Len Swatton – Military Service in Europe and Palestine

My uncle Len enlisted in the Territorial Army on 2nd April 1941, aged 18 years 10 months, as Private 6215692, assigned to the 70th (Young Soldiers) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, being raised and trained at West Molesley in Surrey by Lt Colonel Edwin Flavell who had won two Military Crosses during WW1.

The following year, Len re-enlisted in the Regular Army, on 21 April 1942, signing up for 7 years (and a further 5 years in the Reserves). On 20th Feb 1942 he was made acting Lance Corporal and on 16th March 1943 was posted to the 2nd Battalion Princess Louise’s Kensington Regiment, known colloquially as the “Kensingtons”, relinquishing his corporal’s stripe on being posted to this front line unit.

In January 1944 Len qualified as Driver-Mechanic Class II. A brief side note on the nature of the 2nd Kensingtons… they were one of eight regiments converted to “Machine Gun Regiments” in the 1930s, motorised units utilising the Vickers-Armstrong Universal Carrier, known also, but incorrectly, as a Bren-Gun Carrier. Below is an artist’s impression of the 2nd Kensingtons in action in France. Len, as driver would be the low sitting position at the front of the vehicle. For operations in Europe they were part of the 49th (West Riding) Division, known as the Polar Bears from their distinctive badge.

Luckily, a small part of the war diary of the 2nd Kensingtons is available online so I have been able to piece together the unit’s movements in the early part of 1944.

In the lead up to D-Day the unit moved to its initial marshalling area, bizarrely just outside Great Yarmouth in the village of Rollesby. On 5th June, the battalion moved south to Purfleet on the River Thames arriving on the 6th June when they heard news of the first landings in Normandy.

On 8th June the battalion moved to West India Quay in London’s dockland and boarded the motor transport ship SS Fort Poplar. The following day the ship sailed to a holding area off Southend before moving down to Newhaven on the 10th June. At 11pm that night the ship sailed for France, arriving off Normandy at 7am the following morning. That day, due to lack of landing craft only a couple of the machine gun carriers could be landed but those were from B Company, Len’s company, so maybe he was one of the first to land from his battalion?

However, the following day, 12th June, the full battalion disembarked from the Fort Poplar despite an attack by German Focke-Wolff 190 dive bombers. The battalion took up position at St Gabriel, 5km south east of where the British Normandy Memorial now stands.

Two days later the battalion HQ moved a couple of km further south east to Carcagny while the machine gun carrier companies went forward to support the infantry units to which they were assigned. Len’s unit, 6 Platoon of B Company were assigned to support the 7th Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment which attacked a wood to the south on the 17th June.

The position to be attacked was occupied by 12th SS Panzer Division troops, the fanatical Hitler Jugend Division. It took two days of confused fighting before the woods were cleared, thereafter standing patrols were set up to probe the positions of the enemy forces during the following days.

On the 23rd June, when Len’s platoon was returning to their company HQ after one such patrol, his carrier hit a mine. His service record simply states, “Wounded in action. Blast injury abdomen.”

Len was evacuated to No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station on the outskirts of Bayeux and then back to England, arriving 30th June 1944.

It took him two months to recover and he was then posted to a Replacement Holding Unit on 27th August 1944, awaiting reassignment back to a front line unit. His posting back to the 2nd Kensingtons eventually came through and he re-joined that unit on 10th October.

During the period when Len was recuperating in England the 49th Division to which the 2nd Kensingtons were attached was involved in a number of operations.

The 49th’s first major action came during Operation Martlet, the initial phase of the British attempt to capture Caen. The operation commenced on 25 June and initially went well, with the first phase objective, the town of Fontenay, being captured by the end of the first day against units of two German panzer divisions (the 2nd and 9th). However, capturing Rauray itself proved more difficult although, after hard fighting, much of it in close quarters, it eventually fell on 27 June. For the next few days the Germans launched a series of very fierce counterattacks which were repulsed with heavy losses on both sides.

The division then held the line for the next few weeks, absorbing reinforcements and carrying out patrols until its participation in the Second Battle of the Odon in July.

