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Bravery Medals awarded to GWR Staff during WW2

Acknowledging some of those GWR staff decorated for gallantry during World War 2. . . . . .

Great Western Railway Pannier tank number 7758 at Tyseley shed in 1931. Photo courtesy of Warwickshire Railways.

GWR employees were awarded the George Medal after an incendiary bombing raid in the Birmingham area on the night of 26th/27th August 1940. Tyseley (Birmingham) depot Engine Cleaner Peter Frederick Smout used his hands and feet to cover blazing incendiary bombs with ballast. While bombs were still falling, he volunteered to get a locomotive to draw wagons next to a blazing goods shed to safety. He made four separate trips with pannier tank 7758 by which time the driver’s side of the locomotive footplate was too hot to touch. Meanwhile, Wagon Examiner Frederick Francis Blake saw a wagon on fire, and with help from colleagues pushed the burning wagon to a place of safety by hand. He then went to the air raid shelter and persuaded more staff to help him move other burning trucks. Blake also assisted Smout by operating the point levers necessary for his four trips to collect wagons; some levers were so hot that he had to use his hat to protect his hands. Throughout the night he led his staff to extinguish incendiary bombs using hands, feet, shovelled ballast and one stirrup pump. Smout and Blake were also assisted by Yardmaster’s Clerk, James Ernest Clark, who helped in removing wagons with volatile contents and extinguishing fires. Clark was awarded the British Empire Medal for his meritorious service.

GWR Shunter Norman Tunna GC.

It was announced the London Gazette in January 1941 that King George VI had been graciously pleased to award the George Cross to Norman Tunna, Shunter, Great Western Railway, Birkenhead. This is the first level civilian medal for bravery and acts of heroism and courage in conditions of extreme danger. During heavy air raids over the Liverpool and Birkenhead port area on 26th September 1940, a large number of incendiary bombs fell in and around the Morpeth Dock goods depot and sidings. At the time, the sidings contained wagons with trainloads of ammunition, petrol in tins, bombs and fuses. GWR Shunter Tunna found two incendiary bombs burning in a sheeted open wagon which contained 250lb bombs. Using a shunting pole, he removed the wagon sheet and with assistance moved the bomb load aside so that the spluttering incendiary bombs could be reached. With his bare hands he took them out of the truck and threw them to a place of relative safety where they were extinguished. His courage eliminated the risk of serious explosions and major damage to the sidings and their contents. There are three plaques in the Birkenhead area marking Norman Tunna’s bravery. Norman Tunna wore his GWR Shunter’s uniform to receive his medal from King George VI. Part of the citation reads, “Tunna’s action displayed courage in very high degree and eliminated the risk of serious explosions, the results of which it would be difficult to measure.”

The George Cross, introduced in 1940 as an award for gallantry.

During the same heavy and prolonged air raid in the Birkenhead area, more GWR staff distinguished themselves with their bravery dealing with serious fires caused by incendiary bombs and moving highly explosive contents in wagons to relative safety. Goods checker Patrick John Mahoney was awarded the George Medal for leading his gang in subduing the flames and moving cases of ammunition fuses away from centres of fire. GWR Driver Ivor Thomas Davies of Birkenhead assisted Norman Tunna by moving bombs apart with a shunting pole so that Tunna could lift the incendiary bombs out and throw them aside. While this was being done GWR Fireman Frank Reginald Newns of Moreton, near Birkenhead, operated a stirrup pump which played water on the hot bombs and incendiaries. Davies and Newns also repeatedly carried water so that the stirrup pump could be kept working. Both men were awarded the George Medal for their actions. Meanwhile, Yard Inspector Herbert Thomas and Cartage Foreman William Edwin Weaver used firefighting equipment and removed highly inflammable and explosive materials including ammunition and cans of petrol away from seats of fire. Both were awarded the British Empire Medal for their meritorious service.

The George Medal, introduced in 1940 for “acts of great bravery”.

Another GWR recipient of the George Medal was Frederick Dainty Cox who was a telegraph lineman’s assistant. After an air raid between Woolaston and Beachley Junction near Chepstow on the 9th November 1940 it was discovered that the railway communications had been broken. Mr Cox and one other were sent to examine the line. They discovered that one bomb had exploded and broken telegraph wires and that another unexploded timebomb had landed on the track. Cox repaired the most important of the damaged telegraph circuits and then he carried the unexploded bomb across the line and dropped it over a boundary hedge onto soft ground. This act enabled single line working to be put into operation. Then another time bomb was found nearby and despite being advised by police to leave the area, Cox remained to help bomb disposal staff to move it to a place of safety.

On Friday 13th June 1941 the GWR ferry “SS St Patrick” built in 1930 was sunk in the Irish Sea 14 miles off Fishguard after being bombed and machine-gunned from the air while working the Fishguard to Rosslare service. The ship broke up and went down in less than 15 minutes and the lives of Captain James Faraday, his son who was on leave from the navy, and 28 others were lost – 58 people survived. There had been no time to lower lifeboats. A stewardess on the ship, Elizabeth May Owen, was awarded the George Medal and the Lloyd’s War medal for Bravery at Sea for her work in getting passengers off the stricken vessel quickly. She distinguished herself whilst in the water by supporting a hysterical woman passenger who had lost her lifebelt. This act of bravery lasted for more than two hours until they were rescued.

Mike Peart

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