Stephen Snelling

Author

28/02/2017
by steve
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Death Railway to D-Day

It’s been a hectic few weeks on the military history front. Beginning with the deeply affecting service in Norwich Cathedral commemorating the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, it has involved interviewing two inspirational veterans – one a nonagenerian survivor of one of the worst defeats in British history and the other a centenarian who took part in one of the most critical actions of D-Day – as well as copy-editing my new Gallipoli book and writing articles about Norfolk’s most decorated frontline soldier of the First World War and one of the conflict’s most celebrated small ship encounters between an armed schooner and a German U-boat.


And all of that wrapped up with hugely enjoyable and stimulating meetings with my old book-writing mentor Gerald Gliddon and generous spirited medal-collecting friend Mike Emsden. Not to mention a life-affirming and thoroughly exhausting party to celebrate my eldest grand child Pippin’s fourth birthday!
Life is certainly not dull at the moment.


The cathedral service, organised by the National FEPOW Fellowship Welfare Remembrance Association, gave me a chance to renew my contacts with the organisation’s tireless secretary and chaplain, Pauline Simpson,  and the sprightly Robyn Eaton, widow of the late and much-missed Tom Eaton, a former company commander of the 4th Royal Norfolks who became a greatly respected president of the Norwich FEPOW Fellowship and a far-sighted Lord Mayor of the city he so faithfully served for more years than either he or I cared to remember.


It was also an opportunity for me to chat with Jack Jennings, a 98-year-old veteran of the 1st Cambridgeshires, and to record a face-to-face interview with Bob Hucklesby, the redoubtable chairman of the Remembrance Association who, as a young Lowestoft territorial, endured three and a half years cruel captivity as a member of the ill-starred 560 Field Company, Royal Engineers.


His unit formed part of the unluckiest division to leave British shores during the Second World War – the 18th Division, composed mainly of units from Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.


Trained for desert warfare in the Middle East, they were diverted to Singapore and sacrificed on the altar of political expediency in what, for most of them, was an already forlorn if not entirely lost cause.


After some fierce fighting on the Malayan mainland and in a last-ditch defence of the island of Singapore, they faced an even greater struggle for survival in the merciless hands of an often barbaric enemy in squalid prison camps dotted along the course of the notorious Burma-Thailand ‘Death Railway’, around the coalmines of Taiwan and the factories and dockyards of Japan.


Theirs was a truly wretched war whose sole saving grace was the comradeship born of shared hardship that has endured more than 75 years and which is now being carried on by their descendents.


If my meeting with Bob Hucklesby wasn’t remarkable enough, I was then treated, a few days later, to the opportunity of hearing first-hand what it was like to go ashore on D-Day with a unit that was destined to be involved in one of the most difficult and critically-important operations of that so-called ‘longest day’.


Ken Mayhew, who unbelievably celebrated his 100th birthday, a short while before my visit, was in command of the 1st Suffolks’ Bren-gun carriers and, blessed as he is with a wonderful memory, he was able to talk me through the years’ of training that culminated in his battalion’s assault on the Hillman fortress which was overlooking Sword Beach and barring the way to Caen.


That interview, which should form the basis of a couple of articles, was inspired by a terrific new exploration of the action by Richard Kennan and Jim Ring of Norwich-based Gig House Films.


Their film, commissioned by the Trustees of the Suffolk Regiment Museum, is testament to the courage displayed to overcome one of the most formidable of all the German army’s Normandy defences and brilliantly evokes the horror and the heroism of an action which deserves to be better known.


As well as bringing alive a story of great fortitude and gruelling endeavour, the film, which is due to be launched in Bury St Edmunds in a couple of weeks, captures forever the memories of those few survivors – men like Ken Mayhew who helped pave the way to final victory some 12 months later. 

For more details of The Suffolk Regiment on D-Day visit www.gighousefilms.com

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30/01/2017
by steve
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Raiding the memory bank

Maybe it’s a sign of advancing age, but it’s strange how often these days that a new project seems to stir memories of past encounters.

Take my latest venture: an article for Britain at War Magazine to mark the 75th anniversary of the daring raid on St Nazaire later this year. Even as I was piecing together the epic story of Motor Launch 306 and her desperate battle with the German destroyer Jaguar, I found myself drifting back to my childhood and what must have been one of my earliest brushes with the extraordinary events of March 1942.

It came via the first-ever Victor annual which I received as a Christmas present from my nan back in 1963. With its cover adorned with Tommy-gun wielding commandos spilling over the bows of the Campbeltown and charging through the docks, I remember being utterly gripped by its graphic rendering of Operation Chariot, the audacious and ultimately successful effort to deny the world’s largest dry dock to the Nazi navy and, in particular, the battleship Tirpitz.
More than half a century on, and with the benefit of much wider reading, I can see that the comic-strip version, only slightly fictionalised, was based in large measure on C E Lucas Phillips outstanding record of the operation, which had been published just five years before under the title of The Greatest Raid of All.

Artist's impression of Campbeltown's charge towards the Normandie dock

Artist’s impression of Campbeltown’s charge towards the Normandie dock

Charles Newman, the military commander and CO of No 2 Commando later awarded a richly-deserved Victoria Cross for his magnificent leadership, featured prominently in the story, as did ‘Sam’ Beattie, the captain of the converted Lend-Lease destroyer, who courageously and skilfully steered his ‘wreck ship’ crammed with explosive through a blizzard of fire into the dock gates.

