VE Day and Blackheath Rugby Club

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Written by Andrew Lock

The commemoration of the surrender of German Armies and the extinction of Nazi Germany, 75 years ago on the Eighth of May, is necessarily muted this year. A shame, but the good thing about anniversaries is that opportunities to reflect and remember come around pretty frequently.  About once a year, in fact. When I wrote a piece for the Club programme & website in November 2018 commemorating the First World War, I mentioned certain Blackheath players who not only gave their lives in that conflict, but also played a part in shaping how this country remembers the fallen. By the time of the Second World War, that pattern was already well established, and distinct actions and campaigns arguably stick in the mind more readily from the Second War than the First. As far as all this relates to the Club though, we see similar patterns emerge in both conflicts from those men who played Rugby for Blackheath going to fight. 

From the Roll of Honour at the Club, those deaths that can be verified point to the vast majority of Club players killed as being officers. No surprise there; being located so close to the barracks and Military Academy at Woolwich would always bring players of a military background through. Of the 38 men on the Roll of honour, 23 are confirmed as having been officers, however these were not confined to the army, the Club also has representation in the Navy and the Air Force. Indeed, one of the first Blackheath men to fall in the War was the Pilot of a Blenheim bomber which never returned from a mission to hit enemy Airfields in Belgium, in July 1940; his name was Francis Ducker, from Lewisham. The first Blackheath player to be killed in the conflict had been a few weeks earlier; 2nd Lieutenant Eric Hughes-Narborough, from Plumstead, was serving with the Royal Army Service Corps, moving ammunition forward with the initial British Expeditionary Force. He was killed, aged 22, on 29 May 1940 on the retreat to the coast and his body was never recovered. Eric is commemorated with 4,510 others on the Dunkirk memorial.

Very little of the early stages of the war make happy reading, but the tide did turn, and Blackheath men were very much involved in the process. By the end of 1940, the British Army had taken the fight to North Africa, with Major Henry Rew leading a force of Matilda Tanks crashing through the walls of the Italian fort at Nibeiwa in Egypt, literally catching the garrison at breakfast. Rew was well known as a Rugby player for Blackheath, also winning ten Caps for England and four for the Lions between 1929 and 1934. Unfortunately, he was one of 56 men killed in the attack at Nibeiwa – an attack which opened up the possibility of driving the Italian army out of Egypt. North Africa would become a place of great victories, but also great loss to Blackheath; the three players resting at El Alamein War Cemetery make it the Commonwealth War Graves site with the highest concentration of Club men anywhere in the world, and only the Thiepval and Menin Gate memorials from the Great War commemorate more. Eventual victory in North Africa made an invasion of Italy itself possible, and battles fought at Salerno, Monte Cassino and Anzio claimed the lives of Club players Reginald Heaton, Michael Heath and Alastair McNeil. McNeil was a real jack of all trades (maybe should be ‘Jock’ of all trades?), representing Scotland at Football and Cricket as well as Rugby. He was killed serving as a Surgeon Lieutenant when his landing ship struck a mine and sank off the Italian coast. He was 28 years old.

Salerno War Cemetery – resting place of Reginald Heaton

When the time came for the bid to liberate Europe from the West, Blackheath men were of course at the tip of the spear. Charles Hastings Pillman came from a family of Club players, his father Charles Henry Pillman having been a famous international for England. Charles Junior was killed as his tank was hit coming ashore at Gold Beach, Normandy on D-Day. He wasn’t the first Club man to land in Normandy on 6 June 1944, however; that honour most likely goes to Thomas Juckes of the Royal Engineers who parachuted in with 6th British Airborne Division. His brief was to blow bridges outside of the immediate beachhead, and he set about his task almost immediately – almost immediately. On reaching his first bridge to blow, setting charges and wiring things up, he was approached by a local farmer who asked permission to allow his cows across the bridge before it was sent sky-high. Juckes agreed, the farmer and cows crossed, and then the detonation took place. This Blackheath player was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in the course of the day, fighting fiercely with the infantry once his own missions were completed. Three weeks later he was killed by a mortar round.

Cassino War Cemetery – final resting place of Michael Heath

There are of course others, but to choose a couple of points on which to end: firstly, VE day does not mean the end of the war – the Club also lost former players in the far east, in Burma and Hong Kong. VJ Day is commemorated on 15 August; with any luck by the time of THAT anniversary, we shall be able to enjoy a little more of the freedom for which these men, and many more men and women like them, fought. Secondly, we are very privileged to pull on the same shirt, with the same crest, and play for the same Club that these men did. So those of us who are still playing, those of us who have in the past, and those of us who just watch – remember, reflect, and be very, very proud.

Locky is the Bandits’ Vice-Captain, and is working through a PhD in the history of the First World War, while working as a battlefield guide and historian

Tim Brindle

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