Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (19 & 20 September 2013)

Date of Auction: 19th & 20th September 2013

Sold for £62,000

Estimate: £50,000 - £60,000

Sold by Order of the Family

‘I have been much impressed with the report you sent me indicating the fine work performed by the Land Incident Section since its inception. The work of these officers and ratings, and the cold-bloodied heroism with which they performed it, have been of the highest quality, and have been the cause of saving many lives and homes.’

Winston Churchill to the First Lord of the Admiralty.

The extremely rare and poignant posthumous London Blitz George Cross pair awarded to Ordinary Seaman Bennett Southwell, Royal Navy, a bomb and mine disposal rating who was killed by the detonation of a parachute mine in the East End in October 1940

George Cross (O.S. Bennett Southwell, P/JX 294557, 23rd January 1941), in its Royal Mint case of issue; War Medal 1939-45, together with the official replacement George Cross issued to his family following the theft of the original in 1945, this similarly inscribed and also in its Royal Mint case of issue, extremely fine (3) £50000-60000

Footnote

G.C. London Gazette 23 January 1941:

‘For great gallantry and undaunted devotion to duty.’

Bennett Southwell was born in Rotheram, Yorkshire, in March 1913, and was employed at the hosiery works of N. Corah & Sons Ltd. in Leicestershire - where he met his wife Marion - on the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939.

Called up in July 1940, he joined the Royal Navy as an Ordinary Seaman and, having completed his initial training at
Ganges, volunteered for mine and bomb disposal that September. Tragically, however, his gallant career was short-lived, the incident in which he was killed best being described by his surviving officer, Sub. Lieutenant J. M. C. Easton, R.N.V.R., in Wavy Navy:

‘It was, as I have said, in Hoxton in the East End of London. One morning before breakfast a car took me to the district. As usual, I was greeted by the A.R.P. authorities, and, with my rating [Southwell] by my side, I listened to what information they had. A large area of tenement property had been evacuated and ‘Unexploded Bomb’ notices erected round it.

The tenant of the house, a bit excited and self-important, described what he believed to be the position and size of the mine. Then, supplied with all available information, the rating and I set off down the drab street. Those solitary walks towards the location of a mine always reminded me of the last scenes in the pictures of Charlie Chaplin. I had the feeling that a vast audience was watching the way I walked. It had been a last scene for several men I knew, though such morbid thoughts were absent that day. I was looking for the house described.

It was easily discovered for the mine had crashed through the roof and made a great ragged-edged hole, and the slates littered the street and pavement. It was the usual type of working class home in the East End of London, one of a continuous structure of two-storied, drab erections, more miserable than usual because of the stillness, the emptiness of the houses. Through the windows one saw the miserable interiors, the little proud possessions in ornaments, plants, enlarged and coloured photographs of soldier and sailor sons, the parlour luxuries of poor folk. There was a rigidity and pathos in the long rows of small homes. The shattered roof was an outrage, somehow.

The front door was open and I entered a narrow hall. The thick dust here was familiar and eloquent to me now, and I moved cautiously, in case a too heavy footfall set the mine mechanism going again. The door on my right was the parlour, and stood directly under the hole in the roof. The door was closed, so I turned the handle and pushed gently. It yielded only a few inches and then was held. I did not use force, but sought another entry. Houses of this type had no back doors, so I returned to the street and walked a few houses along. I entered another open door, passed through the house and out by a rear window. Then I climbed over yard walls until I reached the house I sought, and entered its parlour by the simple means of breaking a window and climbing through.

The mine, a Type ‘C’, hung suspended through a hole in the ceiling, its nose within six inches of the floor. Standing close to it, I looked up and saw that the parachute was wrapped partly round a chimney pot and again caught on an ancient iron bedstead in the room above. The reason why the door had not opened was that several planks which had been part of the bedroom floor had been pushed down by the mine. Now they rested with their one end against the door and their other end under the round nose of the mine, so forming a prop. My first task should have been to make an easy escape route, but this would have meant disturbing the mine where it hung, and that was inviting trouble. I decided to dismantle the mine as it hung. I called my rating into the hallway and explained the position. He would remain in the passage and pass me, through the partly opened doorway, whatever tools I required.

The fuse was clear of obstructions, but when I attempted to fit the misnamed safety horns I discovered that the fuse had been damaged, probably as the bomb crashed through the house. The horns would not go into their place. I handed the attachment back to the rating as useless and took the tools for unscrewing the keep ring. The damage to this had jammed it, and, although I exerted as much effort as I could, it would not turn. I had been working to detach this ring for perhaps a minute when the bomb slipped in front of me. There was a sound of falling brickwork as the chimney pot overhead collapsed, and I heard the whirr of the bomb mechanism. Unless I got clear, I had exactly twelve seconds to live.

