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Queen’s College Oxford – A War Memorial Brought to Life

August 13, 2013

Go to almost any town or village in the United Kingdom, and you will find a war memorial. It could be just a stone column with a metal plaque on which is recorded the names of those who died in the two world wars of the last century – provided that the plaque has not been stolen by metal thieves, that is. It could be something grander. Moving as these monuments are, a list of names tells you nothing about how the people whose names are inscribed lived and how they died.

A few years ago, I inherited many hundreds of books from my late father. Since then I’ve dipped into them from time to time. As I also read a great deal of contemporary work, it’s been hard to find the time to do more than scratch the surface of his additions to my library.

But the other day I happened on a volume that clearly meant much to him.

In 1943 my mother’s brother, John Newton Hickson, was killed when the ship carrying him to Sudan was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. He and my father were school friends, and he was the reason why my father and mother met and eventually married.

In 1950, John’s university alma mater, the Queen’s College, Oxford, produced a memorial book with brief biographies and pictures of all the Queen’s alumni who died in World War 2. John, of course was included.

As I browsed through the biographies, one thing stood out. Of the 79 men whose lives were commemorated, a quarter died not in action, but as the result of accidents. A further 10% died of illness.

Here are some examples of those accidents:

Edwin Walter Beech (RAF): “On a return journey from India, he was caught in a storm. His aircraft was struck by lightning and crashed at La Rochelle near Rochefort on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, and he was killed.”

Arthur William Bisat (Army): “He was killed on Salisbruy Plain …. In an accident with a trench mortar”

Norman Arthur Brittain (Navy): “In 1942 his ship was ordered home for refitting and he was transferred to a sister ship HMS Curacoa. While acting as an escort to the Queen Mary carrying troops in the North Atlantic, Curacoa was accidentally struck by the Queen Mary and was split practically in two. There were few survivors and he was not among them. His body was later washed ashore on the West Coast of Scotland.”

John Austin Denham (Army): “He went to Normandy soon after the invasion of France in 1944 and was engaged in liaison duty with a French unit near Caen. On the night of 3rd November 1944 he was killed in a road accident.”

Richard Mowbray Jenkins (RAF): “After training in Florida and Canada, he was stationed at Lossiemouth, where in April 1942 he met with a flying accident which proved fatal, and he died in hospital….”

Peter Joliffe Johnson (Army): “On 20th June 1944, whilst engaged in field exercises at Maji Moto Camp, Narok (Kenya), he was killed by an explosion; six of his African soldiers were killed with him.”

Peter Noel Loxley (Civil Servant): “In 1941 he was back at the Foreign Office and was appointed Permanent Undersecretary of State. In this capacity he was a member of the Prime Minister’s Mission to Yalta early in 1945, and while on his way he was killed, together with other members of the party, in an aircraft accident on 1st February. He was buried in Malta.”

Ronald Edgar Martin (Navy): “On 9th of May 1943, when the submarine menace was great, he lost his life in an accident while serving in the Escort Carrier HMS Archer, which was hunting U-Boats in the North Atlantic.”

Anthony Guy Mole: (RAF): “He was commissioned in October 1942 and became an instructor to USA cadets. On 13th January 1943 while acting in this capacity he was killed in a flying accident at the Cochran Flying Field, Macon, Georgia, and was buried in the RAF Cemetery at Montgomery, Alabama.”

Denys Keith Turnay Montserrat (Army): “While on duty driving a car in Tunis he was involved in an accident and received injuries from which he died on 25th August (1943).”

George Richard Gorton Roberts (Army): “on 13th April 1942 he was killed in an accident at Warminster when a Hurricane pilot missed his target and fired on an enclosure where a large number of official observers had assembled.”

John Anthony Scott (Army): “He became a Captain in the RAOC and saw service in Egypt, Cyprus and again in Egypt. In July 1942 while crossing a desert area the car in which he was travelling broke down. He tried to walk to his destination, but owing to an insufficient supply of water he failed to reach it. Before he died he left a note on his tunic pin-pointing the position of his driver, who was rescued on the verge of exhaustion.”

Thomas Leonard Williams (Army): “In February 1941 the unit was recalled to Egypt to train for combined operations. On the 13th of the following month while he was in charge of the preparation of a number of bangalore torpedoes one of them exploded; a dump of explosives went off also, and he, together with number of men, was killed.”

The others died of similar accidents, mainly involving motor vehicles or aircraft.

If this little sample of accidental deaths was representative of the 383,000 British military deaths in World War II, then 95,000 combatants would have lost their lives other than through action against the enemy. A sobering thought. Extrapolate the 10% of Queen’s alumni who died through illness and you have another 38,000.

Of the 79 who died in the war, 27% were born between 1920 and 1924, including my uncle, who was born in 1922. Most of them never had the chance to use their education. They joined the armed forces straight from college.

As you would expect from the alumni of a prestigious Oxford college at that time, most of the casualties were officers. Those who did manage a career were mainly lawyers, teachers, civil servants, academics and professional soldiers. There were also scientists, businessmen, and even a poet and an actor.

They were a sporty group – cricket, rugby, athletics and hockey (see the picture below of John Hickson in hockey garb) seemed to be the preferred activities. But many also pursued a typical range of interests on offer through the university societies – music, drama, politics and art. I find it poignant that the biographers of those who died young compensated for the lack of substance in the short lives of their subjects by going into great detail about their college activities.

John H 1

There were few British families not touched by the war across all echelons of society. For those mainly well-heeled sons of the Queen’s College who died, there must have been many more survivors who were wounded, and yet more civilians killed or injured. I and my siblings lost an uncle whom we never met, and my grandmother and mother a beloved only son and brother.

JN Hickson

I don’t buy the cant about soldiers, especially those who were conscripted willingly giving up their lives – immortalised as “the old lie” in Wilfred Owen’s World War 1 poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Most of them had no choice, and made the best of a bad time. Yet the book is full of acts of great bravery in situations I could hardly imagine.

Take, for example, John Anthony Ronald Coulthard:

“At the outbreak of war he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and was posted to the Intelligence Corps. After a brief training he went to France in April 1940 and was captured by the Germans on 20th May 1940. He was sent to Stalag XXA, situated at Thorn on the Vistula, where he became camp interpreter and took a leading part in organising educational classes and entertainments for the camp. In August 1942, he escaped with another prisoner but was recaptured at the Swiss Frontier. He made a second attempt towards the end of 1943 but was again recaptured, at Gdynia, and returned to the camp.

In January 1945 he was among those prisoners who were sent on a forced march of 800 miles from Poland to the West of Germany. Fatigue and privations proved too much for him, and he died on 24th March near Domitz, on the River Elbe, where he was buried.

He was posthumously mentioned in Dispatches ‘in recognition of gallant and distinguished service on the Field'”

I’ve no doubt that our volunteer soldiers in Afghanistan have been just as brave, even if they not infused with the naive idealism of the WW2 generation. As we wave our soldiers off to the next war, we could do worse than to look at snapshots like those in the Queen’s College book of the ordinary soldiers, sailors and air crew whose lives were cut short in the last global conflict, and hope for a kinder fate for their successors.

From → Books, History, Social, UK

  1. Ken Moore permalink

    Hi Steve,

    As you infer accidents were numerous and constant simply because we put an enormous number of people in harm’s way.

    Your third example Norman Arthur Brittain, was in one of the worse accidents of the war, which for obvious reason was hushed up at the time. The Queen Mary ploughed through the other ship in the Clyde and over 400 men were lost.



    • True. It would be interesting to compare accident stats among WW2 combatants with those from later wars. Has the civil health and safety culture made a difference in the military?


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