“Are you coming to the Remembrance Parade this year?” my ex- Lancashire Fusilier mate asked.
“Yes of course, why?”
Darren (known as Daz) is the local British Legion rep and had tried, unsuccessfully, to get me involved in committees. I’m not really a committee type of person, so I wriggled out of it, but offered help in any other way, more hands on stuff, whenever he needed it, because he did so much for ex-servicemen. He had just finished working on a commemorative garden in the town. He was always up so something. It was nearing ‘poppy day’ and I knew he had stuff planned to commemorate the ending of the First World War. In 2014 he had got loads of local lads dressed in World War One uniforms and recreated the day that local lads, Lancashire Pals, formed up outside the drill hall in Todmorden, and marched off to Rochdale, and then to war, some never to be seen again. I assumed he was about to ask for hand with something to do with that.
“It’s just that one of your lot will be there, and he’s getting on a bit, so it might be his last”.
“One of my lot, what do you mean?”
“Commando, a proper one, he knew the Cockleshell Heroes!”
“You’re joking!” I said “Here, in Tod?”
“Yeah he’s from here”
“How come I didn’t know about this before?”
I stared at him
“Sorry, I didn’t realise it was that important to you”
I watched with a lump in my throat as this old and very smartly dressed man gently broke free of his helper, shuffled forward and laid a wreath on the local war memorial, hundreds of respectful eyes upon him. Two younger ex-marines stood by, just behind him, keeping on eye on things.
His medals were too many for his frail chest and hung down off his slightly baggy suit, but I suspected this was not always the case. He proudly wore his green ‘lid’, his commando beret. Not all his medals were British I was told. How many incredible stories were pinned to this old man’s chest? What things had he witnessed? How many mates had he lost? What had he given for us?
Corporal Robert Johnson RM PO/X2929RM
(see note below concerning this photograph)
Many of us have made a promise to remember, so let me tell you a little about Bob.
Bob joined the marines in 1938 and served until 1952.
Pass-out photo of his troop at the end of training
He was promoted to Corporal in 1942 and then Sargent in 1943.
He served in several units including 40 Commando RM, the first full Commando unit (formed 1942) and made up entirely from volunteers.
As well as his many soldiering exploits he served upon several ships including H.M.S. Eagle (1939-1941), H.M.S. Duke of York (1947-949) and H.M.S. Unicorn (1950-1951).
He operated landing craft.
He was a small arms expert and sniper.
He became a Fleet Air Arm pilot and was trained on ‘Swordfish’ torpedo bi-planes and gliders.
His own hand written note summarises, in a very minimalistic way, some of his service:
An article from Todmorden News about Bob
After his military service Bob became a fireman and also worked at an undertakers, and in the local Library. He became a member of MENSA, having an IQ of 126 (Gifted or ‘Very Superior Intelligence’). He went to college to get an ‘O’ level in English literature and learnt marquetry and calligraphy. He also played bowls, got a Certificate of Merit for Life Saving, and participated in local Tai Chi classes.
A man of many talents!
It’s been difficult over the last few days to piece together scraps of information about his military career into a logical order but here’s a few things I’ve learnt about his wartime activities:
– He took part in the Atlantic convoys.
– He married (Mary) in 1941 and found time to have 4 kids.
– He took part in the terrible Dieppe Raid (possibly with 40 CDO) in 1942 (19th August).
– He operated behind enemy lines in Africa.
– There are rumours that he was involved in secret operations like Operation Frankton
– He survived the assault on Sword beach on D Day (June 1944) possibly as a member of 4 Commando (1st Special Service Brigade) (4 CDO landed, with French commandos, 30 minutes before the main attack, to secure the beachhead, to protect its flanks, and to link up with Airborne forces miles inland (Pegasus Bridge), enduring 50% casualties). Bob initially operated a landing craft (carrying of fuel for the landing forces) and then joined ground forces onshore.
– He fought at the battle for Caen, France (June-August 1944).
This is a document issued by Dwight Eisenhower to all D Day troops. Bob carried his in his breast pocket during D Day and some of the stains on the document are his blood.
D-Day document issued to troops
It’s a while since I’ve worn a green beret and mine sadly went missing a long time ago in one of my many job/house moves, or in a flood. But for Bob’s funeral I bought a new one. The first one took six months to get and I had to go through hell to get it. This one took three days and was ordered on eBay with a couple of clicks of a mouse. But it’s not the beret that’s important, but the man beneath it, and I am honoured to be able to proudly wear the same one as men like Robert Johnson.
And so another old man passes from amongst us.
But not all old men are heros.
Rest in peace Bob.
Notes concerning photograph of Bob in uniform.
added 9th November 2018
I initially believed that this photograph was taken in 1942 or 1943 due to his rank however, following an inquiry from a historian regarding Bob’s wearing of a Royal Marines Band uniform I decided to look into it as I couldn’t believe that Bob found the time to also play in the band. I got in touch with another historian who was very helpful. This was his response and makes fascinating reading:
“I believe that the approximate date for the image in question is incorrect. He is wearing his WW2 campaign medals which would not have been issued until 1946/1947. Yes this could well be a ‘bandy’ uniform but there is no way that Bob Johnson would have served in the RMBS and done everything that you describe in your tribute article. Returning to my earlier statement; a friend of mine sent me an image of himself that showed him wearing the same type of tunic. It later transpired that he had gone into a Plymouth photographer’s studio and, because my friend had not yet been issued with a tunic, the photographer loaned him a tunic and helmet that he kept for that exact eventuality. The tunic is the full dress tunic issued in 1923 when the RMA and RMLI were amalgamated. It was withdrawn in 1940, as were helmets, and that pattern tunic was never used again. Helmets were reissued in 1951 as was the new style tunic. Therefore everything points to the photograph being taken between 1946 and 1951 with Bob either using a tunic borrowed from a bandy (theirs were reissued earlier than 1951) or finding, like my friend, a photographer who kept one as a prop!
So it seems that Bob may have borrowed a uniform and is attempting to hide his corporals stripes when you would expect him to proud of them, because he was in fact a sergeant. Also, on closer inspection, the collar does seem a little loose.
The funeral service of Robert Johnson will take place on Thursday 8th November at 13.45 2018 – at Warburtons Funeral Care, The Old School Chapel, Broadstone Street, Off Cross-Stone Road, Todmorden, OL14 8BP (01706 813329)
Cremation 15.00 hrs at Burnley crematorium,
Wake afterwards at the United Services Club , ( Royal British Legion HQ) ) White Hart Fold , Todmorden at 16.00
Links To Supporting Information
WW2 Commandos – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-P1ZwILM0Og
The Story of The Green Beret (1945) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEbkxgDIGH0
40 DCO RM – http://www.commandoveterans.org/40RMCommando
Commandos Training in Cornwall WWII (features 4 Commando) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F11UABufuos
4 Commando – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7E1vMzzIm8E
4 Commando – Lofoten Raid – The 1st Commando Raid – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQhD8H0W9B8