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Portsmouth's World War Two Heroes
Stories of the Fallen Men and Women
By James Daly
The History PressCopyright © 2012 James Daly
All rights reserved.
'Duty nobly done': Chie Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC
Most people would assume that to earn one of the country's highest decorations for bravery, the winner must have fought in the maelstrom of battle and killed scores of the enemy. Yet remarkably, not only did Reg Ellingworth never fire a shot in anger, but he never even left Britain. Yet the courage and devotion to duty that he showed was perhaps the most impressive of all.
Reginald Vincent Ellingworth was born in Wolverhampton on 28 January 1898, the son of Frank and Kate Ellingworth. Early twentieth-century Wolverhampton was home to a number of car manufacturers, and after leaving school Reg Ellingworth worked as a motorcar body maker. His career in the motor industry was short-lived, however, because at the age of 16 Ellingworth joined the Royal Navy as a boy seaman. He enlisted in 1913, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. His service record states that he was just over 5ft 3in tall, with brown hair and grey eyes. He was initially rated as a boy second class.
Ellingworth's initial service was spent on the training hulks HMS Impregnable and HMS Powerful, both moored in Plymouth. After several years of training, he was promoted to boy seaman first class, and in 1914 was posted to HMS Benbow, an Iron Duke-class battleship, on which he was present at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Whilst on the Benbow Ellingworth reached the age of 18 in January 1916, and joined the Royal Navy fully for an engagement of twelve years. Shortly afterwards, in March 1916, he was promoted to able seaman.
In July 1917, when Ellingworth was still only 19, he transferred from HMS Benbow to HMS Dolphin, the Royal Navy submarine establishment at Gosport, and in December 1917 joined the crew of submarine L2. The submarine was still in its infancy as a mode of warfare and early submarines were small and dangerous, while their crews were part of a close-knit community. The early submarines were given numbers rather than names, and the depot ships to which they were attached carried the HMS prefix. Accordingly, in December 1917, L2 was attached to HMS Ambrosia, and then in September 1919 to HMS Titania. Also in 1919, Ellingworth married his first wife, Rose, in Barrow-in-Furness. The Vickers shipbuilding yard in Barrow was a centre for submarine construction, and perhaps this is why Ellingworth was there.
Ellingworth's early years in the Royal Navy were mainly spent on board submarines and submarine depot ships, apart from several years on board HMS Benbow and the deployment to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on board HMS Serafin. He also spent several spells at shore establishments such as HMS Dolphin, HMS Vernon and HMS Victory.
He was obviously happy serving in the Royal Navy, for in 1927 he had re-engaged for a further period of service. By then, at the age of 29, he had grown to 5ft 10in, and had tattoos on both arms – a hallmark of a career sailor. After his first wife died at the young age of 24, Ellingworth married his second wife Jessie in Portsmouth in 1925.
Unfortunately, Ellingworth's service record is only available up until 1928. By that time he was a petty officer, and had settled in Portsmouth with a family. He was well on the way to becoming the kind of experienced, long-serving sailor that formed the backbone of the Royal Navy in wartime. A high proportion of the sailors from Portsmouth who served in the Second World War were older men, many of whom had also served in the First World War. Many – such as Ellingworth – did not originally come from Portsmouth, but had settled there after joining the Royal Navy. This shows just how transient Portsmouth society was, with people coming from all over Britain – and beyond – to serve in the Royal Navy. From 1934 onwards Reg Ellingworth and his family were living at 187 Powerscourt Road in Copnor, and some time in 1939 or 1940 his family moved to 362 Copnor Road.
It is not surprising that, having spent much of his career on board submarines, and having already been based at HMS Vernon on several occasions, Ellingworth was seconded to work in mine warfare. HMS Vernon was the Royal Navy's Torpedo and Mine Warfare School, and it had also assumed responsibility for defusing enemy mines.
Bomb disposal in Britain during the Second World War began in a fragmentary state, with no agreement between the armed services as to who would deal with what. After much discussion, it was decided that the Royal Air Force would take responsibility for bombs that landed on airfields, the Royal Navy for bombs that landed in dockyards and in water up to the high-tide mark, while the Royal Engineers would dispose of bombs that landed anywhere else. The one notable exception, however, was when the Luftwaffe began dropping magnetic sea mines on land by parachute during the summer and autumn of 1940, and the Royal Navy's Rendering Mines Safe (RMS) experts were called upon due to their experience of handling mines. Guidelines laid down by the War Office and the Admiralty stated that whilst parties of naval personnel were responsible for disarming mines, Royal Engineers bomb disposal squads were to carry out any digging required and then dispose of the mines once they had been made safe.
