|10 Nov 2023|
The following was read by Headmaster, Jonathan Gillespie, at the School's Act of Remembrance.
We gather this morning to remember all those affected by conflict and in particular Old Albanians who gave their life in the service of their country, the ultimate exemplification of the School’s modern-day motto; those who, to paraphrase the Kohima Epitaph, gave their tomorrows for our today.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13)
Having focused my Remembrance addresses from 2014 to 2018 on the centenary of the First World War, I turned our attention in 2019 to the 80th anniversary of the Second World War.
Eighty years ago this year, 1943, saw the German surrender at Stalingrad in February which was the first major defeat of Hitler's armies. Battle continued to rage in the Atlantic, and one four-day period in March 1943 saw 27 merchant vessels sunk by German U-boats. A combination of long-range aircraft and codebreakers at Bletchley Park, however, were inflicting enormous losses on the U-boats. Towards the end of May Admiral Dönitz withdrew the German fleet from the contested areas, thereby effectively signalling the end of the Battle of the Atlantic.
In mid-May German and Italian forces in North Africa surrendered to the Allies, who used Tunisia as a springboard to invade Sicily in July. By the end of that month Mussolini had fallen, and in September the Italians surrendered to the Allies, prompting a German invasion into northern Italy. Mussolini was audaciously rescued by a German task force and established a fascist republic in the north. German troops also engaged the Allies in the south: the fight through Italy was to prove slow and costly.
In the Pacific, US forces overcame the Japanese at Guadalcanal, and British and Indian troops began their campaign in Burma.
As the Russian advance on the Eastern Front gathered pace, recapturing Kharkov and Kiev from Germany, Allied bombers began to attack German cities in enormous daylight air raids. The opening of the Second Front in Europe was being prepared for the following year.
Jack Holdham joined St Albans School in 1932. He was a strong athlete and a stubborn batsman at cricket. On leaving the School in 1937 he worked for his father as a butcher in Park Street, playing for the village cricket team and singing in the choir of his parish church, Holy Trinity, Frogmore. He joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in 1940, becoming a Wireless Operator, based at RAF Kirkham in Lancashire, part of Coastal Command. He undertook many sorties over Northern Europe, and on one occasion in 1941 was forced to land behind enemy lines, but he managed to repair his plane such that they could fly back to safety. He became seriously ill in February 1943, after being subjected to a ‘toxic inhalation’ whilst flying a sortie over Northern Europe and died of these injuries on 5 April 1943. The Albanian describes how at his funeral the church “was filled to capacity”, in a “striking tribute to (his) popularity”. The inscription on Jack Holdham’s grave reads “Always In Our Thoughts”.
Geoffrey Ray joined the School in 1934 and was a cadet in the Officer Training Corps. His passion being art, he left in 1939 to pursue a career in architecture. His career was cut short as he was called up in 1940, joining the Royal Air Force Reserves. After training he was posted to Bomber Command, serving with 115 Squadron at Witchford in Norfolk, and was involved in several bombing raids over Berlin. The Squadron was involved in trialling several new aircraft, one of which was the Lancaster Bomber. Ray lost his life on the evening of 16 December 1943, when his Lancaster crashed due to an engine failure. This was its first operational flight and the aircraft only had 4 hours of flying time recorded. It was one of more than 50 aircraft lost during the raid as a result of attacks from German fighters, flak guns and the heavy cloud cover during the return flight. Geoffrey Ray is buried in Heemskerk in Northern Holland; his tombstone is inscribed, “Greater Love Hath No Man Than This”.
Geoffrey Ottley attended the School between 1933 and 1939. He showed promise as an athlete, represented the School in rugby and was a Lance Corporal in the Officer Training Corps. After leaving School, he worked at Harpenden Post Office. Called up in August 1940, he joined RAF Bomber Command, training in both the United States and Great Britain. He qualified as a pilot flying the Vickers Wellington aircraft, undertaking several night raids in Europe. He was killed on 26 January 1943: whilst out on a night navigation exercise, flying at low level, his Wellington Bomber crashed into high ground, 20 miles southeast of Ruthin, Denbighshire. His memorial is located at Runnymede.