Though not named, Norfolk commando Ron Butler was another of those whose exploits were covered. He was depicted as one of the demolition team commanded by Lieutenant Stuart Chant that blew up the port’s pump-house which involved a desperate race against the clock to escape the effects of the explosion.

It was, by any standards, a remarkable feat of bravery which resulted in Ron being awarded a Military Medal some three years later following his return from captivity. And it still gives me goose-bumps when I listen to his ghostly voice on tape as he recounts his journey down the river Loire, bordered on each side by enemy gun positions and backed by thousands of enemy soldiers.

Crouching behind specially constructed iron shields set into the deck of the Campbeltown, he could do nothing but wait while the navy tried to fool the Germans into believing they were a ‘friendly’ force returning to base.

This is how he remembered it:

It was only at this particular time of year we could go over the mudflats. We actually touched bottom twice. You could feel it… We were ‘talking’ [by way of signals] to the Germans all the way upriver. We were flying the Nazi swastika and searchlights were on us. You could have read a newspaper [by them]. I laid behind the bridge and I could hear Beattie saying, ‘Send the signal of the day again… Send it very slowly’ and then, ‘Tell them we are a German patrol. We have had a battle in the Atlantic and are coming in for repairs. Tell them very slowly. Time is of the essence.’

Then, as a last resort, Beattie said to tell them to ‘have ambulances ready, we’ve got wounded aboard’.”

Not long after the Old Mole was illuminated by the searchlights and shortly after that, the Germans, having finally realised what was happening, opened fire. Ron’s story continues:

‘Down came the swastika… up went the white ensign. You did feel proud. Everyone opened fire. The covering parties – the lot! The Germans opened up with their heavy guns. The shells were going right through the ship and exploding the other side. We were so close… Anybody who isn’t frightened [in situations like that] is an idiot… We were now going to hit the dock gates. We hunched up. We expected a terrific shock. Beattie hit it flat out, but we got the surprise of our lives. We felt her ride the torpedo boom as she went into that dock and we didn’t feel much of a shudder…’

Norfolk commando Ron Butler and friend

Norfolk commando Ron Butler and friend

Scrambling over the ship’s now stationary bows and onto the dock, they raced for their target – the port’s pumping station. A covering party of commandos cleared the way and within minutes they were inside, clattering down steel stairways to their objective. Ron recalls:

‘The pumping station wasn’t too far away, about a couple of hundred yards. It was situated on the edge of the dock for the emptying and refilling of the dock… It was a beautiful place. There was just a soft hum of machinery with a light shining in the office… We got stuck in straight away…’

With a wounded man guarding the approach, the rest of the demolition party got to work:

‘We had torches [but] it was an eerie experience. We hoped we wouldn’t take the wrong gangway [and, eventually] we landed up at the bottom floor where these four massive, slug-like pumps were situated and there we all laid our charges and connected them up…’

After that it was a sprint to get out of the pump house before the explosive detonated. Ron was last man out, assisting his wounded comrade out of harm’s way. Not long after, the building was rocked by what Ron called a ‘terrific roar’.

With the destruction of so many motor launches making an evacuation by sea impossible, Ron then joined the fight inland as the commandos attempted the seemingly impossible task of breaking out of the German-held port to reach the countryside beyond. To escape the docks, they had to pass over a bridge covered by enemy troops. On the tape, Ron recalls:

‘They should never have allowed us to get over that bridge. There was a pillbox at the other end, and our chaps got across and put hand grenades in and we piled across.’

He found a German truck on the other side, but when he got in found it had been immobilised:

‘Round the corner came a motorbike and side-car with a machine-gun in the side-car opening up. He didn’t last very long. I [then] went over a wall and fell into a chicken coop.’

Caught in a tangle of netting with chickens squacking after him, he ran up the garden path into the house where he sheltered. Eventually, he made his way, street by street, to a small copse where he found around 15 wounded men together with an officer. Together, they helped them into a nearby house and were busy treating their injuries when a German search party burst in.

It was the end of Ron’s stout-hearted resistance, but not the end of the raid’s myriad achievements. A few hours later, with the captured commandos gathered together in a pre-war seaside hotel at nearby Le Baule, there was a deafening explosion that signalled the end of the Campbeltown and the final success of their mission.

Victor version

Victor version

So ended ‘the greatest raid of all’, a saga of outstanding courage against the odds which was recounted with such matter-of-fact modesty in an interview that remains one of the highlights of my 40 years in journalism.

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05/01/2017
by steve
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Blogg blog to launch New Year resolution…

In keeping with the spirit of New Year, I have resolved to revive my blog with the aim of producing a weekly jotting on the subjects and projects closest to my heart.

2017 promises to be another busy year, crammed with anniversaries which should keep me fully occupied. First up, is a saga of maritime courage against the odds which must rank among the bravest rescue missions in the history of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The story of Henry Blogg’s heroic efforts to save the shipwrecked survivors of the Swedish coaster Fernebo off Cromer a century ago is scheduled to appear in the Weekend supplement of the Eastern Daily Press on Saturday (January 7).

Henry Blogg's heroic Cromer crew.

What appeared to many to be a mission impossible was crowned with success and resulted in the first of Blogg’s record-breaking three Gold Medals which, in turn, led to the award of an Empire Gallantry Medal (an honour later exchanged for the George Cross).

It is an epic tale of selfless courage which has long fascinated me and I am really pleased to have been able to retell a story that is testament to the sometimes overlooked valour displayed by civilians on the Home Front during the First World War.

Comicstrip heroes.

Turning to the battlefront, I look forward later this year to highlighting some extraordinary acts of courage performed by ordinary Norfolk soldiers.