On such work one had to plan ahead. When I discovered that the door could not be opened without disturbing the mine I had decided on a sequence of movements if the mechanism did become active. Now, to the stimulant of the whirring sound, I grasped and pulled open the door against the weight of the planks, for now it no longer mattered if the mine were disturbed, and I ran. I was through the hall in two leaps. As I emerged from the doorway I saw my rating running down the street to what he, poor devil, thought was safety. I had no time to use distance for safety, and ran across the roadway to a surface air raid shelter opposite where I was. It was a red brick and concrete-roofed structure. I reached it and flung myself on its far side, its bulk between me and the house I had just left. I flung myself tight against it, face down to the ground.

I heard no explosion. It has since been explained to me that if you are near enough to an explosion of such force unconsciousness is upon you before any sound it makes reaches you, which is a merciful thing. I was blinded by the flash that comes split seconds before the explosion, but that was all I experienced.

I do not know what time passed before I became conscious. When I did I knew I was buried deep beneath bricks and mortar and was being suffocated. My head was between my legs, and I guessed my back was broken, but could not move an inch. I was held, imbedded.

Men dug me out eventually. To this day I do not know how long I spent in my grave. Most of that time I was unconscious. The conscious moments are of horror and utter helplessness. Being buried alive is certainly a good example of a living hell, and in the war years to come after 1940 the brave men, women and children of London and all of the other cities and towns, and villages of Britain not only have my sympathies, but some - those who had been buried alive - had my prayers. I really knew the physical and mental torture they endured.

My rating was killed. He was beheaded by the blast. The mine destroyed six streets of working-class homes, and it was six weeks before his body was found among the rubble. He was a brave man and left behind a brave widow. I saw her receive her husband’s decoration from His Majesty the King.’

Captain Currey, R.N., C.O. of the Torpedo & Mining Department at the Admiralty, wrote in the following terms to his widow:

‘Dear Mrs. Southwell

It is with the deepest sympathy I now write to you about the death of your very gallant young husband, Ordinary Seaman B. Southwell.

He was only with me for a very short time before he was killed, but it was sufficient for me to see that he was a very brave and courageous man.

He met his death whilst assisting Sub. Lt. J. M. C. Easton, R.N.V.R., to render safe an enemy parachute mine and had only that morning, 17th October, completed a similar operation most successfully at Russell Court.

You will see by the letters enclosed for your information that the officials of the company concerned were not ungrateful for the work done by your husband and the Sub. Lieutenant.

Our regulations do not permit officers and men receiving decorations for work done by them, hence my reply to Messrs. J. A. Allen & Co.

We have, so far, been unable to find any trace of your husband, but the search is still going on and should we find anything I shall let you know at once.

In the meantime please accept my very deepest sympathy and best wishes for your future.’

Bennett Southwell, who was 27 years of age, and who also left a young son, Michael, is buried in Leicester (Gilroes) Cemetery.

sold with the following original documentation:

(i) The recipient’s Certificate of Registry of Birth, official copy, Rotheram, dated 28 April 1913.

(ii) The recipient’s R.N. Certificate of Service.

(iii) Official telegrams from the Commodore, R.N. Barracks, Portsmouth, the first, sent at 10.22 a.m. on 22 October 1940, stating that an original message sent on the 18th had been delivered to the wrong address, and that it stated Southwell was feared killed by an explosion or falling debris, and the second, sent at 4.45 p.m. that day, confirming that he was now presumed to have been killed on war service; together with a related family telegram.

(iv) Letter of condolence from Captain Currey, R.N., as cited above, together with the aforementioned copied correspondence with J. A. Allen & Co.; and similar communications from the Commodore, R.N. Barracks, Portsmouth, dated 22 October 1940 and the Royal Naval Benevolent Fund, dated 5 November 1940.

(v) Telegrams concerning the recipient’s funeral and the conveyance of his remains to Leicester, together with a R.N.H. Chatham letter stating a grant in aid for the costs of same may be available, dated 18 November 1940; a stamped copy of the invoice from Ginns & Gutteridge Undertakers; and a letter from Captain Currey, R.N., forwarding a case and hat formerly the property of Southwell, dated 25 November 1940.

(vi) Another from the Captain to his widow regarding the recent announcement of the G.C., dated 1 March 1941 (’We would like to pay for your fare to London and back, and arrange accommodation for you whilst in Town; also to provide you with a car to meet you on arrival and escort you to the Palace ... ’), together with a copy of her reply, and Buckingham palace investiture letter, dated 24 September 1941; and Admiralty condolence slip for the recipient’s 1939-45 War Medal.

(vii) Letters to his widow from the Director of Torpedoes & Mining, dated 18 December 1944, and 13 January 1945, forwarding messages of praise received from the First Lord of the Admiralty and Churchill.

(viii) Copied letters regarding the theft of his original G.C., and application for an official replacement made in 1947.