Lest we forget brave men of Lancaster

With Remembrance Sunday just around the corner, Shaun Corkerry looks at military medal winners from Lancaster

By Michelle Blade
Thursday, 5th November 2020, 3:45 pm
Corporal Henry Withers MM, 10th Royal Hussars.
Corporal Henry Withers MM, 10th Royal Hussars.

The Military Medal (MM) was sparingly awarded in the Second World War, only 15,225 being awarded compared to 115,589 in the First World War. The citations for the MM have all survived and I have used these, together with the unrivalled Guardian coverage, to present the lives and deeds of some of these extraordinary men.

Corporal Henry Withers MM, 10th Royal Hussars.

The Battle of Gazala was fought during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, from May 26 to June 21, 1942.

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The announcement published in the London Gazette on 22 September 22 1942 of Corporal Henry Withers being awarded the Military Medal.

In February 1942 between Gazala and Timimi, just west of Tobruk, the Eighth Army was able to concentrate its forces sufficiently to turn and fight the advancing Axis forces. By February 4, the Axis advance had been halted and the frontline stabilised.

The Gazala line was a series of defensive boxes accommodating a brigade each, laid out across the desert behind minefields and wire, watched by regular patrols between the boxes. Such a box was Knightsbridge, which was sited to block tracks and junctions.

The 10th Royal Hussars were in the thick of the campaign and were briefly and bloodily involved in the battle and defence of Knightsbridge.

Cpl Withers was awarded an immediate MM for his actions during the days the regiment was engaged.

The military medal award for Cpl William George Wilson appeared in the London Gazette for August 31 1944. Cpl William George Wilson, Newsham Road, Lancaster (left) wounded and awarded the MM and Pte George Oakes, Queen Street, Lancaster, reported missing.

The citation reads: “Cpl Withers was in charge of a three tonner [lorry] containing 75mm ammunition during the three days May 27, 28 and 29 1942.

“With great coolness and courage he , invariably advancing under fire, repeatedly brought up his truck to replenish his squadron [equipped with Grant Tanks].

“He organised the replenishment both calmly and efficiently. It is due to his excellent work that his squadron were never short of Ammo.” Cpl Withers was notified of his award on August 3 and it was duly published in the London Gazette on September 22, 1942.

Cpl Henry ‘Harry’ Withers was born May 6 ,1906, and in 1911 was in Barrow-in-Furness living with his parents Harry, a blacksmith, and Sarah at 9 Cameron street. He joined the 10th Hussars in the 1920s and was stated to be a Corporal in 1931.

Corporal Wilson went to war in a Sherman DD swimming tank-these were waterproofed tanks fitted with a canvas screen to provide buoyancy and propellers at the rear to drive the tank in the water. This DD tank has its canvas screens erected.

In 1931 he married Margaret Mercer in Lancaster and they had one child.

By 1939 he was an assurance agent (and reservist) living at 11 Summersgill road Lancaster. On call up he seems to have re-joined his old unit, eventually being sent to North Africa.

Corporal Withers was promoted to sergeant in 1942, .

He was then part of a tank crew in Italy and after the war he returned to Lancaster, remarried in 1949 and later moved to Preston and died there in May 1960

Corporal Wilson went to war in a Sherman DD swimming tank-these were waterproofed tanks fitted with a canvas screen to provide buoyancy and propellers at the rear to drive the tank in the water. Here a DD tank is entering the water.

*with thanks to Peter McQuade and Cpl Withers’ family.

Corporal William George Wilson MM, 13th/18th Royal Hussars (Queen Mary’s Own)

Another cavalryman, Cpl Wilson went to war in a Sherman DD swimming tank. These were waterproofed tanks fitted with a canvas screen to provide buoyancy and propellers at the rear to drive the tank in the water. Once on land, the screen was dropped, the propellers folded away and the tank functioned normally. The whole set up was dangerous enough without enemy involvement!