Harry Cator, who was born in Drayton and lived and worked in Great Yarmouth, and Sidney Day, from Norwich, were both citizen soldiers who answered Kitchener’s call for volunteers and went on to earn their nation’s highest honour for martial valour within four months of one another on the Western Front.

Having spent years researching their lives I shall be recounting their stories – their deeds of courage in war and their struggles during the peace that followed.

On an altogether bleaker note, 2017 also marks the centenary of two battles which cast a long shadow over families in the eastern counties and the country as a whole.

The gruelling operations in Flanders, officially styled the Third Battle of Ypres but more commonly remembered by the name of the tiny ridge-top village of Passchendaele, where more than three months of bloodletting ended in yet another grim stalemate, has shaped many people’s perceptions of the conflict like no other battle.

Less well-known, however, is a battle fought far away from the muddy swamps of the Salient, in the heat and dust of Palestine. The Second Battle of Gaza, which took place in April 1917, may not instantly conjure images of futility and horror on the scale of Ypres, but for many Norfolk families the tragedy attached to this one-day action was no less profound.

In a remarkable statistic of the ‘war to end all war’, more men from the county regiment were killed, wounded or posted missing at Gaza than during any single day’s fighting  on any battlefield, the Somme and Passchendaele included!

Their hopeless sacrifice has echoes of an earlier disastrous attack made by the same units in a wretched campaign that has been uppermost in my mind for the past couple of years.
The nightmarish story of the first landings at Cape Helles is the subject of my latest book – scheduled for publication in 2017 by Frontline Books, an imprint of Pen & Sword – which is entitled The Wooden Horse of Gallipoli.

It tells the heroic and tragic saga of the River Clyde, a collier hurriedly converted into a troop landing ship, which was run aground on the shores of the Turkish peninsula, and the men who sailed in her – among them a soldier-diplomat from Theberton, near Southwold, and a cavalryman turned naval armoured car officer from Holkham Hall, who played prominent roles in the drama of V Beach.

Over the coming weeks I’ll keep you posted about the book’s publication along with details of all the other anniversary-linked projects in what promises to be a memorable new year…

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05/08/2013
by steve
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Remembering the heroes of O for Oboe

I can’t be sure precisely when I first read of Arthur Aaron’s extraordinary self-sacrifice. I can, however, remember the book his story featured in. It was Strike Hard, Strike Sure, by Ralph Barker, a former RAF officer turned Daily Express feature writer.

The book, sub-titled Epics of the Bombers, told of some of the most heroic missions flown during the Second World War: from the epic low-level raid on Augsburg to the desperate gallantry of the costly assault on the Maastricht bridges. It was originally published in 1963, though mine was a later paperback edition featuring a Lancaster skimming the ground as it sought to escape attacks by German fighters.

All of the stories, filled as they were with jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring deeds of derring-do, made an impression, but none more so than the tale of Arthur Aaron. So much so that I recall selecting it as the subject for a morning assembly at the City of Norwich School which we pupils had to deliver from time to time.

Self-sacrifice: Arthur Aaron VC, DFM.

Self-sacrifice: Arthur Aaron VC, DFM.

The image of Aaron, his mutilated face covered in a bloody field dressing, one bandaged arm strapped across his injured chest, trying to land his bullet-riddled Stirling bomber on a strange desert airstrip far from his west Norfolk base stayed with me.

Years later, while working as a journalist with the Eastern Daily Press, I was fortunate enough to be able to interview two of the men who were on that aircraft as it made its uneasy descent on Bone airfield. Malcolm ‘Mitch’ Mitchem, the bomber’s flight engineer, and Jimmy ‘Rich’ Richmond, the mid-upper gunner, were the last survivors of O for Oboe and their stories and correspondence confirmed the veracity of Barker’s grand rendering of the story.

Survivors: the crew of O for Oboe who made it back alive, l to r, Tom McCabe, ‘Rich’ Richmond, Allan Larden, ‘Mitch’ Mitchem and ‘Jimmy’ Guy.

Survivors: the crew of O for Oboe who made it back alive, l to r, Tom McCabe, ‘Rich’ Richmond, Allan Larden, ‘Mitch’ Mitchem and ‘Jimmy’ Guy.

They still had the greatest admiration for their ‘skipper’, whose great spirit and determination in spite of his appalling injuries, was not to be denied and was ultimately recognised by the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross, one of two made to airmen flying out of Downham Market during the Second World War.

As ‘Mitch’ Mitchem put it, ‘He was so full of character and courage’.

Much the same could be said of all those who flew aboard O for Oboe on that memorable night 70 years ago. For after Aaron was critically wounded by ‘friendly fire’ during the run-in to the target over Turin, it was largely left to Mitchem, Richmond and the aircraft’s Canadian bomb-aimer Allan Larden to fly the crippled bomber hundreds of miles across the Mediterranean in the hope of reaching safety.

Bomber: a striking air-to-air shot of a Stirling.

Bomber: a striking air-to-air shot of a Stirling.

Given that none of them had ever flown an aircraft without supervision, they could have been forgiven for deciding to parachute to safety, but none were prepared to abandon their desperately wounded pilot any more than he was prepared to surrender responsibility for bringing his crew to a safe landfall.

The result was a minor epic that resulted in no fewer than four gallantry awards, a figure that should have been more in my humble opinion. For of all the myriad heroic missions flown out of Norfolk by British and American airmen during the second world war I consider this to have been the bravest feat of all.

aaron11

Back at base: Jimmy ‘Rich’ Richmond, seated far right, with Tom McCabe, another member of O for Oboe’s crew, with ground crew at Downham Market air base in 1943.

