Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (1 & 2 March 2017)

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Date of Auction: 1st & 2nd March 2017

Sold for £26,000

Estimate: £20,000 - £26,000

The rare Second War ‘Operation Agreement’ C.G.M. group of six awarded to Sergeant John Povall, 11th Battalion, Royal Marines, awarded for gallantry during the daring seaborne raid on Tobruk on the night of 13/14 September 1942, where he was amongst the first ashore at the head of his men, sweeping aside several enemy machine gun nests at the point of the bayonet ‘which he used with great effect on many occasions’, until hopelessly outnumbered he was finally taken prisoner of war - ‘one of the Seventeen Men of Tobruk’ - Only seven C.G.M’s. awarded to the Royal Marines in World War II

Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, G.VI.R. (PO.X.122 J. Povall. T/Cpl. R.M.); 1939-45 Star; Africa Star; War Medal 1939-45; Royal Navy, L.S. & G.C., G.VI.R., 2nd issue (PO/X.122 J. Povall. Mne. R.M. (Replacement)); Royal Marine Meritorious Service Medal, G.VI.R., 2nd issue (PO.X.122 Sgt. J. Povall. C.G.M. 28.2.1951); together with three prize medals, including one named Royal Tournament silver prize medal for bayonet fighting, dated ‘1939’, generally good very fine (9)


C.G.M. London Gazette 3 August 1943 ‘For gallantry in the face of heavy odds in landings near Tobruk.’ Just seven C.G.M’s. were awarded to the Royal Marines during the Second War.

The published citation states:

‘Corporal Povall was among the first in a party to land, under heavy enemy fire at Tobruk. On getting ashore, he rallied his platoon, proceeded to attack at the head of his men and was largely responsible for establishing a bridgehead among the enemy. Hand to hand fighting followed in which Corporal Povall’s skilful use of his bayonet and rifle was an example which instilled in his men the dash and offensive spirit which enabled them to sweep aside several machine-gun nests and a considerable number of the enemy. His gallantry and outstanding leadership were worthy of the high tradition of the Royal Marines.’

The following slightly more detailed account is taken from the original confidential recommendation submitted by R.M. Group M.N.B.D.O:

‘This N.C.O. landed in the first flight from H.M.S. Sikh at Tobruk on the night of 13/14 September 1942. On approaching the shore the tows came under heavy shell fire and mortar fire from shore positions resulting in many casualties and unforeseen difficulties in landing due to swell on a rocky foreshore.

On getting ashore Sergeant Povall rallied his platoon under heavy fire and was in no small degree responsible for forming a bridgehead. Although realising that the chances of reinforcements from the 2nd flight were negligible, he proceeded to the attack at the head of his men. By his example in the skilful use of his bayonet and rifle in close fighting, he instilled in his troops the dash and offensive spirit which enabled them to sweep aside several machine gun nests and considerable numbers of the enemy, some entrenched in fire positions.

Sergeant Povall by his gallantry, cheerfulness and outstanding leadership set an example in accordance with the highest traditions of the naval service.’

John Povall was born in Wem, Shropshire in August 1907 and enlisted into the Royal Marines in February 1926, giving his trade on enlistment as ‘gardener’. The majority of his service was with the Portsmouth Division aboard a variety of ships and establishments. He was promoted to the rank of Corporal in June 1937 and advanced to Sergeant in March 1941. Povall was serving with the 11th Battalion, Royal Marines during the Raid on Tobruk in which he was injured and taken prisoner of war, before subsequently being repatriated. He was finally discharged ‘physically unfit for Royal Marine Service’ in May 1946.

Operation Agreement

This daring raid was conducted in an attempt to annihilate the vital Axis supply bases located at Tobruk, at a time when Rommel’s Afrika Corps was poised for a final push on Cairo while the legendary Eighth Army showed signs of faltering under the sheer weight of his offensive. By the late summer of 1942, Military Intelligence had set in motion a daring plan for a Battalion of Royal Marines supported by Special Forces and a sizeable Naval Flotilla, to go ashore at night and reap havoc among Tobruk’s supply dumps and local defences. With luck their efforts would relieve the pressure being placed on the hard-pressed Eighth Army and bring about a change of fortune.