His MM citation reads: “On June 6, 1944, Cpl Wilson was a commander of a swimming tank in the assault on the beaches [Sword beach].

In spite of his tank being repeatedly hit, this NCO with skill and consummate coolness succeeded in navigating his tank through beach mines and obstructions and in silencing the fire of the enemy positions opposite him on the shore.

His unswerving determination to complete the task in the face of all obstacles and dangers constitutes an outstanding example of devotion to duty.”

The award appeared in the London gazette for August 31, 1944

The Guardian reported on July 28, 1944, “Corporal William George Wilson (30) of the 13/18th Hussars has been awarded the MM for service in Normandy. He went across with the assault troops on D Day, was wounded in the first week, and returned to England for hospital treatment. He is now due to go back to France any day. Cpl Wilson has been in the army for four years, before which he was employed at Nelsons silk works.

“He was educated at Greaves School. The elder son of Mr and Mrs W G Wilson of Shrewsbury drive Lancaster, he is married, and his wife resides at 1 Newsham road, Bowerham.”

It is believed William died aged 90 in June 2004.

Sergeant Thomas Lyth 1st Bn Royal Irish Fusiliers

Thomas Lyth was born in 1920 in Lancaster. The family was living at 58 Dorrington Road, Lancaster, in 1939. The Lancaster Guardian May 12 1944 reported,

“Twenty-four-years old Acting Sergeant Thomas Lyth, Royal Irish Fusiliers, of Ullswater Road, Lancaster, has been awarded the Military Medal for gallant and distinguished conduct in Italy.

He related the circumstances of the award in a recent letter to his wife. ‘It was about midnight,’ he wrote ‘and a soldier was lying near me badly wounded in the arm and leg.

“There was no one to take him back, so I just did what anybody else would have done, and I took him to safety, on the way getting help from another man. I really thought I would have been a prisoner, because the Germans were running about all over the place’.

A well-known Lancaster swimmer and polo player, and a member of the Lancaster Swimming Club, Cpl Lyth has represented the Lancashire County polo second team in competitions.

“He was educated at Greaves Central School and was employed as a bricklayer with a Lancaster firm of builders before joining the Loyal Regiment four years ago.

“He served with the Manchester Regiment and the Royal Ulster Rifles before being transferred to his present regiment and has been twice wounded.”

The Guardian further reported on August 4, 1944,

“Serjeant T Lyth of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, well known to many sport lovers in Lancaster was recently awarded the Military medal for bravery in Italy.

“Tommy is an old boy of Greaves central school and the headmaster Mr j H Sutton, on behalf of the school wrote and congratulated him.

“This week Mr Sutton has received an acknowledgment from Sgt Lyth thanking the school and the students for their congratulations and expressing his pleasure at hearing from his old school.

“He states that on his return home he will certainly visit his old school and adds:

‘I sincerely hope no-one thinks I have been doing terribly brave things for the things we do out here are done to help our comrades’.”

Sgt Lyth’s citation of January 1944 reads:

War substantive Corporal (Acting Sergeant) Lyth “on December 4 [1943] on the river Moro Sgt Lyth was in command of a platoon [this was due to the shortage of officers due to the high casualty rates] which he led with the utmost bravery and determination.

“Once, when his platoon was held up by heavy mortar and Machine gun fire, and a Bren number wounded, he took the LMG and worked his way right forward alone.

“From this new position he silenced and enemy post by his accurate fire and skilful handling of the weapon.

“Shortly afterwards in similar circumstances he repeated his performance.

““When wounded and obviously in considerable pain, he carried on for 30 minutes, and until properly relieved.

“Then making light of his wound and first giving encouragement to his men he made his own way back to the regimental aid post.

“During the preceding fighting on the rivers Trigno and Sangro Sjt Lyth commanded a platoon and behaved in the same inspiring manne.r”

The MM was published in the London Gazette May 4 1944.

Thomas returned to Lancaster after the war, continued to play water polo well into the 1950s and is believed to have died in 1978.