Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (11 & 12 December 2013)

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Date of Auction: 11th & 12th December 2013

Sold for £48,000

Estimate: £40,000 - £50,000


Jack Tirrell was first decorated for his coolness under fire in the Blitzkrieg in May 1940, when B.Q.M.S. of ‘L’ Troop, 2nd R.H.A. In the desperate action at Mont des Cats, he and his battery engaged the enemy over open sights until virtually overrun, whereupon they hastily destroyed their guns and made for Dunkirk. As it transpired, Tirrell was to be present in several more actions of the ‘open sight’ variety, for in 1941, and having been commissioned in the Field, he was embarked for the Middle East.

Subsequently going into action with 1st R.H.A. and the Desert Rats in North Africa, he won a brace of M.Cs in less than six months - firstly for turning the tide of battle at El Tamar - today commemorated by an R.H.A. Troop of that name - and secondly for multiple acts of bravery in the battle of El Alamein. Here then a long list of remarkable feats enacted under murderous fire - including further gunnery over open sights, crossing and re-crossing minefields, saving life and guns within 200 or 300 yards of 80 advancing enemy tanks, and observation duties of a particularly forward kind - much to the detriment of Rommel’s anti-tank gunners. At Tobruk, the Australians were so impressed by the courage of Tirrell and his comrades in 1st R.H.A. that they re-titled them the “Royal Horse Australians” - on the basis that such a gallant band of warriors could not have been recruited from mere “Poms”.

But Tirrell was not yet done, for he was present with 3rd R.H.A. in the Allied drive though the Low Countries following the Normandy landings, active employment that led to him being recommended for an immediate D.S.O. for his part in the assault on Susteren in January 1945, when his personal bravery was cited to be of a calibre that ‘will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it’: that it was reduced to another M.C. at Corps level would have amazed the Germans, for prisoners taken on that occasion recounted how the accuracy of the opening barrage had virtually wiped out an entire battalion.

Jack Tirrell may have been a quiet and reticent man, but under fire he was an inspirational leader who changed the tide of battle on numerous occasions - and it is just such men who win wars. He ended his career after lending valuable service to the Arab Legion in the early 1950s, in which capacity he added the title of Bey to his accolades - not that he chose to use it.

The magnificent Second World War M.C. and 2 Bars, D.C.M. group of eight awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel T. J. “Jack” Tirrell, Royal Horse Artillery, one of the most decorated men to emerge from the ranks of the British Army in the last war - one of just 17 such men to win three M.Cs, the addition of his earlier D.C.M. constitutes a unique combination of gallantry awards and reflects an operational record second to none

Military Cross, G.VI.R., with Second and Third Award Bars, the reverse officially dated ‘1943’, and the reverses of the Bars ‘1943’ and ‘1945’ respectively; Distinguished Conduct Medal, G.VI.R. (4743421 W.O. Cl. II T. J. Tirrell, R.A.); 1939-45 Star; Africa Star, clasp, 8th Army; Italy Star; France and Germany Star; Defence and War Medals, M.I.D. oak leaf, contact marks, very fine or better (8) £40000-50000


Provenance: Spink, 18 July 1995 (Lot 298); and Bosleys, 6 November 2013 (Lot 512).

London Gazette 27 August 1940. The original recommendation states:

‘Battery Sergeant-Major T. J. Tirrell did outstanding work as G.P.O. [Gun Position Officer] of ‘L’ Troop throughout the three weeks. He showed great courage on the Mont des Cats on 29 May, continuing to control the fire of the gun under heavy and accurate fire. After all the detachment had been wounded, he went on the gun himself and continued to fire.’

London Gazette 18 February 1943:

‘In recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the Middle East during the period May 1942 to October 1942.’

