Monday 14 November 2022

W. GEORGE - 51st Highland Division.

William George (Gunner No. 1529768) - 44th Battery 61st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment - Royal Artillery - 51st Highland Division.

William was born at Nethy Bridge, Inverness Shire in April 1909 as the eldest son of Alexander and Margaret George of West Culreach, Grantown on Spey, Inverness Shire. William had a sister who regrettably died when only 13 and a younger brother who served with the Royal Engineers during W.W.II. William attended the Abernethy School from five years old until he was 14. His early years of employment are not known, but he later travelled south to London where he worked as butler to Lord Glenndin. It was probably about this time he met Grace Paget of South View, Eton Wick Road, and on August 27th 1933 they were married at Nethy Bridge. Their first home was in Castle View Villas, Sheepcote Road, Eton Wick and in September 1934 a son was born in King Edward VII Hospital, Windsor. On March 15th 1936 a daughter arrived at their new home No. 12, Eton Wick Road. The children were named Dudley and Celia. William joined the Army at the outset of W.W.II in September 1939 and this meant leaving his home, his wife and two infants aged six and three years.

Following initial training he was sent to France to serve with the Royal Artillery of the 51st Highland Division as a gunner. It is possible that he also served at that time with the 44th Battery, 61st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, with which he later embarked for Libya.

The early months of the war were relatively quiet until, on May 10th 1940, the German Army launched a fierce flanking attack against the neutral countries of Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, while their strong armoured columns thrust rapidly against the French forces in their drive toward the coast. On May 23rd Boulogne fell to the enemy and five days later Belgium surrendered. With widespread confusion and much of northern France overrun, the British Expeditionary Force prepared for a seaborne evacuation from Dunkirk. Between May 30th and June 3rd over 330,000 troops were brought safely back to Britain by 887 craft of all types and sizes.

Meanwhile fighting was still much in evidence south of the Dunkirk beaches. The 51st Division was withdrawn from its defensive positions at the Maginot Line and given a 16-mile front to hold in the Somme region in support of the French Tenth Army. On June 4th they were engaged in a combined attack against the enemy bridgehead at Abbeville. 65 Divisions, composed of several French Army Groups and the British contingent, were opposed by 125 German Divisions which launched an attack along a 70-mile front between Amiens and the La on to Soissons Road on June 5th. Two days later a fresh attack against the allies drove a wedge into the French Tenth Army separating the IX Corps (French), which included the 51st Highland Division, from the rest of the Tenth Army. They were cut off along the Rouen to Dieppe route and in the utter confusion of Anglo-French command most of the Scottish Division were taken prisoner of war. The French Corps surrendered and only about 1,350 of the 51st Division troops managed to withdraw hastily to St. Valery and make good their escape by sea on June 11th and 12th. 8,000 of their comrades spent the next five years as P.O.Ws.

William George was fortunate enough to sail back to England, where the 51st were re-organised and merged with the 9th Scottish. Troops evacuated from Dunkirk and, nearly two weeks later, from St. Valery and other ports, had been forced to abandon their arms and equipment. Much of the next year was spent re-equipping and enlisting more personnel, always under the threat of a German invasion of Britain.

At this time the only aggressive war Britain could wage was in the air or in North Africa. The 44th Battery, 61st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, are recorded as arriving back in England on June 17th and embarking for Egypt on October 5th 1941, where they arrived on November 29th. Three weeks later they were in Libya. They were involved in The Battle at Gazala from May 28th to June 21st, 1942, and again in the defence of El Alamein between October 23rd and November 4th, 1942.

William's daughter, Celia, states that he was wounded, taken prisoner of war and put on an Italian Hospital ship en route to Italy and that the enemy ship was sunk by the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. This story was found difficult to substantiate despite much searching. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission simply stated:

George, Gnr. William, 1529768, 44th Battery, 61st Light Anti-Aircraft Regt; Royal Artillery. died 14th November 1942 age 33. Husband of Grace Ena George of Eton Wick, Buckinghamshire. Commemorated on the Alamein Memorial; Egypt. Column 35.

This seemed to be as much as could be established until Dudley, William's son, produced a newspaper article of August 1996 headed "Truth surfaces after 54 years", which then went on to report a long and diligent search by someone trying to trace his father's death in W.W.II. The Ministry of Defence had been reluctant to admit the torpedoing of an Italian ship, the S.S. Scillin, by the Royal Navy submarine P212 Sahib in the Mediterranean in November 1942. Apparently bound for Sicily, the Scillin had 800 British P.O.Ws on board. The submarine commander, Lieutenant John Bromage, had been ordered not to sink any ships but believing the Scillin to be carrying Italian troops he decided to fire torpedoes. The Scillin sank within a minute, and it was only when the crew of the submarine heard survivors speaking English that they realised their tragic mistake. Only 26 British and 35 Italians were saved. Nobody likes admitting mistakes, but there can be no justification for a cover-up of over 50 years.

William George is commemorated at Nethy Bridge and Grantown on Spey in his native Scotland and on the Edinburgh Scottish National Memorial, the Alamein Memorial in Egypt, the Eton Wick Memorial and the Village Hall plaque. He is one of four Scots named on the Eton Wick Memorial — two from each war. The two W.W.II Scots both served with the Army in France and both were among the last to get away, after France's capitulation. The other man lost his life in the sinking of the liner S.S. Lancastria at St Nazaire. Coincidentally, St. Valery is now twinned with Inverness.

This is an extract from Their Names Shall Be Carved in Stone  
and published here with grateful thanks to the author Frank Bond.

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