In August the division took part in the advance towards the Falaise Pocket, where the Germans were attempting to retreat to, capturing thousands of Germans in the process.

The division reached the River Seine in late August, and, upon crossing the river, turned towards the capture of Le Havre, which was captured on 12 September with very light casualties to the 49th Division and its supporting units − 19 killed and 282 wounded − and capturing over 6,000 Germans in the process.

After the capture of Le Havre the division was rested for a week after having endured almost three months of action since landing in Normandy and suffered over 5,000 casualties. The division then received the order to move, travelling some 200 miles to a concentration point ten miles south of the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal, in the south of the Netherlands, arriving there on 21 September. Over the next few days, the division liberated Turnhout and crossed the Antwerp-Turnhout Canal. It was during this period that the division was awarded its first and only Victoria Cross (VC) of the Second World War, belonging to Corporal John Harper of the Hallamshire Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment. The division, after being on the offensive since landing in Normandy, then spent the next few weeks on the defensive along the Dutch frontier, during which time Len re-joined his unit.

In Len’s service record there is no reference to which company of the 2nd Kensingtons he joined after returning to the battalion. This is significant because the battalion was referred to as “divisional troops”, that is the separate companies were split up to be assigned to the support of other infantry units in the division. Hence, as we don’t know what company he was in we can’t know which other units he was assigned to, so the following description concerns the action of the 49th Division as a whole.

(Note: I am trying to arrange for someone to go to the National Archives in Kew to copy the 2nd Kensington War Diaries for the latter part of 1944 and into 1945 which might enable me to pinpoint more clearly what actions Len might have been involved in. I will update this as and when I have that information.)

The 49th Division went back over to the offensive in the third week of October, liberating Tilburg and Breda, then capturing Roosendaal after ten days of vicious fighting.

Further fighting continued until the division ended up at Willemstad at the Hollandsche Diep and then helped in the clearing of the west bank of the River Maas, along the Dutch border, fighting in very wet and muddy conditions.

The next few months for the division were spent mainly in small-scale skirmishing, including numerous patrols in attempts to dominate no man’s land, and garrisoning the area between the River Waal and the Lower Rhine, known as “The Island”

However, in late March 1945, the division received orders to clear “The Island”, which, after much hard fighting but relatively light casualties, was cleared in early April whereupon the 49th Division advanced north-eastwards towards Arnhem. The 49th Division’s last major contribution to the Second World War was in the fierce battles leading up to the liberation of Arnhem.

The division, now part of I Canadian Corps, and supported by Canadian tanks of the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, liberated the city at a cost of less than 200 casualties, but over 4,000 Germans became casualties.

Just after the German surrender on 7 May 1945, the 49th Division played a part in the liberation of Utrecht and subsequently played a humanitarian role by bringing desperately needed food supplies to the starving population of Holland. Shortly after this the 2nd Kensingtons moved into Germany as part of the British army of occupation and, by 25 May 1945, their HQ was just south of Osnabrück, north east of Dortmund.

During the course of the Second World War, from Normandy to Arnhem, the 49th Division had suffered 11,000 officers and men wounded or missing, with 1,642 of these being killed in action.

This is Len (on the left) during his time with the 2nd Kensingtons. The badges visible on his sleeve are the Polar Bear emblem of the 49th Division and the curved red insignia above that is the Kensington badge.

What happens next is a bit of a mystery. On 28th Dec 1945 Len was admitted to No.6 General Hospital. His record states “Sustained injuries of a sever nature. Not on duty and to blame.” There is nothing further in the record about what these injuries were or how they were caused

He was evacuated home on 6 Jan 1946 and must have spent the next entire year recovering from his injuries because he wasn’t posted back to the Middlesex Regimental depot until  5 Feb 1947.

For the next four months Len moved between different postings at 57 PTC (Primary Training Centre) which was the Middlesex Regimental Depot for the training of new recruits, by this time the majority being through National Service which began in 1947.

On 5 Jun 1947 Len embarked for Palestine to join up with the 2nd Battalion Middlesex Regiment serving with the Middle East Land Force. He was taken onto the staff there on 25 Jun 1947 and within a month was in trouble. On 16 July 1947 he was deprived of 10 days pay for “driving a War Department vehicle in a dangerous manner”!