Others may disagree, but you can judge for yourself if you read the Eastern Daily Press Weekend supplement this coming Saturday when I re-tell the Arthur Aaron’s remarkable story as a 70th anniversary salute not only to an act of unsurpassed selflessness but to the splendid endurance displayed by each and every member of O for Oboe’s crew as they transformed a ‘mission impossible’ into an unlikely triumph against the odds.

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18/05/2013
by steve
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Forgotten valour

Life throws up some strange surprises; unlikely associations that seem to come together by some weird osmosis. Such is my connection to a man who deserves to be counted among the ‘bravest of the brave’.

His name is Bhanbhagta Gurung and I should say straight away that we have never met, though I wish we had.

My first encounter with him was, like so many children of my generation, through the pages of The Victor comic. Way back in 1963, when I was not quite yet seven years old, I saw him, almost literally leaping out from the front page as he brandished his kukri and, with the classic speech bubble cry of ‘Ayo Gurkhali’, set about capturing a Japanese-held hill almost single-handed.

Entitled ‘The Knife They Fear’, the story of Bhanbhagta Gurung and his heroic capture of a string of enemy machine-gun posts on Snowdon East during the Third Arakan campaign was my introduction to the fighting prowess of the Nepalese hillmen that has become the stuff of military legend.

Victor front

Comic-strip valour: The Victor comic’s portrayal of Bhanbhagta Gurung’s heroism on Snowdon East in March 1945.

Comic-strip valour: The Victor comic’s portrayal of Bhanbhagta Gurung’s heroism on Snowdon East in March 1945.

Some four decades later, I had the great good fortune to interview Field Marshal Sir John Chapple, former head of the British army and a veteran Gurkha officer. I had gone to meet him at his Norfolk home to discuss plans for a Gurkha Welfare Trust fund-raising event, but it wasn’t long before we had diverted onto the subject of tales of derring-do.

It emerged that Sir John had served in Bhanbhagta Gurung’s old regiment, the 2nd Gurkha Rifles. Not only that he had photographs of the hero, taken at a post-war reunion when the Burma campaign Victoria Cross recipient met up with the unit’s other VC holder, Subedar Lalbahadur Thapa who earned his award during the fighting in North Africa.

Even allowing for the passage of time, Bhanbhagta Gurung bore little resemblance to his comic-strip incarnation, but that was of less surprise than the unexpected discovery of the photo itself.

Gurkha heroes: Lalbahadur Thapa VC, left, and Bhanbhagta Gurung VC at a post-war reunion

Gurkha heroes: Lalbahadur Thapa VC, left, and Bhanbhagta Gurung VC at a post-war reunion

And now, years on from that meeting, the two contrasting images of a Gurkha hero in peace and war are being brought together to illustrate an account I am writing about one of the most remarkable and most influential displays of individual bravery performed by any soldier of any army during the Second World War.

Based on my correspondence with Colonel Dominic ‘Nick’ Neill, OBE, MC (1921-2000) during the 1990s, the story concerns not just Bhanbhagta Gurung but an incredible company of men: B Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Gurkha Rifles, and their desperate efforts to wrest control of a bunker-riddled hilltop stronghold in Burma in March 1945.

‘Nick’ Neill was the company commander and his pride in the great valour displayed by his men was plainly apparent in the vivid and intensely moving narrative he sent to me.

Company commander: Major Dominic ‘Nick’ Neill OBE, MC

Company commander: Major Dominic ‘Nick’ Neill OBE, MC

Reading it, there was no question that Bhanbhagta’s action had been the most spectacular among a whole series of individual acts of gallantry. After all, at a time when it appeared as though the attack had stalled, he had leapt forward, braving murderous fire, to destroy with bayonet and grenade four enemy posts before going on to capture a machine-gun bunker in which he used his kukri and a convenient slab of rock to kill its crew. Then, as if that wasn’t enough for one day’s fighting, he had played a prominent role in defeating the Japanese counter-attacks that came their way.

But what came as something of a surprise, not to say shock, was Neill’s belief that the man most responsible for turning ‘what might have been defeat into victory’ was not Bhanbhagta but a little-known section leader, Lance-Naik Chamarsing Gurung, whose story had never been rendered as comic-strip heroics.

According to Neill, it was the bravery shown by this young Gurkha which ‘triggered off a series of other actions [Bhanbhagta’s among them] which resulted in the Japs being flung off our objective’. This is how he remembered it:

‘Lance-Naik Chamarsing Gurung rose to his feet and, yelling obscenities at the Japs above him, started clambering up the hill in the face of showers of grenades and very heavy rifle and LMG (light machine-gun) fire. Urged on by the screams of encouragement from the men in his section and platoon, Lance-Naik Chamarsing ran up and up the hillside, spraying ahead of him with his tommy-gun, changing magazines for full ones as they became empty. He was hit by goodness knows how many bullets as he reached the first enemy trench, but he stumbled on, squeezing away at the trigger of his SMG (sub machine-gun) until he fell dead across the lip of the Jap trench. Chamarsing was the first man on Snowdon East that afternoon…’

Fired by the section commander’s self-sacrifice, the remnants of B Company performed prodigies of heroism which eventually resulted in them being showered with decorations. As well as Bhanbhagta’s VC, they included an Indian Order of Merit, three Indian Distinguished Service Medals and six Military Medals.