The original recommendation states:

‘On 2 June 42 at El Tamar, his Battery was attacked by 80 German tanks. When the nearest two enemy tanks were within 400 yards of the Battery, the order was given to withdraw. The Battery was at that time under heavy and close range fire of all arms. Captain Tirrell interposed his own tank successively between the enemy and each gun in order to allow each gun to limber up under cover. In this way all guns remaining in action were successfully withdrawn. Had Captain Tirrell's tank been hit he and his crew would have stood very little chance of getting away. Captain Tirrell's gallant action undoubtedly saved the guns from being overrun by the enemy. Throughout the fighting of this last six months Captain Tirrell has consistently acted with similar gallantry. At the Observation Post he has inflicted very heavy damage to enemy material and personnel. His conduct has been an inspiration not only to his own Battery but to the armed Regiments with whom he has been co-operating.’

Bar to M.C.
London Gazette 25 February 1943:

‘In recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the Middle East.’

The original recommendation states:

‘Captain Tirrell has been a Troop Commander throughout recent operations. His work at the Observation Post has been most outstanding, resulting in the knocking out of at least twelve enemy anti-tank guns, including five 88.mm. D.P. [Dual Purpose] guns, the silencing of three enemy batteries, and the capture intact of one Battery of guns. By his quick eye and decision, by his rapid and correct application of fire, and by his leadership and example, Captain Tirrell not only contributed very materially to the defeat of the enemy, but has also on several occasions saved the Armoured Regiment with which he was working from serious casualties. In addition to this, on the morning of 24 October, when owing to heavy enemy anti-tank and M.G. fire it became necessary to withdraw through a narrow gap in the enemy minefield, Captain Tirrell made two trips through the mines with his tank, carrying wounded to safety. On one of these trips above, 18 badly wounded men were saved, both from the Armoured Regiment and from his own Battery.

On 2 November 1942, a tank of the light Squadron was disabled by anti-tank fire. Captain Tirrell took his own tank in, using ground with the utmost skill, picked up the Officer from the disabled tank and carried him to safety. At the same time Captain Tirrell was able to locate the gun which had caused the damage, and later neutralise it. On the same day he neutralised two 88 mm. D.P. [Dual Purpose] guns, one 50 mm. anti-tank gun and one H.B. [Hostile Battery], in addition to assisting in the capture of a second H.B. and causing heavy casualties to the enemy by well directed harassing fire. It was due to his fine work on this day that it was possible to reach Tel Ed Aqqajir next morning.  At Fuka Captain Tirrell silenced two enemy Batteries which had come into action in the open. By doing so, he enabled our forces to take Fuka escarpment almost without loss. Captain Tirrell's work has been beyond all praise, and has very materially contributed to the present victory.’

Second Bar to M.C. London Gazette 12 April 1945:

‘In recognition of gallant and distinguished services in North West Europe.’

The original recommendation states:

‘During the night 17-18 January 1945, Major Tirrell, commanding ‘D’ Battery R.H.A., was in close support of the 1/5 Battalion, Queen’s for their attack on Susteren. To get to their start line the Battalion had to cross the half-completed bridges between Bakenhoven and Dieteren. A heavy enemy counter-attack developed in the bridge area at this time, holding up the advance of 1/5 Queens. Major Tirrell moved up under heavy small arms and mortar fire and positioned himself in the immediate vicinity of the bridge. He then gave orders to bring down the fire of the Regiment on to the leading enemy infantry, who were by this time within 200 yards of his vehicle. He continued to direct the fire from his vehicle and so successful was this that the enemy counter-attack was broken up with very heavy casualties and the 1/5 Queens were able to continue their advance.

While on the start line for their attack on Susteren the infantry were being fired upon at short range by an S.P. [Self-Propelled] gun. Major Tirrell moved forward to a position where he could observe this gun and despite casualties around him continued to observe and bring down fire until the gun was silenced. He also arranged and controlled a most successful fire-plan for the attack on Susteren.

The attack by the 1/5 Queens on Susteren was successful, but soon after first-light a strong enemy counter-attack of battalion strength, supported by tanks and S.P. guns developed against the part of the town already held by the Queens. Our own tanks had not then been able to cross the last obstacle. Though he was in a forward and exposed position, and under constant mortar and small arms fire, Major Tirrell continued throughout a period of more than an hour to bring down the fire of the supporting artillery group with such accuracy and effect that the counter-attack was held in check and finally driven back.