Len in Palestine

The British Army in Palestine was wholly unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with escalating terrorism and resorted to increasingly heavy-handed policing and curfew tactics. I would imagine Len was keen to get out and was counting down the days until his service was completed. That day finally came on 24 March 1948 when Len was finally struck of staff due to reaching the end of his service period and embarked for return to the UK a week later. He disembarked in the UK on 14 April 1948 and his military service ended… for the moment.

The British Army evacuated completely from Palestine less than three months later and left the Jews and the Arabs to fight it out in the war that followed.

Douglas Marsh and Hugh Pater, sad but common tales… the toll of World War 1

Continuing stories from the family history of my friend, Heidi Mellings; this time, some short stories about loss in World War 1. I imagine more or less every family in the country suffered loss in World War 1 so these stories are not unusual, but that doesn’t make them any less poignant.

Douglas Charles Earle Marsh

Douglas was the nephew of Heidi’s great-great-grandmother, Mary Marsh. He was born on 19 May 1898 and educated at Lockers Park Prep School, then Winchester College from 1911 to 1916. On leaving school, with war having broken out, Douglas volunteered for the Army and enrolled at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst the month after leaving school, August 1916. He was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers) on 30th April 1917.

Initially posted to the Reserve Cavalry base at Tidworth Barracks in Wiltshire, he was posted to France in February 1918, just prior to the German’s final throw of the dice to win the war on the Western Front with their massive Spring offensive.

The Germans launched their offensive on 21st March, devastating the Allied front and reserve lines with the biggest artillery barrage of the war, firing and astounding 1.1 million shells in 5 hours! The centre of the Allied position collapsed. They lost almost 20 thousand casualties on the first day and within two days were in full retreat. Desperately, the Allied commanders sought to stem the rout and threw every available unit they could find into the line to counter the German advance.

By the 31st March the German advance was slowing but the situation was still desperate. That day, Douglas’ cavalry regiment was pushed up into the line in front of Amiens, dismounted and acting as infantry, to try and counter-attack the German units in positions south east of the city.

I tracked down the Regimental Diary for the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers) and will let it take up the story…


“The dismounted portion of the regiment spent the night in position just south of the THIENNES-HOURGES road. The Gd (Guard) horses were taken back to Bois l’ABBE. At 5am orders were received that the 2nd Cav. Div. would attack and retake the wood (Moreuil Wood) 600 yards south of HOURGES and high ground on NE side of main ROYE road. The 3rd Hussars and Oxford Hussars were the first wave and captured the high ground. The 5th Bde (Brigade) were 2nd wave and captured the northern edge of the wood. The Canadian Bde were the 3rd wave and captured whole of wood and occupied the eastern edge. The Carabiniers were to move up when Canadian Bde had gained their objective and relieve them. The preliminary bombardment started at 8.52am and ceased 9am. The waves advanced as ordered and took all their objectives. The Carabiniers entered the wood at 11am and relieved the Canadian Bde. Owing to the thickness of the undergrowth it took some time to get all Squadrons into their…

…positions. By about 2pm the regiment was concentrated and holding the eastern edge of wood. About 2.30pm the enemy opened a heavy bombardment on the wood inflicting some casualties on the regiments. One squadron of the Oxford Hussars were on the left of regiment and the 6th Dragoons on the right. About 6.30pm one Squadron of the 7th Dragoon Guards relieved “A” Sqdn and later another Squadron relieved “B”

and “C” Sqdns who were pretty reduced in numbers. “C” Sqdn was withdrawn by orders of General Seely into reserve in HOURGES village. The remainder of the regiment moved over to the southern edge of the wood and relieved one Squadron of the Royal Scots Greys. Here it was much quieter and no casualties were suffered. The regiment remained in these positions until relieved by infantry tomorrow morning. Estimated casualties 60 all ranks. Strength of regiment in morning about 110 all ranks.”

Note: the official strength of the regiment was just under 500 officers and men, and by this date they were down to 110.