Incredibly, there was nothing for Chamarsing Gurung even though it was he who, in Neill’s words, supplied ‘the inspiration and the true leadership’ responsible for turning the tide of battle in the Gurkhas’ favour.

Rarely can there have been such a clear oversight in the distribution of awards, but at least Chamarsing’s courage is no longer forgotten and now whenever I picture in my mind’s-eye Bhanbhagta leaping to comic-strip glory I shall spare a thought for the faceless Gurkha whose unrecognised bravery spurred him on to feats of battlefield heroism which have been rarely matched and seldom if ever surpassed.

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30/03/2013
by steve
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Remembering Fred…

It remains an abiding memory of an unforgettable brief encounter with Fred Harris. We’d spent a couple of hours together; he reminiscing and me listening and taking notes for my book on his old comrade, Eric ‘Doc’ Harden VC.

Although frail and ailing, he was in good form. The jokes were plentiful and the stories poured across a table strewn with yellowing papers and faded photographs that recalled days of his youth when, as a young and able Royal Marine Commando, he struggled ashore on D-Day and came perilously close to death on a snow-carpeted potato field in Holland.

At the end, he insisted on accompanying me out onto the roadside to where I’d parked my car. As I drove away, I could see him in my rear-view mirror, a bent figure, in a green beret and commando jersey, waving me farewell.

Fred Harris last year, at home with his memories.

Fred Harris last year, at home with his memories.

Although I couldn’t have known it then, it would be last I would ever see of him. During the months that followed, as I began the task of writing the book, we spoke again on the telephone, but we never had the chance to meet again. I had hoped that we might have caught up again in London when I accompanied Julie Wells (nee Harden) to the Imperial War Museum to present her father’s letters to the Department of Documents. But, sadly, Fred was not well enough to travel.

I comfort myself now with the thought that at least I was able to ensure that he received a copy of the book to which he had contributed so much. We spoke briefly on the phone about it and, as ever, Fred was generous in his praise. I recall making some vague comment about hoping that the book would stand as a tribute not just to Eric’s extraordinary valour, but to all the men who fought and died with 45 Royal Marine Commando during its struggles in Normandy, Holland and beyond.

I was thinking, in particular, of men like Fred and his old pal, Derrick Cakebread, who had shown such faith in me and given their unstinting support to a project which had taken far longer to complete than either they or I could ever have imagined.

I remember thinking it typical of him that he should have dismissed such a notion and quickly changed the subject.

I am quite certain that in his own mind he never for a moment considered anything that he had done to have been exceptional. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t proud of his service. He was. In fact, he was, I suspect, prouder than most about having been a Royal Marine Commando – and rightly so.

He revelled in the comradeship born of shared endeavours and hardships that had had lasted a lifetime. He was a regular attender of reunions and he loved to reminisce. More than anything, he liked to recall old friendships, too many of which had been cut short by the war.

And he was an excellent raconteur.

Talking with him across his small living room table with spring light flooding in was a delight. Not that I did much of the talking. In fact, as I recall, the conversation was rather one-sided, which was fine by me. I had come to hear his story after all. The interview was a bit like turning on a tap. The memories flowed easily. I cannot remember asking more than two or three questions all afternoon.

Most of what he spoke about concerned ‘Doc’ and the skirmish at Brachterbeek in January 1945 which resulted in the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to A Troop’s much-loved medic. But there was also a story about himself, about his undignified and very nearly fatal introduction to the war on the grey, wind-blown morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Marine Fred Harris, at the end of the war.

Marine Fred Harris, at the end of the war.

On that spring afternoon last year, he made light of it, but there wasn’t much to laugh about at the time. In a short memoir of his wartime experiences, he recounted what was, quite literally, a harrowing baptism of fire as landing craft LCI 530 closed the Norman shore:

‘The noise was horrendous. Shore batteries and naval guns exchanging fire, aircraft circling and returning from bombing trips, smoke and the smell of cordite filled the air. Shells whistled overhead and tracer bullets cut through space…

The ‘run-in’ was completed on a light swell, in about three feet of water at the end of the ramps. The swell, however, tended to swing the ramps and made them unstable and many of us got a ducking… There was no time to hang about. If you didn’t jump off, you either fell off or were thrown off…

I ran down the ramp, tripped and went over into deep water. My section sergeant, ‘Dolly’ Gray, saw my plight, yanked me to my feet and dropped me on the beach. I was like a tortoise on my back. With a few press-ups I managed to get to my feet, water running out from all directions…’

Such was merely the beginning of a long day in a very long campaign which, by some miracle, Fred came through. The luck that had been with him on Queen Red Beach stayed with him through the bitter fighting for Franceville Plage, the scraps around Le Plein and the costly clash at Brachterbeek.

He had lived to tell the tale and there were few who told it better.

RIP, Frederick L Harris (1922-2013).

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04/03/2013
by steve
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Birth of a legend…

I’ve just been writing an extraordinary story about an extraordinary man on a day that’s turned out be an extraordinary one for my family.

My eldest daughter, Katie, has just given birth to a beautiful baby daughter called Pippin, or Pip for short. All went more or less according to plan, with baby Pip arriving in her home ‘birthing pool’ at 6.39am this morning before a proud assemblage that included father Dug and new grandmother Sandra.

To say the news slightly interrupted my flow at around 7.10am this morning is a bit of an understatement. After all, news doesn’t come much happier than that and I’m delighted to report that mother and baby, not to mention dad and grandmother, are all doing well.

But back to the other extraordinary story.

