Oldham’s historic connection with the Fusiliers

Councillor Cath Ball
FUSILIERS: Councillor Cath Ball has extensively researched Oldham’s historic links with the Fusiliers

OLDHAM Council has joined the fight to save the second battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers – one of the best manned battalions in the army.

Full Council recently passed a resolution calling on the Government to ditch plans to scrap it in recognition of its proud history and the heroism of its servicemen.

This battalion recruits from across Greater Manchester and has very strong links with Oldham.

It’s my belief that the army connection with towns like Oldham will cease to exist if this decision is not overturned.

Being able to return to a community which you belong to and where you have a support network is absolutely vital.

Councillor Cath Ball spoke very passionately at that Full Council meeting to explain our town’s strong link with the Fusiliers.

She has researched this topic extensively, so I’m delighted to hand over this week’s blog to Cath to explain more…

“When you join a regiment it becomes your family. So I thought I’d look at what happened to previous members of that family – who were also part of our Oldham family – what happened to them and how this has affected Oldham. 

“When searching the Commonwealth Graves Commission website you notice that many have just their names on – no mention of any families. Some are in large cemeteries, buried alongside comrades, others in a cemetery on their own. 

“Many have no grave and are just a name on a memorial wall: sometimes many thousands of miles from where they died, or lived, some are not even remembered on a local memorial.

“During my early nursing career I noticed the large number of elderly women who were single, or had lived most of their lives as a widow. When you look at the numbers of those who died from here in Oldham from the Fusiliers regiment – and these are from just one regiment – you can see why. 

“In the First World War, I can find 271 men in the Lancashire Fusiliers who had connections with Oldham, either born or lived here, and who died during the conflict. There may be more. The youngest I found was 17, the eldest 45.  About half have no grave. 

“We visited one such grave in the Somme some summers ago: the grandfather of a friend of my parents. It was only when the CWGC went online that people could easily find where these men were buried. I think we may have been the first ones to visit this grave. 

“I’ve never got over the peace of the area. It was hard to visualise what it must have been like as the only noise we heard was the sound of the birds and a tractor in the distance. 

“We didn’t realise then that a great uncle of ours was commemorated on a memorial wall in the next cemetery- we drove past.

“Our Oldham men are spread about Europe: 133 in France; 75 in Belgium;  38 in Turkey in Gallipoli;  three in Germany; two in Iraq; six in Greece; one in Egypt; and finally – four in England, nine in Oldham. 

“In the Second World War I found 56 men who died from the Lancashire fusiliers with Oldham connections. They were generally younger than those who died in the First World War with the average age being in their twenties. 

“These men are spread all over the world – not just Europe as in the First World War. More have graves than in the First World War. 

“There were seven in India; one in Bangladesh; two in Pakistan; seven in Burma; six in Tunisia; 11 in Italy; one in Sicily; two in Malta; two in Belgium; one in the Netherlands; eight in France; and finally – four in England, four in Oldham. 

“One, whose name is on a memorial in England, had become a gunner on a merchant ship; he was taken prisoner out in the Far East, when his ship was sunk. He had a particularly horrible death.

“He was a DEMS gunner with the 1st Maritime Reg, having enlisted with the Lancashire Fusiliers. He was onboard the SS Behar, which was sailing from Australia, when she was shelled and sunk by the Japanese cruiser Tone. There were 108 survivors, including civilian passengers, two were women.

“The survivors were crammed into two small rooms and made to sit cross-legged on the floor – if they spoke or moved they were beaten. Our Oldham man was beaten so badly that he collapsed.  

“They sailed to the Dutch East Indies, where 36 of the survivors were taken to POW camps, the remaining 72 were kept on the deck and taken back out to sea, to be disposed of.

“During a 24-hour period they were taken one by one, kicked in the stomach or testicles, and then beheaded with a sword. The execution order came from Vice Admiral Sakonji, who was later hung for war crimes.