Reginald Wood came to the School in 1931, staying until the Fourth Form when he moved to Nottingham, attending the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School there, where he continued to show promise on the cricket field. In 1939 he joined the Red Cross until he was old enough to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was sent to France as a despatch and ambulance driver, seeing active service on the northern French coast. Returning from Dunkirk he began officer training at Sandhurst. Whilst on a training exercise at Aldershot, he was knocked off his despatch bike by a tank, becoming entangled in one of its tracks. He died a few days later on 27 January 1943 and is buried at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. One of his fellow cadets wrote that "his cheerfulness and pluck up to the last, set us an example to which we shall try to live up."
Walter Swinnerton joined St Albans School in 1932 at the age of 11. He excelled as a member of the Officer Training Corps, rising to the rank of Sergeant and became a member of the Shooting VIII. He is described, in The Albanian, as having been “very proud of the school and the OTC”. He focused on sciences in the Sixth Form, and after leaving the School in 1938, he began work as a civil engineer for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company.
On the outbreak of war in September 1939 he volunteered immediately for the RAF and was posted to 250 Squadron, serving in the Middle East as well as the campaigns in Libya and Tunisia. In November 1941, he was shot down near Benina aerodrome which was, at the time, in enemy hands. Rather than trying to withdraw immediately from enemy territory he watched as a minefield was laid on the airfield and sketched its position. Once Allied forces had arrived, they were able to render the aerodrome safe by following the sketches that Swinnerton had produced at great risk to his own life. His heroism continued during the War: in one instance he landed near 6 fellow airmen whom he saw walking through the desert. Swinnerton gave them his emergency rations and directed an RAF patrol to retrieve the men, thereby saving their lives. For these acts of heroism Swinnerton was awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross in July 1942 which forms part of his medals that were processed into the Abbey with the Roll of Honour and are now lying on the Altar.
On another occasion he found himself engaged in a dogfight with several Messerschmitt fighter planes, during which Swinnerton was forced into an inverted spin but miraculously managed to land safely. Then for a third time he was forced to land behind enemy lines near Barca in Libya; luckily he was fed and sheltered by a friendly Senussi tribe. A few days later he was able to rejoin the Allied Forces when they advanced and occupied Barca.
On 3 August 1943 Swinnerton lost his life, whilst attacking targets near Mount Etna. During the air sortie he had led a successful attack on an enemy transport convoy and was returning with his Flight at a low level when, as they crossed the enemy front line, the planes were bombarded with flak. His aircraft was hit and crashed into the hillside. His body was found by troops from an English regiment and was buried with full military honours.
Upon Walter’s death, his father expressed to the then Headmaster, William Marsh, that his son would have wished him to make a memorial gift to the School, to which he was so greatly attached. The gift was to be a memorial room to this heroic man and took the form of an oak-lined library and study area, named the Swinnerton Room: it is still in place in the Abbey Gateway and in use today.
The Headmaster, William Marsh, described Swinnerton as “an Old Albanian …. whose record at School, in peace, and on active service, is an inspiration to all.” Within the RAF, he earned himself the nickname of “Laughing Boy” a testament to his good humour despite the danger that he defied during the war.
The inscription on Walter Swinnerton’s grave reads “GOD'S GALLANT YOUNG KNIGHT”.
John Barnett’s time at the School is described in The Albanian “…as rich in performance and in promise for the future.” In the Sixth Form he was described as someone who would have gone far in the scientific world. In the Officer Training Corps he was a keen and efficient Non Commissioned Officer. His love for drama saw him playing leading roles in two School productions; he also represented the School in rugby. He was described as able, energetic and with a happy nature which endeared him to all who knew him. On leaving School in 1939, he joined the Research Department of Laporte Ltd, where he was considered a highly promising trainee. He had already passed the B.Sc. Examination of London University when he joined the Royal Engineers in 1941. He quickly rose through the ranks becoming a Lieutenant in 1942. He saw active service throughout Africa and lost his life at Enfidha in Tunisia, a strategic battle ground for the Allied Forces: Barnett was clearing some mines so that an airfield could be built, when an explosion occurred as a result of which he lost his life on 25 January 1943 at the age of 20.