Last Friday I travelled out to South Norfolk to see Wing Cdr Tom Neil, DFC and Bar, AFC, one of the highest scoring RAF aces of the Battle of Britain, to talk about the latest instalment in his war memoirs. I reminded him that the first time I’d met him was some 30 years ago when he’d just had published his first volume, Gun Button to Fire, his vivid record of that incredible summer of 1940. Since then, he had written a number of other books, including a second biographical work covering his Malta service and a more technical study about flying the Spitfire.

Tom Neil, the young fighter ace, aged just 20, with his faithful ground crew.

Now, he has filled the gap, so to speak, in his wartime career, by writing of his spell as a liaison officer with the 9th US Air Force in 1944-45, his courtship with Eileen, then a young WAAF officer, and his remarkable association with a certain, purloined Spitfire, which he had stripped of its camouflage so that it became the only silver model flown in RAF service.

The adventures and misadventures are recounted in characteristically light-hearted style by Tom in his splendid new book, The Silver Spitfire, and you can read what he had to say about it all in last week’s EDP Weekend supplement.

In the course of our chat, we unsurprisingly strayed off course to talk about other aeronautical matters of interest. Well, of interest to me, at least. These included such things as the relative strengths and weaknesses of the P.51 Mustang, the P.47 Thunderbolt and, of course, the Spitfire.

“The thing about the Spitfire,” he said, “is it’s part of you. When you sit in it, it’s like you’ve got a glove on. Not so the Mustang. The Mustang is much bigger and in many respects nicer in the sense that, for example, the ailerons, the rudders and the elevators are all trimmable, which they aren’t in a Spitfire. So, in many respects, the Mustang was nicer, but it was so much heavier…”

Tom in the cockpit of his Hurricane during the Battle of Britain.

And so our conversation meandered on until we came to the subject of the Battle of Britain. “There’s so much fiction written about the Battle of Britain,” said Tom and then he was off, analysing the aircraft and the ineffectiveness of so much of the British armament. ‘The Hurricane was useless… Obsolete even before the battle started. And the Spitfire wasn’t that good, mainly because the pilot had to sit so low in the fuselage and the nose stretched out so far ahead of you, the length of a cricket pitch…” And so he continued till he reached the crucial and most fascinating point of all.

I paraphrase slightly. “The reasons that we won were a) because we fought over our own country. The statistics are that provided you are fighting an enemy force on a par with your own over your own territory, you will shoot down roughly two to their one. And while we got shot down fairly frequently, more often than not, we’d crash-land or bail out and live to fight another day.

“And b) because one thing we did wonderfully well was replace our lost aircraft. The aircraft weren’t very good but, nevertheless, a squadron which had an establishment of 18 fighters, of which it might use 12, and often lose seven of them by the end of the day, would, the following day, be back up to full strength.

“The business of replenishing aircraft was mainly due to Beaverbrook, Aitken as he was then, who was in many respects Churchillian in nature. A man who believed in ‘action this day’. He didn’t write letters to you, he got on the telephone and told you to get on do something and you did it, otherwise you lost your head.

“So, what with fighting over our own country and having a wonderful method of replacement, we managed to bridge the gap and cover up all the shortcomings.”

Interesting stuff from a truly fascinating character who just so happens to be one of the most distinguished survivors of the gallant Few who took to the skies in that glorious summer of 1940.

The so-called Silver Spitfire after it had passed from Tom into Polish ownership.

Meanwhile, if it’s a ripping yarn that you’re after and a rip-roaring flying adventure with a difference, then look no further than The Silver Spitfire. It’s published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £18.99, and proves beyond any question that fact is stranger than fiction.

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13/02/2013
by steve
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Eddie Knowles Memoir

‘Since any story has to start somewhere, this one begins during the worst year of the great world depression, when there came to our school a young student teacher, perhaps no more than 18 years old…’

Such are the opening lines to a remarkable memoir, one that is dominated by the Second World War and a struggle for survival that makes for both harrowing and inspiring reading.

It was written some years ago by Edwin George Henry Knowles, who is sadly no longer with us, and chronicles in great and graphic detail his experiences as a conscript soldier in the Norfolk Regiment, transferred at the last moment to a unit bound originally for the Middle East but destined to be diverted to Singapore and the disastrous campaign in Malaya.

Eddie, who was born in Dereham in 1920, was not a hero in the traditional sense. He did not charge machine-gun posts single-handedly. He did not dash out into no-man’s-land to carry a wounded comrade to safety. And yet so much about his prolonged endurance in Japanese captivity was truly heroic, just as it was for hundreds of his comrades caught up in one of the most wretched ordeals of the Second World War.

Eddie Knowles: reluctant soldier and outstanding chronicler of a disastrous expedition.

But if his experiences were not exceptional, his narrative certainly is. I have read many accounts written by former prisoners of the Japanese. Some have been profoundly moving. Many have been filled with horrific stories of appalling maltreatment. But none that I have read have touched me more than Eddie’s straightforward, unvarnished and remarkably fair-minded record of the life of an ordinary soldier from a loving family pitched ill-prepared into a nightmare almost beyond belief.

Dedicated to ‘my friends who did not grow old’, it follows his progress from schoolboy through to raw recruit, serving with the 50th (Holding) Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment on coast defence duties, and then last-minute reinforcement, despatched in October, 1941, to bring the regiment’s territorial battalions up to strength ahead of their long journey overseas.