“The Captain of the Tone Mayazumi Haruo received seven years imprisonment. His lenient sentence was due to the fact he protested on several occasions about carrying out the executions.

“No one else was ever charged with war crimes from this atrocity mainly due to American intervention at having all war crime charges dropped if Japan agreed to become a Western style democracy in helping stop the spread of Communism across the Far East.

“In terms of the Second World War, seven
fusiliers died during the evacuation of France in 1940. 

“One of those died after volunteering to stay behind to allow others to escape to the coast. He was 25 and lived in Royton.

“William Wroe lived at 17 Orchard S, Royton. He was formerly a piecer at the Vine Mill Royton, where his father, Ernest Wroe, was also employed. He was closely associated with St Paul’s Church. William was in the TA’s for eight years. He volunteered, with three others from Rochdale to take a bridgehead. They were getting into their Bren Gun carrier when a German shell burst near to them, killing them outright. 

“Thousands were still in France after the evacuation of Dunkirk had ceased. Many made their way to St Nazaire.  

“There were five trains, loaded with troops and ammunition on their way to reach the Cunard liner, the Lancastria. They reached Rennes, 60 miles from St Nazaire. One of the trains contained refugees. Three German bombers appeared and one scored a direct hit on the ammunition train. A total of 177 British troops died, 78 remained unidentified, and these men were buried in the communal plot of Rennes Eastern Cemetery. For years it was assumed that these 78 died onboard the Lancastria, however it is now thought they died onboard the trains. It is also believed that 800 people died in this incident with thousands left wounded. 

“One of them was a 27-year-old fusilier from Mumps.  Also on the train was another 36-year-old, Oldham man who was serving with the pioneer corps.

“The ones who managed to reach St Nazaire boarded the Lancastria, which had sailed from Liverpool to rescue troops and ordinary people.  

“Thousands boarded her, but before she could leave, she was bombed and immediately sank. No one knows how many died, some reports say 8,000. 

“Five Oldham lads lost their lives on the Lancastria – two are commemorated on memorials, their bodies were not found. The bodies of the other three were washed up 20 kilometres down the coast and they are in three different cemeteries. 

“Four fusiliers that I can find were taken prisoner and marched to Poland. This took them four-and-a-half months, marching on average around 21 miles a day. 

“They stayed there in camps near Auschwitz until January 1945 – for almost five years. Then with Russians on the way, they were forced to march again. Some days they marched in blizzards and spent nights out in the open or in barns in sub-zero temperatures. A few managed to escape, but most continued to march every day for four months until they were liberated. They had very little food. These were later called the Death Marches.

“From what I can find those four Oldham fusiliers survived and came home. Many other Oldhamers were also taken prisoner. 

“In total nearly 1,700 people died from Oldham during the Second World War, including civilians and women service people.  One 52-year-old, who has a file with the National Archives, was attached to the Special Operations Executive which remains closed until 2025. 

“We cannot forget these people. Many of their last thoughts will have been how family and friends would cope without them. It’s clear that this regiment has had a profound effect on our town, and it deserves our support.”

Cath’s research into this area is fascinating.

It shows how important it is that we as a town keep our connection with this Regiment – and also that we never forget the sacrifices made for us.

I also know how important Cath believes it is that local people take the time to write down their own war stories so that they are not lost forever.

If anyone reading this decides to do that, please send her your stories direct via email to cath.ball@oldham.gov.uk

I would also urge you to please visit http://www.oldham.gov.uk/fusiliers and sign the e-petition to reverse the plans to disband the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

Thanks for listening,

Jim

One thought on “Oldham’s historic connection with the Fusiliers

  1. May I take this opportunity to congratulate Cath on an eloquently written piece – highly informative and deeply moving.

    How about the Oldham Chronicle reproducing this marvelous piece, thus allowing a wider audience to enjoy the fruits of Cath’s meticulous research?

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