Unexploded bombs and mines came in two forms: bombs that failed to detonate successfully and those that were deliberately set to explode after a delay. Both could be extremely hazardous and disruptive to civilians and the emergency services, and not least to the men who were detailed to dispose of them. One historian has referred to parachute mines as 'the most fearsome weapon of the Blitz'. The manner in which they slowly floated to earth meant that they were impossible to drop with any accuracy; hence the destruction that they caused was completely random. The need to cordon off and evacuate areas around unexploded mines caused severe disruption, and the demands on navy, army and air force bomb disposal crews were extremely heavy during the German air attacks on British towns and cities in 1940. The RMS department from HMS Vernon consisted of twelve teams, each of one officer and a senior rating as his assistant. Reg Ellingworth served as assistant to Lieutenant Commander Richard Ryan. Although Ryan was the senior officer, the two men always faced the same dangers – any mine that might have exploded would make no distinction between the officer and his assistant.
Ryan and Ellingworth did not have long to wait to tackle their first mines. On 30 April 1940 a German 'accidental' air raid on Clacton, Essex, caused the first civilian deaths in Britain from enemy action. The intention of a lone Heinkel bomber had been to attack shipping by dropping mines in the Thames Estuary, but due to thick fog the two mines were dropped on Clacton, and after being engaged by anti-aircraft guns the Heinkel crashed. One of the mines exploded, killing and injuring many. During the next day the emergency services worked to clear the damage, and found what they believed to be a hot-water cylinder in one house. One of the rescue workers noticed German writing on the 'cylinder'. The Royal Navy were called, and Lieutenant Commander Ryan and Chief Petty Officer Ellingworth identified it as a new 'C'-type parachute mine, which was safely defused and taken away for further examination. The mine recovered at Clacton was, in fact, the first example of a 'C'-type mine to be captured and defused intact, and by rendering it safe Ryan and Ellingworth had given experts the opportunity to examine it and work out how to counter it. Their actions at Clacton saved many lives by uncovering the mine's secrets.
The two men went on to defuse hundreds of bombs and mines together throughout 1940, earning a reputation for bravery and coolness in the face of danger. Defusing mines was clearly an incredibly dangerous duty – on 6 August 1940 a booby-trapped mine exploded whilst being examined in a shed at HMS Vernon, killing one officer and four ratings.
The fuse presented the biggest hazard in attempting to render a mine safe. Within the fuse itself an arming clock controlled the timing of the explosion, usually around twenty-two seconds after landing. Even more dangerous, however, was the possibility of the mine failing to go off at all, which meant that the fuse might have been delayed and might then re-activate at any time. Any sudden movement – such as those typically required to dispose of an unexploded mine – might cause a detonation. In this event, both Ryan and Ellingworth would have known that they would probably have had a maximum of twenty-two seconds, which was nowhere near enough time to escape out of the blast zone. As the mines were magnetic, no metal – including tools – could be brought near them whilst still live. Information passed to Air Raid Precaution personnel by the Ministry of Home Security suggests that parachute mines took on average forty-five minutes to defuse, depending on whether access was difficult or whether any digging was involved. Gradually, the Germans also fitted anti-handling fuses to their mines in order to prevent them being captured intact. The message was clear and chilling – the Germans were trying to kill the bomb disposal men themselves.
Most of the early mines dealt with by the Royal Navy had been dropped on land in error, but on 17 September 1940 the Germans suddenly began to drop large numbers of 'C'-type mines on land deliberately as part of the Blitz. Between 17 September and 22 October 1940, 318 parachute mines were dropped on Britain, mainly on London and the East Coast. The Home Office estimated that about half of them did not explode. This new wave of mines was deemed so serious that Winston Churchill ordered the Chiefs of Staff to consider retaliatory mine attacks on German towns and cities. Later in October 1940, Churchill admitted in a memo that 'it is true that we have been much vexed by the issue of parachute mines'.
There were initial concerns that the Germans were attempting to mine the River Thames, but that their aircraft were baulking in the face of anti-aircraft defences and jettisoning their mines on land. This, however, proved not to be the case – their dropping on land was a deliberate new tactic. Immediately after the new wave of parachute mines in September 1940, the War Cabinet ordered that press reports regarding them should be blocked. This was partly to prevent the Germans from realising just how destructive they were, but also to keep secret the fact that many of them had not exploded, and that the RMS teams were working on defusing them. Royal Navy teams from HMS Vernon were routinely called in to deal with defusing sea mines that had been dropped on land, and from mid-September Ryan and Ellingworth were based in London, staying at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall.
Ellingworth worked mainly with Lieutenant Commander Ryan, although in one incident he worked with Lieutenant C.A. Hodges to make safe a magnetic mine that had fallen on oyster beds in Whitstable, Kent. Ryan and Ellingworth made an excellent team and they worked on unexploded mines throughout the summer of 1940, as far away as Liverpool, Sheffield and Cardiff, but mainly in London and its surrounding area. In another notable incident, Ryan and Ellingworth worked on and defused six magnetic mines. One of them had fallen into a canal and Ryan waded in up to his waist, fumbling in the thick mud before managing to locate the mine and neutralise the fuse.
