The first time I glanced upon St Mary the Virgin church at Portbury was from the M5 going south from Bristol. For this church once probably sat in quieter times than it now sits. That is not to decry the church. Its in a pretty position near the primary school with fields around.
For someone with pretty good historical knowledge, I am always intrigued to improve or extend where my lack of information fails me. And Portbury has two such memorials that compelled me to look further.
In Portbury churchyard lies two memorials to men who were killed in action in both the First and Second World Wars. It also holds the war grave of one man who died in 1920. His name was Private O.E. Haskins who died on the 12th January 1920 age 24, having served for the 15th Gloucestershire Regiment.
But Private Haskins was not that source of intrigue as untimely though his death must have been.
Leading Seaman Kenneth Kean Sleeman Pitt and Second Lieutenant Frank Stanley Arney were both killed overseas fighting in the British forces. And in both cases, places that I knew little or nothing about. The much over-looked and forgotten part of the First World War – the Salonika campaign. As well as an incident that I wish I had known about from World War Two – the attack at St Nazaire.
Kenneth Kean Sleeman Pitt
Let me begin with Kenneth Kean Sleeman Pitt. Kenneth was the youngest son of the vicar of St Georges, Brandon Hill, in Bristol George William Pitt and his wife Emily Mabel. I can tell you that Kenneth was born in Bristol, that he went to Clifton College and then onto Oxford. And then when war was declared in 1939, Kenneth was in theological college in Wales training – it was then that he decided to enlist in the Royal Navy. Mrs Pitt remained in Percival Road, Clifton waiting for news.
In April 1942, Kenneth was declared missing following a raid. By May, Kenneth Kean Sleeman Pitt was officially declared dead, killed in action. The incident he was involved in – the St Nazaire Raid.
It was known as Operation Chariot – the plan to destroy the dry dock, the old gates and any shipping or U-boats in the area at St Nazaire on the west coast of north-west France in order to disrupt Nazi shipping and force them to head into more dangerous waters. The British disguised the old destroyer HMS Campbeltown as a Swastika-emblazoned German warship, stripped it and sealed within it explosives designed to go off on a delayed timer. The plan was simple – send HMS Campbeltown headlong into the dock. HMS Campbeltown accompanied by other smaller boats knew it was a hell of a plan. They would have to navigate down the estuary on a high tide, stealing in by cover of darkness without being spotted as they crossed the Channel by U-boats or others. Commandos accompanied the battleship ready to cause damage and destruction in the port.
John Rafferty was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy. He was 21 years of age when he boarded H.M.M.L. 177, one of a number of quicker-paced motor launchers designed to take the Commandos back to Britain after their raid on St Nazaire. Kenneth Pitt too was on board 177.
Luck was with the British that day, after scraping the bottom of the ship on too shallow parts of the estuary, the naval commanders got within minutes of the dock before Nazi forces shone lights upon the fleet. Within minutes, British commanders raised the ensign and accelerated the ship into the dock. Commandos then flew from the crashed ship and went on the rampage. But the accompanying explosion awoke the Nazi troops in the port town, and the Germans began to rain down weaponry upon the 19 ships in the convoy. 100 commandos were still in the port when they realised they would not make it back to the motor launchers – they committed in that instant to complete their orders, to keep going until they ran out of ammunition and to not surrender unless forced. Five commandos evaded captured, and with the help of French resistance got to Spain and back to Britain.
But what of Kenneth? Most of the motor launches had been destroyed on the way into the estuary, sunk or burning in the water. Some got to the dock to release their Commandos, some were attacked heavily amid the searchlights and gunfire. 177 had managed to take crew off the Campbeltown, they had 50 Commandos on board when they were hit by an explosive shell as they had nearly exited the estuary. It sank spilling men into the water; some to be recovered, some to be lost to the sea.
At noon on the 28th March 1942, HMS Campbeltown’s charges exploded and with it the dry dock. St Nazaire’s dock was put out of commission for the duration of the war.
169 men were killed from 611 men that were in action at St Nazaire. 215 were captured, some from the water. 288 returned to Falmouth in Devon where they had originated. CPO John Rafferty was picked up from the water and spent the war as a Prisoner of War at the Marlag und Milag Nord camp in Germany. His family did not know until much later that he was not dead.
www.expressandstar.com/news/2016/04/25/farewell-to-last-hero-of-st-nazaire-world-war-ii-raid/ accessed 15th April 2018
Leading Seaman Kenneth Kean Sleeman Pitt was killed on the 28th March 1942, aged 26. He was on board Her Majesty’s Motor Launch 177 of the Royal Navy. His body was never identified. He is listed on the Chatham Naval Memorial in Kent joining 8,500 naval personnel from World War One and over 10,000 from World War Two who were lost at sea. His name lives on with them in perpetuity.