Throughout this long and difficult operation Major Tirrell showed great coolness and personal bravery. His determination always to be where he could best control the supporting fire undoubtedly played a major part in the success of the various phases. Major Tirrell's magnificent example was a great inspiration to all ranks and will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.’

Mention in despatches London Gazette 10 May 1945:

‘In recognition of gallant and distinguished service in North West Europe.’

Thomas Joseph Tirrell, always known as Jack, was born in October 1909, and enlisted in the Army as a trumpeter, aged 17 years. Having then served in India, he had risen to the rank of Warrant Officer Class 2 in the Royal Horse Artillery by the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, and was embarked for France in L/N Battery, 2nd Regiment, R.H.A.


Here, following the advent of the German onslaught in May 1940, came his baptism of fire, not least atop the Mont des Cats in his battery’s final action on the 29th. An account of the action, based on information supplied by Stanley Chappell, also of ‘L’ Battery, appears in I Fought at Dunkirk, by Mike Rossiter, from which the following extract had been taken:

‘At daybreak German artillery started a bombardment. Columns of infantry moved through the cover of hedges and trees, advancing up the hill. All British artillery opened fire with the big guns, but was unable to prevent the enemy’s remorseless advance and the range got shorter and shorter.

An air raid of Stuka dive-bombers tried to wipe out the artillery. Stanley’s battery was widely spaced and the quads had been parked under trees. They suffered no damage. The another barrage fell on them and during this onslaught the enemy infantry pushed forward. In the last few hours of the engagement the 25-pounders were firing directly at the enemy over open sights. There was no need for Stanley’s plotting skills - he was hauling cartridges and shells to the guns. The Germans were just a thousand yards away down the hill in open countryside, and could be seen moving about. The Battery Sergeant-Major, Tirrell, was coolly and determinedly indicating with his right arm and pointing out targets. The gunlayer was looking down the optical sights, then stepping back to pull the firing handle. For twenty minutes the guns crashed and belched smoke as men in the battery fell, hit by snipers or machine-gun fire. Then the order came to cease fire. There was no accompanying order to limber up. The weapons must not be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy.

A shell was loaded into the breach of each gun as usual, then another was placed in the muzzle. The Sergeant tied a long lanyard to the firing handle and the men in the battery retreated to take cover. There was a shout “Fire” and the concussion of the double blast shook dust into the air and thumped their chests. The guns were ruined, their barrels blasted apart like blackened banana skins. It was a sad sight. Destroying a gun was against all their training as artillerymen. It was a piece of machinery that they had looked after and cleaned with loving affection. Now it was smashed. There was no time to mourn, however.

German artillery had started to get the range of the now useless battery on the hill, and their 105mm. shells landed on the wood. Stan ran for his life and dived for cover just as the next salvo hurtled in ... The Mont was being overrun by the Germans.’

As concluded by General Sir Martin Farndale in The Years of Defeat 1939-41, ‘This was to be the the first of many acts of great gallantry performed by Jack Tirrell who was commissioned in the field after Dunkirk and who was to serve with great distinction in the Western Desert with 1st Regiment R.H.A.’

First M.C.

Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in July 1941, after seeing further action in Greece, Tirrell was next engaged in the battles of “Operation Crusader” in November 1941-January 1942, but it was for subsequent deeds in the summer of 1942, during such battles as Gazala and Mersa Matruh, as an officer in 1st R.H.A., part of 10th Armoured Division, that he won his first M.C. - and, more particularly, as cited above, for the action at El Tamar in the “Cauldron” feature on 2 June 1942.

On that date, 80 tanks of the 21st Panzer Division engulfed 5th Royal Tanks and ‘B’ Battery of 1st R.H.A., the latter’s gun positions being overrun - this the moment that Tirrell placed his tank between the enemy and the battery’s guns, thereby permitting two of them to escape the scene of battle.