One of those casualties was 2nd Lt. Douglas Marsh. He was evacuated via the nearest Casualty Clearing Station to No.8 General Hospital at Rouen where a week later he died of his wounds on 8th April 1918, aged 19.

Hugh Pater

Hugh was a nephew of another of Heidi’s great-great-grandmothers, Eliza Pater. He was born on 28th April 1888, educated at Bow Durham prep school, Rossall public school, then the University of London and subsequently became a schoolmaster at Durham Cathedral Choir School.

A week after Kitchener’s famous appeal for volunteers just after the outbreak of war, Hugh volunteered and was enlisted into the Royal Fusiliers as a private on 3rd Sept. 1914. He joined one of the “Public Schools Battalions”, one of four battalions all recruited from former public school boys.

Following the dire losses in the British Army in 1914 and early 1915, “young gentlemen” from the Public Schools Battalions were encouraged to apply for commissions to fill the officer ranks. Hugh must have been one such because less than a year after joining up he was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion Prince of Wales’ Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) on 15th June 1915. The 3rd Battalion of the West Yorkshires was a training battalion based in England and, for many, this would have been a most desirable “cushy” home posting, seeing out the rest of the war training those who were off to the Western Front. Evidently, this wasn’t what Hugh Pater wanted and a year later, August 1916, he put in for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, the air arm of the British Army.

Manned, powered flight had only been achieved by the Wright brothers for the first time in history less than 13 years earlier and the armies of Europe were already fighting in aircraft in the skies over the Western Front.

Hugh was sent for pilot training with 37 (Reserve) Squadron at Scampton Camp in Lincolnshire (later, in World War II, the home of the famous 617 Squadron, the Dam Busters).  RFC training was often sketchy – inadequate training aircraft and too few solo flying hours allowed for recruits. With the demand for pilots on the Western Front increasing, corners were inevitably cut. On top of this, the aircraft technology was primitive and unreliable. More RFC casualties occurred in training through crashes than in battle on the Western Front and once a pilot qualified and joined an operational squadron the life expectancy for new pilots was less than six weeks.

However, on 14th April 1917 Hugh Pater qualified and received his pilot’s certificate. Tragically, however, Hugh would not make it to an operational squadron.

On 17th April 1917, just three days after obtaining his own pilot’s certificate, Hugh was acting as an observer in an RE8, piloted by 2nd Lt John Manley.

Royal Aircraft Factory RE8

Forward visibility for the aircrew when the aircraft was on the ground was virtually nil due to the angle at which the machine sat. The mechanic assigned to the aircraft on take-off failed to inform the pilot that there was another aircraft, an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8, crossing their path. Accelerating for take-off, Manley flew the RE8 straight into the FK8, destroying  both aircraft and killing Hugh Pater. Manley was injured in the crash but the pilot of the other aircraft, Lt. George Clarke, escaped unhurt.

It was, a week before Hugh Pater’s 31st birthday.

As a footnote, Manley would be killed in France five months later. Clarke survived the war and was awarded the Air Force Cross.

The Wiatt Brothers… and an odd coincidence

Continuing the stories from the ancestral past of my friend Heidi Mellings, this time a set a four short pieces about brothers, the sons of William H Wiatt, the merchant and banker with Brazilian connections I wrote about a while ago.

These gentlemen were the siblings of Heidi’s great-grandmother, Helen. They all served in World War 1, three surviving, and the fourth having the oddest coincidence with my own family history.

Frank Helder Wiatt

Frank was born on 26th May 1876 in Liverpool. He was a career mariner in the merchant marine. Although I haven’t been able to trace his early career,  we know that he qualified as a 2nd Mate in 1897 and in 1905 he joined the Royal Naval reserve, the Navy’s equivalent of the Territorial Army, a part-time reserve force that could be called upon in time of war. This was a time, of course when the so-called “naval race” between Britain and Germany was just beginning, with the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906, an international arms race that would culminate in world war in 1914.

Anyway, back to Frank’s merchant marine career. From his service card I found he had joined the “BISNC” which took a while to work out was the British and India Steam Navigation Company which was a merchant marine company primarily operating in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

However, he left them for a year in 1907 to become 3rd Mate on the Euphrates, a cargo ship operated by the Bucknall Steamship Line.

