In the past week I have lived an historian’s dream. It started on Saturday 11 May when I met the son of Wing Commander Richard Kemp Wildey, DFC. Richard “Dick” Wildey was at Emanuel between 1926 and 1935 and on leaving school joined the RAF. He served in Bomber Command, flying Ops with both 78 and 10 squadrons. Dick died on a mission on 15 October 1942. In the Emanuel School War exhibition in 2014 you will be able to discover Dick’s log books, a selection of his letters (over 150), service papers and his Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), awarded in 1940 for gallantry.
Dick’s brother in-law, twin brother of Dick’s wife, Eileen, was Douglas “Sammy” Hoare, who was an RAF pilot in No. 74 squadron. Douglas crashed over France in May 1940, his Spitfire having encountered enemy fire. He was a POW for four years until his release in the summer of 1944. Douglas spent time in Stalag Luft III, the famous camp which was depicted in the films The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape. Among other photos I have now secured the donation of Douglas’ copy of The History of Emanuel School, by C. W. Scott-Giles, that was sent to him by his parents for a Christmas gift in 1940, whilst he was a POW.
Douglas Hoare, second from right, in Oflag XXIB “Schubin”
On 12 May I discovered another Old Emanuel veteran, having traced his family I am to interview him next week. He won an MC for bomb disposal work in the North African theatre. He has never recorded his memories so this will be a unique encounter. He served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa and Italy, having landed at Taranto, he witnessed the destruction of Monte Cassino and ended up building a hospital in Austria.
On 13 May I was doing some research on the British Library Newspaper Archive website and discovered that John Edgar Burns, son of the famous Liberal MP, John Burns (MP for Battersea and famous early 20th century socialist figure) attended Emanuel (1907-1910) and in the Emanuel archive is a photo of John Edgar as a young man. John Edgar served in the Royal Garrison Artillery in the First World War and suffered from shell shock. After the war he worked for the Imperial War Graves Commission but sadly died at the age of 26 in 1922. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Battersea Rise.
On 15 May I was on board HMS Belfast for a communications workshop given by the Imperial War Museum in preparartion for events commemorating the First World War. In the evening I was in Westminster Hall, meeting the nephew of a Major in the Royal Corps of Signals. He showed me the letters from his uncle concerning his experiences in Burma in the Second World War. The letters include details of the famine in Calcutta during the war and experiences of signalling whilst in combat againt Japanese forces.
On Friday 17 May I received a phone call early in the morning from the cousin of the lead signalman of the St. Nazaire Raid, Seymour Pike. Having met Seymour’s cousin and her husband in the evening I now have copies of all his letters and papers, including a number of photos of him and a very special inscription from Commander R. E. Ryder VC to Seymour’s mother, Mrs. Nicholls in his book on the St. Nazaire Raid (Operation Chariot). Seymour won a Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for the part he played in the Raid and I am now able to tell the story of Seymour’s service career for the first time in over 70 years. Seymour died on board HMS Laforey in 1944.
On Saturday 18 May I received a wonderful letter from another Old Emanuel who I got in contact with a couple of months ago and now have copies of a unique set of photos showing the 579 Army Field Company Royal Engineers building a Bridge near Salerno during the Italian Campaign and also a Bailey bridge being built in 1944.
It’s not every week that you get to discover so many unique aspects of a subject you thoroughly enjoy researching. It has been a privilege to share in these individuals’ life stories. I’m wondering what the next few weeks will bring? Well…another interview with a tank driver, who at the age of 20 was made a Captain and became Technical Officer of ‘C’ Squadron in the Burma Campaign. That will be on 1 June. So a busy few weeks of preparing interview questions, writing for the exhibition catalogue and discovering more about the lives of 1600 Emanuel boys who appear on the School’s First and Second World War Rolls of Service.