By way of illustrating the ferocity of the action, it is worth mentioning that 5th Tanks emerged from the battlefield with just one operative Grant and two Lights. And today the gallantry of Jack Tirrell and the men of ‘B’ Battery, 1st R.H.A. is commemorated by El Tamar Troop, a Targeting Troop currently based at Assaye Barracks, Tidworth.

Second M.C.

His second M.C. was won as a Troop Commander in October-November 1942, namely for the battle of El Alamein and the operations carried out immediately in its wake. And it was on the first night of the battle that he he came to notice for rescuing a number of wounded. C. E. Lucas Phillips takes up the story in Alamein:

‘A few hundred yards ahead a screen of dug-in anti-tank guns in the enemy's main battle position was waiting for them. There was a terrible ‘clang’ as the tank that Moore was leading was hit by a solid shot. He at once ran back to the next tank in the line and guided it round in front of the first. Within a few feet of him it suffered the same fate. He ran back for a third, with a like result.

In the first five minutes six were hit and burning. In a very short time the Rangers had lost sixteen tanks. The markers put up by the sappers were knocked down by shell fire, so that other tanks, trying to open out to a flank, went into the minefield.

Faced with this situation, Flash Kellett tried to call forward the machine gunners of the Buffs, who formed part of his Sherwood Rangers regimental group, to suppress the enemy anti-tank guns. He could get no answer from them on the radio. He therefore summoned his field gunner, Major David Egerton, commanding B Battery, 1st R.H.A., whose O.P. tank, a Honey, was next to his own in the column. Could he, Kellett asked, do anything about those chaps in front?

Egerton, a young Regular officer, looked through his spectacles into the pre-dawn, which was still too dark for discerning anything at a distance but solid, black objects. The intimidating streams of red tracers from the German 50 mm. wove their patterns all around, and the flames of burning tanks glowed on either hand. But all that he could see ahead were the flashes from the enemy's guns, dug in on the reverse slope of a slight fold in the ground, a few hundred yards away. He said:

“I don't think I can do any good, sir, but I'll have a try.” He called his battery into action. They were still in the long column in the Boat minefield lane, between the second and the third squadrons of the Rangers’ tanks. In the confines of the minefield gap it was impossible for the guns to deploy. Captain Peter Jackson, commanding the ‘gun group’, without hesitation decided that the only direction to go was forward.

Pulling the eight 25-pounders of the two Troops out offline, he led them through the din and deployed them in a ‘crash action’ in the open, some 300 yards beyond the minefield, Downham Troop on the right, Sahagon Troop [under Tirrell] on the left. It had all the atmosphere of a horse-artillery action in the old tradition, in front of the whole army. So close were they to the enemy that a German 50 mm. gun was attacked and silenced by Lieutenant Pat Grant with hand grenades.

The two Troops opened fire immediately over open sights, but the only targets they could engage were momentary flashes in the night from unseen weapons. These, as Egerton knew, were poor targets for a gun and fall of shot could not be observed. The shapes of his own guns, however, were dimly silhouetted and began to be more clearly revealed as the sky grew paler. They came at once under heavy fire, from anti-tank artillery, machine-guns and rifles, but resolutely continued to engage.

Egerton's own tank, 200 yards ahead, was hit. Deprived of mobility and communications, he walked back to his battery through the hubbub. He found both Troops to be suffering heavy casualties, men dropping at the guns every minute. They continued to engage, and here and there the flashes began to diminish.

The approaching dawn, however, brought an end to the gallant little action. Seeing the Rangers’ tanks themselves beginning to withdraw to the cover of the ridge, Egerton gave the order: “Cease firing; prepare to withdraw.”

The hump-backed ‘quads’ drove up in the dissolving gloom, led by the Troop-Sergeants with the steadiness of a drill-order. Their distinctive shapes, familiar to the enemy in many a lively action, brought a new access of fire. The quads drove on, wheeled right and left of their Troops, hooked on to their guns and drove back, very fortunate that only one of them was knocked out.

