Skip to content ↓

Old Wimbledonians at War - from the College Magazine 1984/5

This article by D Rossi, a Rhetoric boy at the time, featured in the College Magazine 1984/5

In last year's magazine there was an article by a colleague of mine in Rhetoric on notable old boys. Due to his military leanings he chose not to mention our three holders of the Victoria Cross, or any other military men. Since at the present moment anyway, I am the only Rhetorician joining the army, the Gloucestershire Regiment hopefully, I feel it my duty not only to inform and enlighten new boys, but also senior pupils, who are unaware of the bravery and courage which former boys of this college called upon in the heat of battle. 

The first Victoria Cross awarded in World War One went to an old Boy of the College. Lieutenant Maurice J. Dease was involved in the first action by British troops on European soil since Waterloo in 1815. His regiment, the 4th Battalion The Royal Fusiliers, was moving up to positions inside Belgium. It was at the Mons-Conde Canal that they encountered heavy German resistance. Lt. Dease was in command of the detachment holding the railway bridge over the canal. Despite heavy artillery fire and wave after wave of German infantry assaults, he and his men held out. Dease was killed and the only survivor, one Private Godly and he were awarded the Victoria Cross for valour above and beyond the call of duty.

Dease was a graduate of the Army Class. The Army Class was a separate part of the College established in 1898. The Army classes at schools up and down the country were instituted after the famous Cardwell reforms of the army in 1881. These stopped the practice of the purchase of commissions which was to be replaced by the principle of promotion on merit. thus these specialised classes trained young men for the entrance exam into the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. 

The Second old Boy of the College to win the Victoria Cross was Captain Gerald O'Sullivan, who came to the College at the age of ten in 1899 leaving in 1906. After commissioning, he went with his regiment the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers to the Gallipoli Peninsula. It was on the night of July 1st/2nd that Captain O'Sullivan volunteered to lead a party to capture a well-held enemy trench. This mission needed great courage and was completed successfully. Nevertheless, later on that year in August 1915 he was involved in an action which ended in his own death and the award of the Victoria Cross. After a battalion strength attack on a position known as Scimitar Hill heavy enemy fire forced a withdrawal. Captain O'Sullivan seized the initiative and rallied about fifty men who were pinned down in dead around with a cry of "One more charge for for the old Regiment" they charged the enemy. Only one man returned. Dease and O'Sullivan were two of the eighty-six old boys who died in the Great War.

I shall now move on to a man who, although not fighting in a war situation, showed immense bravery and courage. This amazing character was Raymond Cafferata who was at the College from 1911 to 1914. He enlisted in 1914 aged 17 and was commissioned in 1917. He suffered wounds dues war and in 1922 joined the British Palestine Gendarmerie. In August 1929 he and twenty Arab constables were stationed at a Police post at Hebron. This was during the time of one of the many Arab revolts in Palestine. When an Arab mob rose in the town the Arab constables joined them in setting out to slaughter all the Jews in the town. Cafferata at once shot one of the mutineers and ran through the ghetto shooting down Arabs who were in the process of murdering Jewish men, women and children a in a most savage manner. After he had managed to clear the Ghetto are single-handedly, he was confronted by an angry mob of eighty Arabs. Immediately he shot dead the ringleader, an ex-constable who was armed with a sword, with a shot fired straight from the hip. The crowd were in awe of his great courage and immediately surrendered. Another mob, hearing of this great feat, laid down their arms when they heard he was approaching. As a contemporary news report, which was filed by a Reuters man on the spot, states: "He thus saved the lives of numberless Jews and in consequence of his great prowess, has already been named by the Arab "The Man of Lead". Amid press headlines of The Hero of Hebron it was announced to a cheering House of Commons, by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, that his splendid bravery was to be rewarded by the bestowal of the Police Medal for Distinguished Service. By his actions Cafferata had proved himself truly worthy of the label, Hero of Hebron.

Only 10 years were to pass before a second World War broke out and Old Boys of the College were once again to join thousands of their compatriots and fight, not only for Great Britain, but all of the  free world, against Hitler, and the Nazi menace. We can now move on to the most famous of our three Old Boys who won the Victoria Cross. Eugene Esmonde left the College in 1924 for Ireland, he enlisted in the R.A.F. in 1926 and then joined Imperial Airways, clocking up some 500.000 flying hours. He joined the fleet Air Arm in 1937 and flew the Swordfish bi-plane. By 1941 he had risen to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and commanded the Swordfish squadron aboard H.M.S. Victorious. It was in these obsolete yet somehow formidable planes that he and his squadron attacked the battleship Bismarck on 26th May 1941. The attack resulted in one vital hit which crippled the Bismarck allowing the Royal Navy to catch and sink it. For his part in this successful operation he was awarded the DSO.

Esmonde could have won notability for just this deed alone, but his story has not finished yet by any means. His next posting was H.M.S. Ark Royal where again he commanded a swordfish squadron. When the Ark Royal was sunk by U-Boat in December 1941 Esmonde and his squadron managed to fly off all the Swordfish to Gibraltar. At the beginning of 1942 he was commanding No. 825 squadron based in Kent. Their job was to prevent any attempt by escape up the English Channel to Germany. On the morning of 12th February the Squadron received orders to scramble and engage the German ships which had managed to escape detection and were already in the eastern end of the Channel. Esmonde had only six Swordfish serviceable and he knew that his men would be lucky if they came back. Yet he calmly gave his men their orders and six little planes set off in search of the German warships. The Squadron missed their fighter cover rendezvous but pressed home their attack in the face of overwhelming fighter attacks and heavy flack.  Esmonde was one of the first shot down, followed by all five of his fellow crews. Of the 18 men who set out only five survived after being rescued from the sea. All were awarded the DSO or the CGM, Lieutenant Commander Esmonde was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.

There were many other Old Boys who were to be decorated for gallantry and others who rose to high rank. Two other O.W.S stand out in any look at famous or notable achievements. The first is the man who escaped from Colditz Castle twice! Pat Reid was at the College 1923-28 and during the war a Captain in the Royal Army Service Corps. He arrived at Colditz in 1940, and escaped once in 1941 and successfully in 1942. His story, and the that of the famous POW camp is told in his book "The Colditz Story", which was televised a few years ago. Another O.W. managed to shoot down 17 enemy fighters, for which he was awarded his own Spitfire. He was Wing-Commander Michael Lister-Robinson who was at the College from 1925-1929. In his short life he fought in the Battle of Britain at Biggin Hill, one of the most active airfields during the summer of 1940. He was later made Wing-Commander. By the time of his death he had been awarded the distinguished Service order (DSO), the Distinguished the most Flying Cross (DFC) twice and the French Croix de Guerre, the most staggering and tragic thing being that he was only 25 years of age.  Some 58 Old Boys lost their lives in the Second World War. It is sometimes hard to believe that all these brave men I have mentioned were all at one time or another boys at Wimbledon College. They walked down the same corridors that you do everyday they sat in the same classrooms and almost certainly got involved in the same sort of behaviour all school boys do. When they were here they were mostly ordinary chaps, like any College boy of today, except that when called upon by their country to fight. Let us hope and pray that if we are ever called upon we act worthily, but let us pray most of all that no College boy will ever have to lay down his life in war again.

(I would like to thank Dr. M. Whitehead and Mr. A. Poole for their invaluable help in the preparation of this article) 

D.Rossi   Rhetoric