Eddie joined the 5th Battalion at Marbury Hall, near Northwich, in Cheshire. From there, he wrote what would prove to be his last letter home – it was ‘cut to pieces by the censor’ – for almost four years. By October 24, they were kitted out, packed and ready to leave for the nearby railway station on the first leg of their epic odyssey.

‘By a brilliant bit of organisation we were to arrive at the same time as the rush hour commuters who were heading home,’ noted Eddie. ‘They were to be a little later than usual this night for with all our gear we were ‘fell out’ in front of them on the platform to wait for our troop train.

‘My section found ourselves among a group of office girls who kissed us all goodbye, several times, and said they would always remember us; we were sure they wouldn’t but it was still a nice send off. And with our civilian friends waving, we heaved ourselves aboard the train.

‘This had not been intended by our army masters. It was like a scene from an old movie, but the moment was almost lost by the singing – the awful rendering of ‘When They Sound The Last All Clear’ by the departing soldiery as the train pulled out.’

The passage is typical of so much else in Eddie’s memoir, descriptive, evocative and full of those little human details which bring the past so vividly back to life.

The rest of his incredible story continues in similar vein through seven ring-bound folders, each word handwritten in capital letters, as he battles against defeat and despair.

There were times when he came close to giving up hope of ever seeing home again, particularly during his battalion’s breakout from encirclement in Malaya and during the darkest days of captivity.

Remembering one spell in Chungkai hospital, surrounded by a depressing host of skeletal, shrunken-eyed dying men, he observed: ‘One cannot over-estimate the value of life. For me, in spite of the suffering, the fight to hang on to it was never more essential than now, even among all the squalor of the dysentery ward. I was just 22, had so much to do, and could not bear to think of leaving for good the things and those that I loved.’

In the end, he did emerge alive and with a confusion of emotions; of relief mingled with great sadness. ‘Nothing would ever equal the sheer relish and excitement of that time,’ he wrote and added: ‘I thought of my mates… who had been pulled into the army and had left England’s shores with me and so many more [and] who would never return home – of poor Rush, who had died in hospital beside me at Changi on his 21st birthday, and that me sad. Then, in a change of mood, I was still young and I had much to do.’

Eddie, who settled in Norwich, lived on into his 80s. Though his later years were marred by declining health and bouts of depression, he never forgot his mates he left behind in Singapore and Thailand. In later life, he journeyed back to south-east Asia to visit their graves and the scenes of his lost youth. As he wandered through the ‘beautifully kept’ cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi, he felt as though he was being guided by some unseen force to the graves of his ‘special friends’ among the thousands that were there – ‘young lads who had died so far away from home… brave young comrades who gave their youth and their lives to a cause that was already lost’.

And now it is time to remember Eddie, the ‘unsung’ chronicler of a war without pity. Next week, I shall have the privilege of joining those closest to him when they present his extraordinary memoir to the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum to be preserved for posterity so that future generations can read of what ordinary men like Eddie endured and survived 70 years ago.

 

I was loaned Eddie’s memoir as part of my on-going research for a book on the 18th Division during the Second World War. If anyone has any first-hand accounts by men who served in the Divison – either in the three Norfolk, two Suffolk, two Cambridgeshire infantry or support units – I would like to hear from them. You can get in touch either via my website or by calling me on 01603 435624.

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31/01/2013
by steve
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A hero called Knights

Memories of the late, great Tom Eaton came flooding back to me the other day in a rather unlikely setting. I was sitting in the front room of Sir Reginald Harland’s rather splendid Georgian house in the centre of Bury St Edmunds and listening to a literary saga that stirred 15-year-old echoes.

Sir Reginald, or Reggie to his friends, was explaining the coincidences involved in the somewhat convoluted story behind the publication of a wartime memoir about which I was all too familiar with.

It was written by the late Lt Col Alfred Knights, legendary commander of the 4th Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment, and concerned his time as a senior British officer in command of allied prisoners of war in Japanese captivity.

An artist’s impression of Lt Col Arthur Knights, showing his fine set of medal ribbons which included a Military Cross and Military Medal earned during the First World War and a Distinguished Service Order which recognised his magnificent leadership in 1942.

As Reggie rightly observed, Knights’ record is a story unlike any other that has ever been published about life and death in the squalid jungle camps that dotted the notorious Death Railway that linked at terrible cost to this region the countries of Burma and Thailand.

Listening to the energetic and endlessly enthusiastic retired air vice marshal, I couldn’t help wishing Tom could have been there to hear him. It would have been music to his ears.

For way back in the mid-1990s, somewhere around the time of the 50th anniversary of VJ Day, I recall sitting in Tom’s Dickensian-style wood-panelled solicitor’s office as he regaled me about the unique quality of Alfred Knights’ memoir and the reasons why it ought to receive a wider audience.

Of course, Tom, a distinguished former Lord Mayor of Norwich, had a declared personal interest. He had served under Knights as a company commander in the 4th Royal Norfolks, though his experiences as a prisoner of war were very different.

Training for war. Officers of the 4th Royal Norfolks at a Territorial Army summer camp. Alfred Knights is seated fifth from the right and Tom Eaton is standing, fourth from the right, on the middle row.

Having been seriously wounded on the last day of fighting on Singapore Island, Tom had spent all his captivity in Changi. It turned out to be a piece of good fortune for which he was eternally grateful, for it meant he avoided the horrors of the Burma-Thai Railway.

Nevertheless, his long involvement with the Far East Prisoners of War Association ensured that he was well-acquainted with Lt Col Knights’ courageous and selfless struggles in defence of his fellow PoWs long before he ever read his former CO’s personal chronicle.