The Euphrates

In May 1908 he was back with the BISNC as 2nd Mate on the Purnea, a cargo ship working out of Calcutta, and operating between Australia and the Indian sub-continent. It was most likely on one of his visits to Australia that he met Annie Watts, a resident of Manly whom he married there in 1914.

The Purnea

Following his service on the Purnea, Frank was promoted to Chief Officer and held a shore posting, based in Calcutta which he retained until he was called into service in WW1 with the rank of Sub-Lieutenant as Chief Officer in HM Troopship Eastern, mostly operating in familiar waters for Frank, ferrying troops from Australia, India and South Africa.

At the end of the war, Frank settled in Australia, living in Warringah, a northern suburb of Sydney, encompassing what is now the uber-trendy area of the Northern Beaches, and was employed as a harbour pilot.

For whatever reason, the couple chose to move to England sometime in the 1920s, residing first in west London and then in Worthing in Sussex. Annie died in Worthing in 1939 and Frank died, also in Worthing in 1967, aged 90.

Harold Comber Wiatt

Harold was born on 11th March 1885 in Brazil, his father being employed by the London and Brazilian Bank and based in Rio de Janeiro. However, on the family’s return to England, Harold was sent to public school and boarded at St John’s College, Hurstpierpoint in Sussex.

Following school, Harold married almost immediately, at the age of just 18 to Mary Sellwood Pink, the 21-year old daughter of a green grocer from Acton and together they set up house in Acton near her parents.

Harold became a clerk and on the 1911 census is recorded as being a Cinematograph Clerk, presumably working for one of the very earliest “cinema” houses as the cinematograph itself had its very first public screening only in 1895.

When war broke out in 1914, Harold didn’t rush to volunteer but the following year, aged nearly 31, he enlisted and joined the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) Infantry. His enlistment papers are among those that survived the Blitz in WW2 so we know something of his physical description… he was 5’9” tall with a 38” chest measurement.

Initially, Harold was placed on reserve but was mobilized due to the escalating casualties in May 1917 and was posted to the HAC 1st Infantry Battalion which by then had been designated as a training unit. After three months he was then posted to 2nd Battalion and he joined that unit in France on 28th September preparing for the 3rd Battle of Ypres, what became known as Passchendaele. On 9th October, Harold would have “gone over the top” for the first time as the battalion was assigned to attack the German trenches in front of the village of Reutal. The objectives of the 2nd HAC that day were to “capture the village of Reutel and gain touch with the 5th Division about Juniper Cottage”, as per the battalion history.  The history goes on to say “the whole of the objectives of the attack were secured.”  The casualties were Officers: 8 killed & 7 wounded, Other Ranks: 49 Killed, 189 wounded and 42 missing. There is also a note that “Almost all the ‘missing’ were afterwards reported killed.”

Trench map of the Reutal region with the German trenches marked in red

In November 1917, Harold’s battalion were withdrawn from the line and were posted to northern Italy to support the Italian Army’s offensives against the Austrians.

However, Harold was to see no further action. On 31st December he was taken ill and treated at the 39th Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) at Istrana, north east of Venice. He was diagnosed with nephritis, inflammation of the kidneys. From 39 CCS he was evacuated to 38th Stationary Hospital at Genoa.

From there he was evacuated back to England on the Australian Hospital Ship Warilda, arriving back in England in early February 1918. (As a side note, there was worldwide outrage caused in August 1918 when the Warilda, carrying wounded home from France, was torpedoed by a German U-boat.)

Harold saw no more service and was discharged from the army as medically unfit on 26th July 1918.

Following his army discharge, Harold resumed his career as a clerk and living in Ealing. This seems to have been the case up to his retirement when he and his wife moved to Worthing in Sussex, (perhaps to be closer to his brother, Frank?) They lived there until both passing away within weeks of each other in the autumn of 1957.

