forced to depart the area with the two destroyers. These ships fought on and shot down one attacker and severely damaged two others. The aerial attacks continued despite the heavy cloud cover; at 19:00 a German fighter bomber struck the Fiji amidships with a bomb. The forward boiler and engine rooms flooded and gave her a severe list. Despite this damage Fiji was able to maintain a speed of 18 knots (33 km/h; 21 mph) until she was hit by another bomb that increased her list to 30 degrees. Abandon ship was ordered in the face of the uncontrollable flooding and she capsized around 19:30. Her accompanying destroyers were unable to rescue any of the crew until after dark when almost all of them who had gone into the sea were recovered.
Sadly, 20 year old George Murphy was killed in the air attacks on his ship, one of 233 men who were killed in the sinking of the Fiji.
On 30 May 1941, in a letter to the First Sea Lord, Cunningham wrote, “The sending back of Gloucester and Fiji to Greyhound was another grave error and cost us those two ships. They were practically out of ammunition, but even had they been full up I think they would have gone. The Commanding Officer of Fiji told me that the air over Gloucester was black with planes.” Following the loss of both Fiji and Gloucester to air attacks after their anti-aircraft ammunition was exhausted, all British cruisers were instructed to not allow their anti-aircraft ammunition reserves to fall below 40%.
James Murphy, the elder brother, was a career sailor, having joined the service in 1928. He was also an Electrical Artificer and, by the middle of the war was a Chief EA aboard HMS Formidable, a 23,000 ton aircraft carrier.
At 740ft long and with a crew of 1300, Formidable was one of the biggest ships in the Royal Navy and, crucially as it was to turn out, had an armoured flight deck and hangar whereas the American carriers had wooden flights decks.
Note: the British design took into consideration that their carriers would generally be operating in more restricted sea space such as the North Sean and Mediterranean, therefore generally being within range of heavier land-based aircraft. Hence, they opted for defence and survivability against heavy bombing attacks whereas the Americans, operating mostly in the Pacific, assumed they would generally be under attack mostly from other carrier-based, lighter aircraft and could rely on their own combat air patrols to fend off those attacks.
When James Murphy joined Formidable she was in home waters and shortly afterwards was sent north to Norway to launch air attacks on the Tirpitz, at anchor in a remote Norwegian fjord. Formidable, in conjunction with Furious and Indefatigable launched three separate attacks on the huge German battleship but failed to inflict and serious damage. These attacks convinced the British to turn over future attacks on the Tirpitz to the RAF’s heavy bombers.
Meanwhile, Formidable was sent to the other side of the world to join the British Pacific Fleet. She arrived off the Sakishima Islands on 4th April 1945 and took part in operations to neutralise airfields on the islands as part of the preparation for landings on Okinawa.
After refuelling and re-arming in the Philippines the fleet returned to operations of the Sakishima Islands on 4th May. Vice-Admiral Rawlings, in command, detached his battleships away to bombard the islands thus removing the best anti-aircraft defence the carriers had and the Japanese sought to exploit this weakness.
At 11.31 on the morning of 4th May a Japanese zero fighter armed with a 500lb bomb on a Kamikaze mission got through the air defences and slammed into the flight deck of Formidable.
The detonation of the bomb and impact of the place caused a big dent in the armoured flight deck, twenty feet wide and two feet deep and the fireball on deck killed two men and wounded 55 other crewmen. However, the fires on the flight deck and in the hangar were extinguished by 11:55, and seven Avengers and a Corsair which were damaged beyond repair were dumped over the side. By 5pm that day the ship was once again fully operational. Air operations continued the following day then the carriers were withdrawn to refuel. Three days later on 8th May they were back on station continuing air operations. But the following day, 9th May Formidable was struck again by another Kamikaze attack. Pilot, Yoshinari Kurose, penetrated the combat air patrol at low altitude and crashed his plane into Formidable’s flight deck and deck park at 17:05. The impact did little damage to the ship, but caused an explosion and large fire that destroyed 18 of her aircraft. One crewman, Petty Officer George Hinkins, was killed and four were wounded but the carrier was able to resume flight operations just fifty minutes later.