In an incident at Hornchurch, Essex, Ryan and Ellingworth safely defused a mine that had landed near an RAF airfield and a munitions factory. They had been called urgently by the station commander, Wing Commander Cecil Bouchier and his recollections tell us much about their work:
It was a fearsomely long oblong cylindrical object, nearly half as long as a petrol tanker lorry on the road. I watched him [Ryan] rope off a large area ... thereafter I watched his slow approach along to the forbidding object where he put his stethoscope to it. Then after a long while, with great patience and careful, sensitive fingers, he withdrew from the 'block busting' monster its timing device and detonator which he later handed to me as a souvenir ... Had it gone off it would have blown much of my Hornchurch station to bits. When I thanked him he said that he could not stop for a drink or a meal. He had to hurry to Dagenham nearby ...
Ryan and Ellingworth went straight from Hornchurch to Dagenham, where on 21 September 1940 the Luftwaffe had launched a heavy bombing raid. Along with the usual high-explosive and incendiary bombs, a number of parachute mines were also dropped. Two RMS teams were sent to Dagenham: Ryan and Ellingworth, and Commander R.V. Moore and his assistant. Ryan and Ellingworth went to tackle a parachute mine suspended from the roof of a house in Oval Road. Mr J. Millar was a schoolboy at the time:
We came out of the Anderson shelter and we were told by the Police and ARP wardens that the whole district had to be evacuated ... For some reason or other we were rather late in evacuating our house and everybody else had gone and the streets were cordoned off while the bomb disposal team went to work ... I decided that I wanted to have a look at the landmine so I nipped out of the house and bypassed the Police barricades by going through the back entries ... I was able to look at the bomb disposal team starting to work on the mine ... I was very impressed with their calmness ...
Millar was almost certainly one of the last people to see Ryan and Ellingworth alive. Many sources state that the building was a warehouse, but Mr A.W. Snow, a paperboy in Dagenham at the time who lived in Oval Road North, has confirmed that the mine fell on a row of houses. Millar states that there were no warehouses in Oval Road North, and that the parachute was dangling from the pointed roof of a house, level with the first-floor bedroom and about 2ft from the floor.
The way in which the mine was hanging precariously made its fuse dangerously unstable and very difficult to work on. The area was cordoned off and inhabitants were evacuated to a nearby special school. No doubt Ryan and Ellingworth were working out how to approach the task of defusing it when it suddenly exploded. Both were killed instantly. The blast was huge – a photograph published in the Barking and Dagenham Recorder shows houses on the other side of the road with their fronts completely blown in. The house where the mine had been hanging was completely destroyed, and all of the houses for several hundred yards had suffered severe damage. Parachute mines routinely caused more damage than conventional bombs, as their slow descent prevented them from burrowing into the ground, and as a result the blast was not absorbed by the surrounding earth.
Commander Moore and his assistant heard the blast just as they had finished work on their mine in New Road. Moore later told how he was the first person to see Ryan and Ellingworth's bodies and even though Ellingworth had been in close proximity to the mine when it exploded, he 'had a proper smile on his face' and Moore was quite sure that he had died a happy man.
On 24 September 1940 – by coincidence the very same day that the George Cross was instituted as an award for actions which are not in the face of the enemy – Ellingworth's death was announced in the Portsmouth Evening News. The notice from his wife read:
... On the 21st of September, very suddenly whilst serving his country, Reginald Vincent, C.P.O., R.N., H.M.S. Vernon, my devoted husband and best of dads, passed away ... Duty nobly done, dear. A blow too deep for words.
There were also a number of tributes from other friends and family:
... In memory of Reg, died Sept. 21st. One of the best. Gone on his last commission – Kath and Fred.
... To the memory of Reg, a brave man who gave his life that others might live – Dick and Mrs Salter.
In loving memory of dear Reg, so suddenly taken from us, age 42. Deeply regretted by his loving mother-in-law A.E. Phillips, of Strode Road, and his brothers-in-law, all serving. His life given for others.
As a long-serving sailor who had made Portsmouth his home, Ellingworth's loss was obviously felt by many in the city who knew him. His widow's 'Thanks for Sympathy' notice in the Evening News on 4 October 1940 referred to the sentiments his death had been met with:
Mrs Ellingworth and family of 362 Copnor Road wish sincerely to thank all relatives, neighbours, friends of Powerscourt Road, Mr Privett of Copnor Road, for their great kindness, the Chaplains of H.M.S. Vernon and R.N. Barracks for their deep sympathy, the Captain and Commander of H.M.S. Vernon, the Commanding Officers of the mining school, the C.P.O.'s of the mess ... and many friends of Reg's for their great kindness and sympathy to me, also for numerous letters and for beautiful floral tributes. I thank you, one and all. The day thou Gavest, Lord, is ended.
For continual bravery in the face of danger over a prolonged period, both Ryan and Ellingworth were posthumously nominated for the George Cross. Many of the first awards of the George Cross were made to bomb disposal men who served during the Blitz of 1940 – ten out of the original twenty-four RMS men from HMS Vernon were awarded either the George Cross or the George Medal. Reginald Ellingworth was buried in Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth, and his headstone bears the insignia of the George Cross.
Excerpted from Portsmouth's World War Two Heroes by James Daly. Copyright © 2012 James Daly. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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