Wilfred Thompson Wiatt

Wilfred Wiatt was born in Brazil on 28th May 1882. By the time the family had moved back to England, Wilfred, aged 18, on the 1901 census was recorded as being a clerk. In 1908 he married Elizabeth Rickards who was eight years his senior and was, as their marriage certificate states, the daughter of a “Gentleman” living in the well-to-do Mill Hill Park area of Acton in West London.

They had a daughter, Ethel, on 22nd March 1914.

When war broke out it isn’t clear when he enlisted as his attestation papers have been lost but we know he served with two separate units during and after the war, initially as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and, after gaining a commission, as 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC)… or as the rest of the army knew them, “Rob All My Comrades” and “Run Away Someone’s Coming”!

He first saw active service on the Western Front in France, posted there on 19th August 1917. Thereafter, I’m afraid the records seem to be lost, however it seems that he elected to stay on in the army at the end of the war for a few years, finally obtaining his discharge in 1923 whereupon he resumed his career as a bank clerk.

Wilfred’s wife, Elizabeth, died in 1936 and three years later he married again, to Edna Gale, the daughter of a butcher. They lived in Esher in Surrey until Wilfred’s retirement when they moved to Torbay in Devon where Wilfred died in 1978.

Charles Barrington Wiatt

The last of these short pieces concerns the eldest brother, Charles, born in Liverpool on 3rd April 1875. Like his younger brother, Frank, he was destined for a life at sea in the merchant marine but also like his brother he signed up for the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), enlisting in that service on 1st July 1892, the same year as he first went to sea as an apprentice for the Milton Stuart Ship Company of South Shields.

Four years later, Charles qualified as a Second Mate in the merchant marine on 9th January 1896 and gained regular promotions in the RNR – Sub-Lieutenant on 22nd February 1899 and Lieutenant on 29 May 1909. On his service record the standard phrase “With sobriety and attention” is used repeatedly to describe his conduct of his duties.

In 1903, Charles married Maria Sherman whose family, like Charles’, had South American connections, she herself being born in Lima, Peru. They had one child, Stuart Dudley Sherman Wiatt, born in 1905. Meanwhile, in his “day job” by 1909 Charles was employed by the Red Star Line as Chief Officer aboard the SS Marquette, a liner that operated between Antwerp and North America, usually New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

The SS Marquette

Charles remained with the SS Marquette until the outbreak of war on 4th August 1914 whereupon he was immediately drafted into the Royal Navy with a berth aboard HMS Latona which he joined on 28th August. The Latona was a cruiser that had been re-classified as a specialist mine-layer in 1910. In 1914 it was part of the mine-layer squadron attached to Second Fleet.

HMS Latona

It is an odd coincidence that a Leading Seaman on the Latona was my great-aunt’s husband Herbert Rogers who had been in the navy since he was a boy and slowly risen through the ranks.

Now, it’s quite possible that on a ship with a complement of 300 officers and men the two of them would have had very little to do with each other, if anything. However, on 8th March 1915, several of the officers and crew of the Latona were transferred to a newly commissioned mine-layer, a converted Canadian liner, called the Princess Irene. Among those transferred were both Charles Wiatt and Herbert Rogers, so I think they had to have known each other.

HMS Princess Irene – the door at the stern is the hatch through which mines were released.

Also transferred was the officer in command of the Latona, Commander Thomas Hector Molesworth Maurice, who became second-in-command of the Princess Irene. On 8th May 1915 the Princess Irene, together with another mine-layer laid a minefield northwest of Heligoland laying 472 mines. Each mine encompassed approximately 145kg of high explosive, usually TNT or amatol.

I mention this detail because of what happened next.

On 27th May 1915, Princess Irene was moored in Saltpan Reach, on the Medway Estuary in Kent, being loaded with mines in preparation for deployment on a another minelaying mission. At 11:14am, she exploded and disintegrated… nearly 70,000kg of high explosive going up. A column of flame 100m high was followed a few seconds later by another of similar height and a pall of smoke hung over the spot where she had been, reaching to 400m. A total of 352 people were killed, including 273 officers and men of the ship’s crew, and 76 dockyard workers who were on board Princess Irene assisting with the loading. On the Isle of Grain, 3km away, a girl of nine was killed by flying debris, and a farmhand died of shock. A collier ship 800m away had its crane blown off its mountings and a part of one of Princess Irene’s boilers weighing over 30kg landed on the ship killing a man who was working on deck.