After refitting in Sydney, Formidable with the rest of the British Pacific Fleet joined forces with the US Third Fleet to carry out operations off Osaka in the last two weeks of July. The fleet had been scheduled to withdraw after 10th August to prepare for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November, and the bulk of the force, including Formidable, departed for Papua New Guinea on 12 August. The Japanese surrender a few days later ended the war.
Thomas Ahearn was my first cousin, once removed; that is, the son of my grandfather’s sister.
Thomas was born in 1914 and joined the Royal Navy in 1929, aged just 15. After spending his first 18 months at the shore training establishment HMS Ganges, Thomas was transferred to his first ship and spent eight months on the battle cruiser HMS Renown before moving to the heavy cruiser HMS Norfolk on 3rd September 1931 just in time for the Invergordon Mutiny that took place on the 15-16 September.
As part of its attempts to deal with the Great Depression, the government decided to implement cuts to public spending. In the Navy this translated into a 10% pay cut for officers, senior ratings, and for junior ratings on the “new rate” of pay, introduced for new entrants in 1925. Ratings below petty officer who had joined before 1925 would have their pay reduced to the same level, amounting to a 25% cut!
When the Atlantic Fleet arrived in Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth on 11th September the men got wind of the cuts through newspapers. On the night of 12th September a group of sailors met at a football field on land where they voted to organise a strike. Crews on the ships decided to carry out essential harbour duties only and not to put to sea.
On the morning of 16th September, Rear-Admiral Tomkinson, in command of the fleet reported to the Admiralty his belief that the mutiny would worsen unless an immediate concession was made. He suggested junior ratings on the old rate should remain on that rate with a cut of 10%. Shortly afterwards, he was informed by the Admiralty that the matter was being considered by the Cabinet, and communicated this to the Fleet.
The Cabinet accepted Tomkinson’s recommendation that ratings on the old rate of pay remain on that rate, with a 10% cut in line with the rest of the service. It was made clear that further acts of insurrection would be severely punished.
(As an aside to this, Len Wincott, an Able Seaman on HMS Norfolk was a leader of the mutiny and subsequently defected to the USSR in 1934. During World War II he survived the Siege of Leningrad but in 1946 he was sent to the Gulag after being accused of being a British spy; he was imprisoned for more than a decade. After his release in the 1950s, he became a friend of Donald MacLean in Moscow.)
In October 1932, Thomas Ahearn transferred to HMS Delhi, flagship of the 8th Cruiser Squadron on the West Indies station.
In 1936, Thomas transferred to a brand new ship, just commissioned, HMS Apollo, a cruiser that sailed to North America via Bermuda and then visited a number of ports in the US and Canada before sailing south to Brazil.
After a six month spell with HMS Diomede, Thomas was at a shore station when war broke out and he was transferred to HMS Ardent in November 1939.
HMS Ardent was a destroyer, working convoy protection from the beginning of the war until the spring of 1940.
After the German invasion of Norway on 9th April, she was transferred to the Home Fleet and on 13th April, the ship joined the escort of Convoy NP1, on passage to Norway with troops for the planned landings at Narvik.
The operations round Narvik ended in disaster and after six weeks the army was in need of evacuation. On 31st May, Ardent and the destroyers Acasta, Acheron, Highlander and Diana escorted the aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Glorious from the Clyde to the Norwegian coast to carry out air operations in support of the evacuation.
On 8th June, the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, having embarked fighters based at an airfield in Norway was detached from the main force with Ardent and Acasta as escorts to return home.
What happened next would turn out to be the Royal Navy’s worst single day in WW2. It would tell of heroism in the face of impossible odds, unflinching sacrifice and lastly, enduring controversy.