Five Victoria Crosses were awarded for that action at St Nazaire. It was nicknamed the Greatest Raid of All Time. There is a memorial in the harbour at Falmouth. It reads:
From this harbour 622 sailors and commandos set sail for the successful raid on St. Nazaire
28th March 1942
168 were killed
5 Victoria Crosses were awarded
Dedicated to the memory of their comrades by the St. Nazaire Society.
The Raid on St Nazaire, 27–28 March 1942
© J. A. Hamilton IWM (Imperial War Museums)
But what of Portbury and Kenneth? His memorial sits on the site of his father’s grave – George William Pitt, Priest. Vicar for 24 years of St Georges, Brandon Hill, Bristol and his mother Emily Mabel. It reads:
Also in loving memory of
L/S Kenneth Kean Sleeman Pitt, Royal Navy
Killed in action St Nazaire
Frank Stanley Arney
24 years earlier, Frank Stanley Arney was fighting in a different war. He had been a territorial before the war before serving as a Private with the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars Yeomanry and then gaining a commission with the Royal Field Artillery on the 12th January 1917 as an officer.
His first action with the Gloucestershire Hussars in April 1915 in Egypt from thence he went on to Gallipoli. A troublesome campaign with too many casualties for words. A campaign which ended in a quiet withdrawal in December 1915 after failed attempts to take the Gallipoli peninsula from the Turkish forces ensconced within the high ridges and deep ravines that made fighting there so difficult. It has almost become a badge of honour – those who survived Gallipoli.
The Gloucestershire Hussars went back to Egypt after Gallipoli in 1916 and Frank’s commission in 1917 and transfer to the Royal Field Artillery meant that he was then sent to one of the little known parts of the Great War. Salonika.
I suspect that even those who may have an idea about the word, may not know where these men ended up. For those who have travelled to Greece, may have ended up at Thessaloniki. This is Salonika. The south-east corner of Greece; on the three-pronged peninsula. This campaign opened up in October 1915 with French forces attempting to push back German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies. The British were less than keen as the campaign carried into 1916.
During 1916, the offensive moved on with the First Battle of Doiran in April and May with little success until the Second Battle of Doiran in September 1918 with a breakthrough by Serbian forces working with the allies. Disease was the major problems – specifically malaria. 160,000 of the 500,000 service personnel who went down with illness was due to malaria.
Frank Arney was killed in action on April 18th 1918. He was 21 years of age.
His parents placed a notice in the local newspaper:
Killed in action, April 18, 2nd Lieutenant F.S. Arney, R.F.A., only dearly-loved son of Mr and Mrs J.H. Arney, 23 Bayswater Avenue, Redland, aged 21 years
He is buried at the Doiran Military Cemetery in the north of Greece near the Macedonia border, not far from the Doiran Lake.
He is remembered on the Bristol Grammar School Roll of Honour, the Royal Gloucestershrie Hussars Yeomanry memorial near Gloucester Cathedral and on a memorial stained glass window at Westbury Park church in Bristol.
On the grave of his mother Annie Adela Hardwick Arney and his father, a memorial reads:
Also of Frank Stanley Arney
2nd Lieutenant R.A.
Their only son
Killed in action in Salonika
April 18th 1918
These kind of men whose memorials lie here at Portbury, fought where sometimes history does not always pull focus. Frank Arney and Kenneth Pitt played their parts at sea and on land. Their bodies never bound for home again. But they were remembered by loved ones, by families who tried to make sure that somewhere close, their names remained even though they did not.
These are the men who never returned from the Great War and the Second World War whose memorials lie at Portbury in North Somerset:
Second World War
Leading Seaman Kenneth Kean Sleeman Pitt
DoB 23rd February 1916 Bristol DoD 28th March 1942 age 26 St Nazaire, France
C/JX 311777 H.M.M.L. 177 Royal Navy
Commemorated: Chatham Naval Memorial, Kent, England
Second Lieutenant Frank Stanley Arney
DoB 1896 Portbury, Somerset DoD 18th April 1918 age 21 Salonika
1st Medium Trench Mortar Battery, Royal Field Artillery
Also served: 2073 Private Gloucestershire Hussars Yeomanry
Buried: Doiran War Cemetery, Greece