Granddaughter reunited with mystery ‘war hero’ grandfather thanks to poppy trail
- Credit: Archant
A Norwich poppy trail has captured the hearts of hundreds who have walked it this month, but none as much as Glenda Smith.
As part of the Old Catton Remembers trail, produced by the local Royal British Legion branch, a booklet featuring the stories of the 18 fallen during the world wars was delivered to every household in the area.
Ms Smith, of St Faith’s Road, was about to sit down with a cup of coffee to read her copy when the name Walter R. Smith stopped her in her tracks.
And it was then when the 57-year-old was moved to tears as she realised the man’s story she was about to read was that of a grandfather she had never met.
“I moved back to Old Catton just last year to live in the family bungalow where I had grew up as a child,” she said. “If it wasn’t for that move, I probably would not have discovered my grandfather’s story.
“He had died when my father, Norman, was just nine years old, who himself sadly passed away in 2009. All I knew of my grandfather was that he passed of meningitis when my dad was young, and knew at some point they lived on George Hill.”
Bombardier Walter Reuben Smith, had an interesting life story and is the only one of Old Catton’s Second World War fallen heroes to have served in the military three times.
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Named after his father’s younger brother, he was born in March 1901, and was the second youngest of 10 children to Laura Smith and Harry Harvey, a wood and stone carver.
When Walter’s older brothers joined the military from 1905 to 13, he was desperate to follow. So when the war broke out, he lied about his age and joined the army on November 1, 1915, citing his age as 19.
Much to the relief of his mother, in May 1916, aged 15 years old, he was discharged “in consequence of having made a mis-statement as to age on enlistment”. His military character was however, noted as “very good”.
When become of age, he enlisted in the Royal Marines in February 1918 and served with them until November 1922. He also received the British War Medal in September 1922 for his service during the last months of the First World War.
From his record he was described as 5ft 10 with a dark complexion, brown eyes and dark brown hair.
After his service it is believed that he returned to his work in the boot and shoe industry.
He married Grace Eleanor Lightening, six years his junior and the daughter of a mechanic, in St Barnabas Church, Norwich, on August 1, 1927. And on the 1939 register, the couple and their three children, Kenneth, Norman, and Beryl, were living at number 8 George Hill.
Walter was not listed, presumably because he returned to the armed forces, having joined the army in 1938.
He joined the 78th (1st East Anglian) Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery - later known as 78th Heavy Anti-Aircraft (HAA) - in Norwich.
During the Battle of Britain and Blitz, from July 1940 to February 1941, the regiment was split into detachments, covering airfields in East Anglia and the East Midlands.
At some point he went to No 6 HAA Practice Camp where, as an older man, he may have worked as staff.
But what happened next was not so easy to find out.
But thanks to the dogged determination from the Old Catton RBL branch chair and booklet and trail researcher, Lindsay Carruthers, his final moments have finally come to light.
In late March to early April 1941, Walter was taken to Stoke Military Hospital in Plymouth with pneumococcal meningitis - even today, a life-threatening illness. He died on April 6.
Mrs Carruthers thanked “tenacious researcher” Ross McNeill, who looked in vain for a notice of his death on every register across the United Kingdom and Ireland.
She said: “Walter’s death was registered in the name of Wallie Smith, which is highly unusual for an official and legal register. However, a few weeks after his death, Plymouth had suffered the Blitz which destroyed some records.
“It is therefore possible that the original record was destroyed and entered again from fragments and memory.”
She added: “I feel incredibly humbled and pleased that I didn’t give up when I couldn’t find his death record. Connecting with Glenda is the perfect culmination to the last few months of work.”
Ms Smith described her grandfather as “a war hero”.
“Without the book and research, I would not know some of these things about his life which I have learnt today,” she said. “I feel much closer to him and incredibly proud of him.
“I so wish my dad was still alive to see the wonderful tribute to him. He would have loved it.”
This research has been reproduced with the permission of Mrs Carruthers.
The Old Catton Remembers trail has been extended and will remain in place until November 22. Enquiries about the book can be directed to Old Catton Parish Council.