In the event, a series of misfortunes resulted in an extremely costly and largely unsuccessful raid, but what has never been in dispute is the superb bravery and fighting spirit of the participants, Povall’s own citation bearing testimony to the close and ferocious nature of their advance.

The following extract from The Marines Were There: The Story of The Royal Marines in the Second World War, by Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, KCMG, gives a good account of Povall’s part in the action:

‘The landing had failed. Less than a hundred men had survived the terrible passage from ship to shore. Their landing craft were smashed. Despair stared them in the face. But in Major Hedley [see original letter included with the lot] the survivors had a leader who personified optimism and who was able to inspire his men with the hope that defies all buffets of adversity. Deploying his little force and valiantly supported by Captain Wright, Lieutenant Powell, Lieutenant Dyall and Sergeant Povall, he led them forward, they soon ran into enemy and, opening fire, they had, in the words of Corporal Hunt, one of the survivors, “occasion to kill many Italians with bayonet and rifle.” [In another published account, Corporal Hunt goes on to say: “I could hear Sergeant Povall well up in the front shouting encouragement and appearing to enjoy himself. He used his bayonet with great effect on many occasions.”]

A little farther on, they found their way blocked by a strongly prepared defence position supported by heavy machine-gun posts. It was here that Major Hedley more than justified his high reputation as a pistol shot. Leading the assault himself, he and Sergeant Povall engaged a section post manned by six Italians. Sergeant Povall shot the first, but before he could reload Major Hedley had finished off the other five with his revolver. Pressing on with all speed in the hope of finding suitable cover before daybreak, they fought their way up the wadi. Then climbing a steep slope swept by fire they succeeded in crossing the skyline and, pushing on into another wadi, found shelter in some caves. Here they planned to remain until nightfall and then to advance again in the hope - after what they had come through a reasonable one - of joining up with British units. There were only seventeen of them left. Many had wounds, but the flame of their courage was undimmed. This time, however, fortune deserted the brave, for in the afternoon Germans in strong force surrounded the caves, and the seventeen were forced to surrender.’

Sold with the following archive of original documentation:

i. Parchment Certificate of Service, detailing all his postings from his enlistment in 1926 until his discharge in 1946.

ii. Typed letter sent on behalf of the Brigadier, Commanding Portsmouth Division, Royal Marines at Eastney Barracks, dated 9 October 1942: ‘I deeply regret to have to confirm that he [Povall] was reported missing following operations in the Middle East on 14th September. There is insufficient evidence at present to show whether your husband may be alive or not...’

iii. Admiralty letter, dated 6 August 1943: ‘I am commanded by my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to inform you that they have learned with great pleasure that, on the advice of the First Lord, the King has been graciously pleased to award you the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for great bravery in the face of heavy odds in landings near Tobruk.’

iv. Admiralty Fleet Orders, dated 12 August 1943 announcing award of C.G.M.

v. Two newspaper cuttings in relation to the award of the C.G.M.

vi. Parchment Certificate of Discharge, dated 18 May 1946.

vii. Letter of reference from Major J. N. Hedley, DSO, dated 8 March 1946: ‘Mr J. Povall, CGM served under me as a Sergt. in my unit for two years. I have always found him to be completely trustworthy and hardworking. His taking charge of his platoon when his officer was killed during my raid on Tobruk, shows conclusive proof that he can take charge of men. Should any prospective employer of Mr Povall require further references I can supply plenty from other officers who, like myself have had the privilege of serving with Sergt. Povall.’

viii. Letter of reference from the Commandant General, Royal Marines, dated 20 January 1946: ‘I have known Sergt. John Povall for a number of years and I have no hesitation in vouching for his honour, courage and loyalty. He is most trustworthy and his honesty is beyond reproach.’

ix. An intriguing letter of reference in relation to a teaching job from A. G. Phillips, dated 1 December 1950, suggesting that Povall may have narrowly missed out on the award of a V.C.: ‘It may interest you to know that Povall was one of the 17 men of Tobruk, although badly injured, his gallantry and leadership against overwhelming odds gained for him the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal. If at the time of his recommendation the authorities had known of the injury sustained by Povall, he would have received the higher award of the Victoria Cross, an effort was made later to amend the award to him, but the original award could not be altered.’