Some twenty wounded still lay out on the ground to be picked up and evacuated. David Mann, leader of Downham Troop, began to do so but was himself mortally wounded. Jack Tirrell, leader of Sahagon, an ex-ranker officer who already wore the ribbons of the M.C. and D.C.M., had better luck and got his wounded out piled high on his Honey. It was almost full daylight and, as the crimson radiation of the approaching sun glowed behind the rocky crest of Miteiriya, the funeral plumes of the smoking tanks were dyed blood-red. When everyone else had vacated the position, Egerton himself and such other officers as remained walked quietly away in the morning light and, as they did so, Jackson was wounded by a 50 mm. shell that burst between him and Egerton.’

The rescue of wounded aside, Tirrell’s aggressive and gallant observation work resulted in the destruction of numerous anti-tank guns. Alamein continues with an account of events on 2 November 1942 - and Tirrell’s part in it:

‘A new factor now came into the situation. At 10.37 Montgomery himself intervened and spoke on the telephone to Roger Peake at Divisional Main Headquarters to enquire about the situation and the locations of units. On being informed of them, he directed that 8th Brigade should be relieved from its role facing north ('I will take care of that,' he said), and should be moved westwards round the southern flank of 2nd Brigade ...

Then, out of the heat haze, the enemy made his attack. From the north-west and west and, to a lesser degree, the south-west also, his squat, black shapes - panzers and Italians - came on in serried lines to the number of about 120. The two forces, which had already been engaged in intermittent combat since dawn, became locked in a grim and exhausting duel in the heat of the day in which tanks, anti-tank guns and field artillery joined with concentrated intensity on both sides. This was the vital battle that might make or break the fortunes of the campaign. The British tanks, well enough sited, and aggressively supported by their artillery, stood their ground and dealt out the most fearful punishment, while from the air, in response to Briggs’s call, repeated attacks were made on a very large concentration of vehicles observed between the tank battlefield and the mosque of Sidi Abd el Rahman to the north-west.

The desert, quivering in the heat haze, became a scene that defies sober description. It can be discerned only as a confused arena clouded by the bursts of high explosive, darkened by the smoke of scores of burning tanks and trucks, lit by the flashes of innumerable guns, shot through by red, green and white tracers, shaken by heavy bombing from the air and deafened by the artillery of both sides. Upon the British forces in the funnel-tanks, infantry and supporting arms -a ‘torrent of shell and shot’ was poured in from three sides. In the words recorded by the sober historian of 9th Lancers, ‘for hours the whack of armour-piercing shot on armour plate was unceasing’. Overhead, fierce conflicts were fought in the air as the Germans twice attempted to attack the British armour with Stukas, only to be fought off by the R.A.F.

The long and violent action continued throughout that suffocating afternoon as the enemy made one attack after another in different sectors. B and C Squadrons of 9th Lancers repulsed no fewer than six determined attacks upon them. Again and again the British tanks ran out of ammunition, and each time the replenishment lorries, with great daring, drove out across the shell-swept ground into the heat and clamour of the conflict. The infantry and anti-tank gunners in whose midst this armoured battle was fought - the Motor Brigade, The Yorkshire Dragoons, the Durhams, the Seaforth and Cameron Brigade - suffered considerably. On one occasion the panzers broke across the infantry front, but were quickly forced to pull back. Everywhere else the enemy was met by an inflexible front.

Tel el Aqqaqir, like Thompson's Post, ranks as a battle within a battle. In this exhausting battering match, the biggest and most critical armoured engagement of the campaign, Von Thoma's panzers and their Italian allies were fought to a standstill. It was the hardest hammering they had so far endured and there was to be only one that was harder. By the end of the action sixty-six or more tanks had fallen to the two British armoured brigades. Others fell to the anti-tank gunners, to the survivors of Currie's brigade and to the field and medium artillery. By the end of that day Rommel's strength in tanks had fallen by approximately 117, of which seventy-seven were German.

It was a crippling loss. The enemy's chances of saving himself from ruin were now small indeed. First Armoured Division had not succeeded in making capital out of the sacrificial attack of 9th Brigade and it had made no ground at all, but it had fulfilled a substantial part of its prime mission of ‘finding and destroying the enemy armour’. It had also knocked out battery after battery of guns and, when the enemy positions were later overrun, the pits were found full of dead and their weapons broken by the accurate fire of the British artillery.