At 3.45pm, the lookout in the German pocket battleship Scharnhorst spotted the huge silhouette of the Glorious. The Scharnhorst was cruising with the pocket battleship Gneisenau to the north of the Glorious’s route back to the UK and, in tandem, they immediately began to close on the British aircraft carrier and its two small escorts destroyers.
At 4pm, Glorious finally having detected the two enemy battleships descending upon it, turned south east in an attempt to escape. But the carrier couldn’t outrun the German battleships and by 4.30pm the Scharnhorst was within range and began firing at the carrier with its main armament, nine 11” guns. Gneisenau was in range shortly after and similarly opened fire on the British carrier. With just her third salvo Scharnhorst hit Glorious which started a huge fire in the forward aircraft hangar that quickly got out of control.
With Glorious becoming a sitting duck the destroyers sought to buy time for the stricken carrier. They dropped back and sailed a crossing pattern behind the carrier, making smoke in an attempt to hide it from the German gun aimers.
Then HMS Ardent, commanded by Lt. Commander John Barker, burst through its own smoke screen to fire torpedoes at Scharnhorst, one of which passed just feet in front of the German battleship. Scharnhorst took evasive action then, with Gneisenau, caught Ardent in a withering crossfire from their secondary armaments. Within four minutes Ardent had been obliterated, sinking at 5.28pm with the loss of all hands except one. While Thomas Ahearn had been killed, the battle still had its deadly finale to play out.
Shortly after Ardent’s sinking, Glorious emerged from the smoke screen and again came under a hail of fire from the German battleships. By 5.40pm she was a burning wreck, being hit constantly by salvoes from the German ships and slowly sinking into the icy Norwegian sea.
HMS Acasta, the remaining destroyer, was still making smoke to the rear of Glorious and steaming directly away from the German battleships. On board, Commander Charles Glasfurd addressed his crew over the ship tannoy: “You may think we are running away from the enemy. We are not. Our chummy ship has sunk (Ardent was the sister ship of the Acasta), the Glorious is sinking. The least we can do is make a show. Good luck to you all.”
With that, the 1,350 tonne Acasta turned 180 degrees, steamed back through her own smoke screen and charged at the 33,000 tonne German battleships. Turning hard to port she got in a position to fire her torpedoes at Scharnhorst. One of the torpedoes struck Scharnhorst near her rear main turret, disabling it and blowing a hole in the side of the ship that shut down two of her three engine rooms. But that was to be Acasta’s last moment of glory. Quickly the German ships trained their guns on the destroyer and in five minutes had crippled it.
Glorious sank at 6.08pm and Acasta followed it at 6.16pm.
Leading Seaman Cyril Carter, the only crew member from Acasta to survive, would later recall: “…when I was in the water I saw the Captain leaning over the bridge, take a cigarette from a case and light it. We shouted to him to come on our raft. He waved and said, “Good-by and good luck.””
Of the 900 men who went into the water from the three ships, just 46 would be rescued by a Norwegian merchant ship two days later. In total, 1,531 sailors perished in the action. It was the worst British naval disaster of the war.
And controversy began almost immediately because of unanswered questions surrounding the disaster.
Why were Glorious and her escorts returning home independently of the main force from Norway?
Why was the Home Fleet unaware of the potential threat of a German battle group in the vicinity?
Could HMS Devonshire, a battle cruiser also making its way home independently and not far from the battle site, have gone to the assistance of the stricken ships?
Questions were asked in Parliament as early as 31st July 1940, culminating in a debate on 7th November but, given wartime exigencies, it wasn’t surprising no answers were forthcoming from the Admiralty.
All went quiet on the topic until 1946 when under more pressure the Admiralty released a statement that Glorious was short of fuel and had to return home early. The route chosen was expected to be safe and the ships were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The first to contradict this explanation of events was none other than Winston Churchill who described the fuel reason as “not convincing. The Glorious presumably had enough fuel to steam at the speed of the convoy. All should have kept together.” Nonetheless, the official story held for the next 30 years. It would be the Navy’s official historian, Captain Stephen Roskill, who finally lifted the lid on the controversy in his book “Churchill and the Admirals” in 1977 and in an explosive article for the Sunday Times in 1980.