Convinced of its importance as a record of leadership in adversity, he even went to the expense and trouble of having a segment of the book published. He gave me a copy and I recall that it made for harrowing and inspiring reading. But the book, as a whole, remained a long and somewhat rambling manuscript – until now.

Thanks to Reggie’s determination and efforts Tom Eaton’s dream has been fulfilled. Alfred Knights’ story of survival and his extraordinary dealings with the Japanese has finally been published. I only wish Tom and many more of his old comrades of the 4th Battalion could have been alive to see and read it.

A satirical cartoon showing the officers of the 4th Royal Norfolks. Alfred Knights, then a major, is in the centre on the right, portrayed as a Punch-like figure, holding a portrait of his CO. Tom Eaton is pictured seated at the bottom right.

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about the story behind the book and to discover something of Knights’ bravery in captivity then make sure to get a copy of this Saturday’s EDP.

Finally, and as a footnote to this tale, I’d be interested to hear from anyone who had a relative who served in the 4th Royal Norfolks during the Second World War and who has any diaries, letters , photographs or personal accounts to contact me, either via this website or by telephoning me on 01603 435624. 

I am interested to add to the eyewitness records and illustrations that I am gathering for a book on the ill-starred 18th Division which will span the period from the outbreak of war until the fall of Singapore.

Singapore and the Thailand Burma Railway, by Lt Col Alfred E Knights, DSO, MC, MM, edited by Sir Reginald Harland, is published by Arena Books, priced £15.99.

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15/01/2013
by steve
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Snettisham’s lifeline

Maybe it’s the wintry weather. Maybe it’s simply the knowledge that another milestone anniversary is fast approaching, but I find myself increasingly thinking of the terrible times 60 years ago when vast tracts of Norfolk’s coastal territory was inundated by the sea in one of the worst natural disasters this country has faced in a century or more.

What followed that first terrible and terrifying onslaught on the night of January 31-February 1, 1953 was an epic saga awash with carnage and courage. For those who witnessed it and survived to tell the tale it was a never-to-be-forgotten night. I wasn’t born until three years later, but the story of the East Coast has held a special fascination to me for almost as long as I can remember.

Why that should be so, I have no idea. No one from my family was caught up in the night’s drama so far as I know, but since my days as a cub reporter I have been drawn back to the story time after time; interviewing people who were trapped by the sea’s deadly surge and people who risked their lives to rescue them.

Just recently I focused my efforts on talking to people who were involved in the flooding at Snettisham, on the edge of The Wash. I was interested particularly in the efforts made to reach people cut off by the 10ft high flood-tide around Snettisham Beach. Prominent among them was the village bobby, Henry Nobbs. In the absence of any organised assistance, Nobbs and a sergeant from the neighbouring village of Dersingham, Gerald Bunney, organised their own rescue effort, helped by local villagers.

A line of wrecked bungalows and chalets at Snettisham beach after the floods subsided. In all, 25 people lost their lives from this small Norfolk coastal community on that terrible night 60 years ago and more than 140 homes were wrecked.

Using a coil of rope taken from a local farm, and accompanied by Noel Linge, Henry Nobbs established a rope line between a row of telegraph poles leading to the beach. What followed was set out in the citation for the British Empire Medal for gallantry that Henry was deservedly awarded:

“Owing to the terrific current, and waves whipped up by the severe gale which was blowing, only slow progress could be made from telegraph pole to telegraph pole. At each pole the line was made fast to steady the men on the rope and allow further penetration into the flood and also to leave a life line back to safety.

“One man was found in an exhausted condition. Nobbs left the rope and grabbed this man and brought him to safety. The flood water at this point was very strong and high and but for this immediate rescue the man would have been drowned in a very short time…”

Henry Nobbs stuck to his task throughout that long night and was eventually joined in his self-ordained rescue mission by Sgt Bunney who had battled his way through to the village. Once, he had been forced to make a rapid retreat, racing the torrential flood all the way back to Dersingham where he warned villagers of the danger. Then, without a thought for his own safety, he headed back, along a different route, into the worst-affected area to team up with PC Nobbs.

Hero of the floods. Village bobby PC Henry Nobbs who received a British Empire Medal for his feats of rescue.

That night Sgt Bunney led a party to a house flooded as high as the first floor in which 18 people were sheltering. “During this rescue,” an official account ran, “one of the rescuers, who was carrying a child, was attacked with cramp and fell in the water. Sgt Bunney immediately helped him and both the man and the child were safely brought to dry land.”

Like Nobbs, whose tireless exploits included helping save three people perched in the rafters of a flooded holiday camp building, Bunney survived to received a BEM, presented at a special ceremony the following November.

In the days that followed the floods much of the media focus was fixed on the heroic efforts of American servicemen to save lives further north in the devastated coastal communities of Heacham and Hunstanton. The stories of the local beat policemen who left their homes and waded to the rescue without the aid of special life-saving or communication equipment were somewhat lost amid the trans-Atlantic hullabalo. But 60 years on, I can’t help thinking the bobbies who put their lives on the line to save others deserve some lasting recognition.

A sea of desolation. An aerial photograph showing the floodwater behind the shattered beach homes at Snettisham.

For now, though, you can pay your own respects to the people who died and those who risked everything to rescue those trapped along the coast at Snettisham by attending a commemorative service of remembrance in the Market Place on Thursday, January 31 at 6pm. An exhibition of photographs and artefacts will also revive memories of the night the sea burst through the beach defences. It is being staged on Saturday, February 2 in the village’s Memorial Hall.

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