The gunner OPs, pushed right forward among the tanks, had been eagerly calling for fire throughout the day on all manner of targets. Three guns had been knocked out by Jack Tirrell, F.O.O. of B Battery, 1st R.H.A. The Division’s own losses in tanks had been no more than fourteen, with a further forty damaged.

Granted the overall superiority in numbers (which did not necessarily mean a superiority at the points of attack), the British armour fought with skill, courage and excellent leadership at all levels, brilliantly supported by ‘the terrible British artillery’. They thoroughly deserved their impressive victory. Once again, the tank in attack was seen to be helpless against a determined defence.’

Tirrell went on to see further action in Tunisian campaign, when he was present at the battles of Tebaga Gap, Akarit, El Khourzia and Tunis, following which, in May 1944, he was embarked for Italy, where 2nd R.H.A. participated in the fighting on the Gothic Line, including the battle at Coriano. He had meanwhile been advanced to Temporary Major.

Third M.C.

Tirrell won his third M.C. with 3rd R.H.A., part of the 7th Armoured Division, during the Allied rush through the Low Countries in January 1945.

The attack launched on Susteren by 1/5th Queen’s commenced on 16 January, with Tirrell yet again acting in close support as a Forward Observation Officer. Of subsequent events, and in addition to the details cited above, it is worth noting that less than 40 men from on ‘B’ Company of 1/5th Queen’s survived the original assault, being exposed to accurate tank, mortar and Spandau fire - in terms of officers, the C.O. was seriously wounded and the Second-in-Command and all Company Commanders killed.

The following extract, taken from A Short History of 7th Armoured Division, June 1943 to July 1945, describes the final assault on the night of the 17-18 January and, moreover, the devastation caused the enemy by Tirrell’s supporting fire:

‘The night was pitch dark. Each Company and Battalion Headquarters could only take a jeep and a carrier for essential stores and ammunition, and it was impossible even to manhandle the six-pounder anti-tank guns across the dykes in the dark. The crowning trial was a counter-attacks by Spandau teams south down the Vloed Beek from the direction of Susteren. This took place as the leading Company and Battalion Headquarters were making the crossing. A very dangerous situation was saved by the column dropping off Bren gun teams to return the fire, and, above all, by the heavy defensive fire which 3rd Royal Horse Artillery put down on the flank of the leading Company. This was so accurate that prisoners said later that almost all the counter-attacking force was killed or wounded. The Queen’s escaped without a single casualty from this affair and their approach march continued.

By eight o’clock a Company had secured a foothold in the northern part of the village, to be counter-attacked an hour later by approximately a battalion of infantry supported by four tanks and self-propelled guns before the 1st Royal Tanks were able to cross the Vloed Beek to their support. Two of the enemy tanks were knocked out, one by Piat, after which the remaining two withdrew, and the enemy infantry, having suffered casualties from the artillery and small arms fire, withdrew into houses on the approach of ‘B’ Squadron, 1st Royal Tanks. Hard fighting continued and by three o’clock the whole place was clear except the south-west corner, from which the enemy were ejected by last light.’

Tirrell was recommended for an immediate D.S.O., his magnificent example having been a great inspiration to all ranks and one which ‘will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.’ But the award was replaced by a Third Bar to his M.C. at Corps level.

The latter years

After the War, Tirrell served in Germany with 3 R.H.A., and in Hong Kong, and, having been advanced to Lieutenant-Colonel in December 1952, was seconded to the Arab Legion in May 1953, in which capacity he was employed for three years - no doubt accorded the courtesy title of Bey in light of his rank, he would have overseen the establishment of light anti-aircraft and self-propelled gun regiments during a period of rapid expansion of the Legion in the early 1950s.

His final appointment before being placed on the Retired List was as C.O. of a Training Regiment at Kinmel, North Wales.

A quiet, modest and self-reliant man, in retirement he established the Cambrian Horse Society, which he ran successfully for 20 years.

He died in January 1995.