Addressing the fuel explanation Roskill said “…the shortage of fuel theory is false.” Essentially backing up Churchill’s view, he stated that had Glorious remained with the main force she would have been steaming at a slower speed and would have consumed less fuel overall for the journey.
Since supported by other historians, Roskill painted a picture of Glorious as a desperately unhappy ship run by a captain whose First World War renown disguised incompetence, tyranny and questionable mental stability. Relations between senior officers had broken down to the extent that D’Oyly-Hughes, commander of the Glorious, had put his senior aviator, Captain J B Heath ashore at Scapa Flow pending a court marshal when the latter could not comply with impossible orders. Recent historians have claimed that D’Oyly-Hughes was so vindictive that the sole reason his ship was racing home independently, completely unready for combat, was in order to bring forward a court martial against his former officer.
Eminent historian Corelli Barnett described D’Oyly-Hughes as “…a throwback to the worst kind of arrogant, authoritarian and choleric Edwardian naval officer.”
Moving on to the issue of the lack of awareness of the German battleship threat, it seems that the Admiralty failed to pass on intelligence warnings to those in a position to react to events. Reports from Bletchley Park in the ten days prior to the battle gave strong indication that German main units were likely to proceed to Norwegian waters but none of this intelligence was passed on to the commander of Home Fleet let alone the ship commanders on the scene.
Lastly, the role, or lack of it played by HMS Devonshire. When Glorious spotted the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau she radioed for assistance twice. The nearest ship was the Devonshire who the Admiralty claimed heard one garbled message that made no sense. Therefore, they claimed, it was purely coincidence that Devonshire exercised her main armaments at 4.25pm, just minutes after Glorious sent its first message (one the Devonshire claimed was not received) and then increased speed from 26 knots to 30 knots for the only time in her voyage just after Glorious’ second signal.
The fact that HMS Devonshire was carrying the Norwegian royal family and government to exile in the UK presumably also had nothing to do with decisions taken by her captain that day.
Ultimately, we will never know the reason why Glorious was sailing home independently, or why she was so unprepared for attack because all those in decision making positions on the ships involved were killed.
As for Thomas Frederick Ahearn, he was just a tiny cog in a much bigger wheel and in true naval fashion his service record ends quite succinctly:
Some time ago I posted a short article about my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Owen, who was born in the early 1850s and lived and worked on narrow boats plying their trade on the Grand Union Canal. In his twenties he fell foul of the law and was sentenced to five years hard labour for assault in 1877.
Now, from recently digitised images of inmates of Pentonville Prison, I can put a face to the name and here is Joseph, (thanks to my cousin Jenny who found the pic):
According to his prison discharge record he was just 5 feet and a quarter inch tall, very short even for the time. But then again, of the ten people on the same page as Joseph’s discharge record just one is taller than 5 feet 4 inches. Generations of malnourishment throughout the early industrial revolution is known to have had a detrimental effect on the physique and average life-span of working class people so I guess his height shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.
In the picture you’ll notice his hands are raised, holding the front of his prison uniform. This was a standard pose, adopted so that any tattoos on the backs of hands could be recorded.
When this photograph was made, Joseph was just two months into his sentence but when he was released, it was into the supervision of the RSADP, according to his discharge record. The RSADP was the Royal Society for the Assistance of Discharged Prisoners and was a charitable organisation set up to help reduce recidivism. They would assist ex-cons to find work and accommodation and help them manage what little money they left prison with. It would seem that Joseph was one of their successes as there is no record of him re-offending and he went on to become master of his own narrow boat on the Grand Union Canal.
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.
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 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:
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.”
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.
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”:
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 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.
The 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.
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.
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 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.
There 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.
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.
Sadly 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.