The Officer Commanding the Field Company to which he belonged wrote at the time that Barnett "… (as always) was helping the other fellows along. He and his men had already contributed in large measure to the success of the action " in which they were engaged, adding " Jimmy B, as we affectionately called him, is a great loss to his Company." The Colonel of the Regiment also wrote to the Headmaster to say " he had done very good work out here and is a great loss to his unit and to all of us."
Gordon Clear entered the School in 1919 at the remarkable age of seven, on a music scholarship. A member of the Cathedral Choir, he was said to have the “most angelic voice”. He left in 1923 to become a chorister at Westminster Abbey, whence he moved to St. Edward's School, Oxford. On leaving there in 1930, he joined the Commercial Union Assurance Company. When the war broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force and obtained his commission in 1942. He became a Flying Officer in 139 Squadron, Bomber Command, the squadron that led the first air attack of the war in 1939, and was based in France until it was overrun by the German advance. In June 1942 the squadron was based in Horsham St Faith in Norfolk. Clear flew the de Havilland Mosquito for the Squadron, flying sorties over Northern Europe.
He won the Distinguished Flying Medal, for his part in an attack on what was described as “the strangest target of war”, the Molybdenite Mines of Knaben in Norway. These mines were strategic targets as the tempering of steel with molybdenum resulted in an alloy with qualities favourable for weapon production. On 3 March 1943, 139 Squadron was detailed to target Molybdenum 1 Plant: the attack necessitated flying over mountainous terrain, which was covered in a blanket of snow, which made all prominent features hard to distinguish. At various points of the raid the formation had to fly through deep ravines and contend with treacherous air currents. Despite the difficult conditions the mine which was hidden away in the mountains was successfully targeted. The military despatches of the time noted that “the success achieved reflects the greatest credit on the efforts of these officers whose high courage and faultless work were worthy of high praise”.
Just seventeen days after this heroic act Clear undertook a night raid to target the Malines Railway Yards in Belgium: after a successful mission his mosquito was hit by flak, which resulted in the loss of an engine and consequently of control of the plane. Clear was killed in a crash as he attempted to land at RAF Martlesham Heath in Suffolk. He is buried at Leverstock Green in Hemel Hempstead and the inscription on his grave reads ‘In Christ shall all be made alive’.
In this annual Service of Remembrance we give thanks for the example of service of all Old Albanians who have served in the Armed Forces, and in particular we honour those who left here, never to return: John Barnett, Gordon Clear, Jack Holdham, Geoffrey Ottley, Geoffrey Ray, Walter Swinnerton, Reginald Wood and 190 of their contemporaries from the Second World War, and 135 OAs from the First World War whose names will shortly be read by the Chaplain and me.
I urge you to view the poppy you are wearing this morning, and the ones that form the wreaths placed at the Altar here that will shortly be laid at the War Memorial, not just as a symbol of passive remembrance but also as a commitment to future action for the greater good of your fellow men and women.
I pray that none of you should ever have to take up arms to fight for your country. But our act of remembrance is an annual opportunity to renew our commitment to fight, metaphorically, for the values that your predecessors gave their lives to protect – liberty, democracy, justice, the rule of law, the triumph of good over evil. As we know from certain events in recent years and currently, those values, and the importance of upholding them, are just as significant to all of us today as they once were to those who have gone before us in this place.
We continue to live in uncertain and challenging times. Our times are, however, less uncertain and less challenging than those of the generations that lived and fought through the two World Wars and those who are currently suffering as a result of war, in particular in Ukraine following the Russian invasion in February 2022 and the Middle East following the barbaric terrorist attacks in Israel last month. So let us ensure that we count our relative blessings while giving thanks for the service and sacrifice of those who have preceded us and whose collective actions and achievements secured the freedom we enjoy to this day.
As is my tradition, I conclude this address by quoting the famous words from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, thereby renewing on all our behalves the School’s commitment to the memory of our Old Albanian war dead, confident in the truth of the final line.
Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes. Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their name liveth for evermore.
With grateful thanks to Sue Gregory, archivist.