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.