TYNESIDE WAR HEROES #1

THE DAY I WAS AWARDED THE VICTORIA CROSS

Adam Herbert Wakenshaw (1914–1942)

 

In 2012 when researching a documentary about the impact of the Second World War on South Tyneside residents, I found a number of Tyneside men who served in the British Army who were awarded one of the highest awards, the Victoria Cross. The VC is the highest and most prestigious award for courage in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. One of those men was Adam Wakenshaw, a private in the 9th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. This is his story.

I was born on 9th June 1914 in Duke Street, Newcastle. Life was really hard. My ma’ Mary, and Thomas my da’ had to feed six children. They struggled on his labourers wage so to help the family I left school at 14 to work at the local colliery. When I got married it was to Dorothy Douglass in 1932 and our first place was 19 Rye Hill. Not far from Newcastle Central Station. When the War started I left the pit and joined the Durham Light Infantry. In 1940 I was one of the lucky ones to leave Dunkirk.

It was in 1942 we were battling against the Germans at Mersa Matruh on the coast at Egypt. They were coming at us hard. The ground was heavy and rocky we couldn’t dig in – so we hid behind boulders. We had around nine tank guns with us.

 I saw a vehicle it was in close range so fired and made a direct hit. It stopped them dead. The Germans fired back, and blew my left arm off, right above the elbow. They also hit my gun aimer, Eric Mohn, seriously wounding him. The whole crew were injured or killed. The Germans came back in to finish us off.

So me and Eric managed to crawl back to the gun and load the shells. We fired five more rounds and one direct hit which damaged their gun. They fired again I was threw away from the blast but it killed Eric. I managed to drag myself over the rocky ground to the gun and loaded up again.

Sadly, a direct hit killed Adam instantly. That evening, Durham soldiers searched the battlefield. Among the wreckage of his gun, they found Wakenshaw, and buried him where he fell.

He was later re-buried in El Alamein War Cemetery, Egypt and posthumously awarded the VC. The medal was presented to his widow, Dorothy, and passed through the family to his daughter, Lilian. The medal was then donated to the Durham Light Infantry Museum.

Today in St Mary’s Church, Newcastle, where Adam was baptised and married, there is a stained glassed window commemorating his life and sacrifice, from his upbringing in Newcastle to his death in North Africa. Also included is the motto of the Durham Light Infantry 9th Battalion ‘Be faithful until death and I will give a crown of life’.

Gary Alikivi  August 2020.

Sources: Ancestry, DLI South Shields, London Gazette 8th September 1942, The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria & George Cross, Imperial War Museum.

 

 

FILL YER BOOTS – It’s no mean feat for a Tyneside charity champion

The blog is read in countries around the world including USA, Brazil, Japan and Russia, along with ex pats checking in from Australia, France and Spain – the stories travel far and wide. But closer to home a number of Tyneside residents have sent in stories about working class characters they remember. Geordie Pantsman, Tinwhistler and Dan Green have contributed, and this memory from Archive the Noo is the latest.  At their request I am posting it today as it’s the same date the big man who is featured, sadly passed away.

My memory of him was when drinking in South Shields pubs in the ‘80s you would often come across this guy – believe me you couldn’t miss him. It was on a hot sweaty Friday night we piled into a packed Scotia pub and saw he was at the bar for last orders. With his big white bucket at his feet he had been collecting for the miner’s strike. I could see he was getting frustrated and angry as the barmaids refused to serve him shouting ‘Time’s up’ as they rang the bell.

He was sweating heavily, gritting his teeth and with tears in his eyes, he gripped tightly on the handrails of the bar, stamped his feet, let out an almighty roar and led his fellow drinkers to the tune of Rule Britannia… ‘Sing yer heart out, Sing yer heart out, Sing yer heart out for the lads’….Hollered out like a defiant last breath – he only wanted a pint man.

So who was he ?

Featured today is a story from Archive the Noo and his memories of one of Tyneside’s Charity Champions, Big Hec…..If you were approached by a 6 foot 8 inch 20 stone Geordie, lurching from side to side, asking you for money with that characteristic gap between his front teeth, I wager you’d most likely think about handing it over.

You might be a bit confused by the sight of him carrying a bucket and wearing gold painted boots (size 18). But in time you would realise you’d just had a close encounter with Tyneside resident Brian Dowson, known as Big Hec.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s Big Hec, raised in approximation of £1million pounds in the name of charity, walking around Tyneside pubs, shops, metro trains and collecting donations in his bucket, taped over at the top with a slit.

He also made a cover version of Nancy Sinatra’s song ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’….(Recorded in 1990 at Brian Johnsons place (AC/DC) Lynx Studios in Newcastle, ex-Angelic Upstart Mond Cowie was studio manager and let Big Hec have the studio for nothing because it was for a charity record).

There are many endearing stories surrounding Hec. In the mid ‘70s he worked as a glass collector at the Kismet Club in Laygate and after a few beers would take to the dance floor producing incredible shapes and moves, a wondrous sight to behold.

I recall being a tad bit envious when he managed to meet his very own hero, the Dynasty starlet Stephanie Beacham, at a charity presentation.

Apart from the fact that Hec was for me a true character beyond criticism and a charitable legend worth a movie about (one of his favourite charities was the NSPCC), the essence of Big Hec is contained in my fondest story.

He once set out to beat the existing world pie eating record, held at the local Hintons supermarket store. Local TV were there and when the cameras began to roll he was presented with a tray of pies. He complained that they were too hot so filming stopped and restarted after a period of cooling. Commencing, he ate only a few and then gave up, blaming it on the big tea he had before coming out. He then burst into singing Elvis songs.

Brian had a short and colourful life, passing away from natural causes, some say a heart attack. He was born in 1957 and sadly died on 13th March 1996. May he, buried in his boots, rest in a well earned peace.

Brought to you by Archive the Noo.

Today if you go to the Laygate area of South Shields there is a plaque on the wall of Lloyds Bank – a memorial to Big Hec’s charity work. (pic. Kennie Chow)

 Edited by Gary Alikivi  2020.