Wreckage was flung up to 30 km away, with people in Sittingbourne being injured by flying debris. Gruesomely, severed heads were found at Hartlip 12 km away and on the Isle of Grain.

A Court of Inquiry was held into the loss of Princess Irene. Evidence was given that priming of the mines was being carried out hurriedly and by untrained personnel. A faulty primer was blamed for the explosion.

Thomas Alfred Perry Marsh, Surgeon-Major…

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:

World War 2 Service of William Trevor Gibbs

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…

ATS women operating a height and range finder on an HAA gun site

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.

Victorian Brothers in Arms… the final part.

Octavius John Blake Marsh

The final part of my story about three brothers who joined the army in the 19th century concerns Octavius (yes, that’s quite a name!) born on 21st Jan 1829. And it’s a somewhat melancholy tale.

Once again, I know little of Octavius’ education but his military service record with the 65th Regiment of Foot still exists at the National Archives.

So, simply in terms of facts and figures, he joined the regiment on 14th June 1850, purchasing a commission as Ensign (as did his brother in the 34th) at a cost of £450, roughly the equivalent of £60,000 today.

On 28th May 1852, he purchase a promotion to Lieutenant which would have cost an additional £250, approx. £35,000 today and finally on 7th Sept 1855 he purchase his final promotion to Captain. That would have cost an additional £1,100, or approx. £160,000 today.

Regular foot regiments were the cheapest units within which to purchase commissions for would-be officers. If he had purchased the same commissions in the Life Guards (the mounted troops of the Queen’s Household Division) then the cost would have been over double.

Octavius Marsh

Octavius spent his first two years’ service in England, and in the 1851 census he is recorded at the Chatham depot in Kent. Most of the regiment had shipped out to New Zealand in 1846 and Octavius finally travelled out there to join up with them, arriving in September 1852.

This was a peaceful interlude in New Zealand between outbreaks of violence between Maori tribes and the government over land rights. These intermittent actions became known later as the Maori Wars. But in the period when Octavius was a serving officer there was peace and he saw no action.

Octavius married Bedelia McGillicuddy on 19th July 1858 in Wellington, having known her since she was 13 or 14 years old. They met on the journey to New Zealand, Bedelia being taken there by her parents on the same ship as Octavius.

Two months after his marriage Octavius left the army, selling his commission but choosing to remain in New Zealand, living in Napier on the North Island.

Octavius and Bedelia were to have five children, two sons and three daughters.

It would seem that Octavius had a serious drink problem, one that worsened over the years and it would seem this led ultimately to his demise. On 13th January 1865, Octavius killed himself with his service revolver. A few days later it was reported in the Hawke’s Bay Herald:

The same newspaper later reported evidence at the coroner’s inquest where Sergeant-Major Scully of the Napier Police said, “His manner was always eccentric. I believe his demeanour lately has been such as to be dangerous to those about him. I believe differences had existed between himself and his wife which preyed on his mind.”

The jury returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased shot himself when under the influence of temporary insanity.

Five months later, on 5th June 1865, Bedelia Marsh gave birth to a daughter, Margaretha. Bedelia remained in New Zealand, marrying again in 1873, to a Danish immigrant, Emil Semmelhag. She died in 1888.

Victorian Brothers in Arms… Contd.

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.

The crowded port of Balaklava

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.

Winter, outside Sevastopol

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.

Edward Herman Marsh died on 13th February 1808.

Victorian Brothers in Arms…

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.

Storming of Ghazni

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.

Badly wounded William Brydon reaching Jelalabad

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.

But that will be in the next episode…

James and George Murphy – Brothers in the Navy…

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.

HMS Fiji

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%.

HMS Fiji memorial in Portsmouth Cathedral

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.

HMS Formidable

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.

The crowded flight deck of Formidable in November 1944

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.

Formidable immediately after being hit by a Kamikaze – May 1945
Clearing up the flight deck after the Kamikaze attack

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.

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.


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