Heart-breaking memories of war disaster resurface in Norfolk

Hero in adversity: Gordon Johnson pictured during his Indian army days between the two world wars.

Hero in adversity: Gordon Johnson pictured during his Indian army days between the two world wars. - Credit: Archant

It was a little-remembered military disaster that sent shockwaves coursing through wartime Norfolk. Steve Snelling tells how a medals sale is stirring painful memories of the Dunkirk-style rescue effort that failed nearly 80 years ago.

Courage for sale: Johnson’s medal group spanning two world wars which is being auctioned next week.

Courage for sale: Johnson’s medal group spanning two world wars which is being auctioned next week. It is headed by the DSO earned while serving with the Royal Norfolk Regiment. - Credit: Archant

Gordon Johnson knew what it was to endure humiliating military disaster. As a young officer fighting in his first battle he participated in one of the British army's worst debacles of the Great War.

But the scale of the reverse suffered on the coast of modern-day Tanzania, when an ineptly-led Anglo-Indian invasion was repulsed by a numerically inferior German Colonial force, was as nothing compared to the magnitude of the defeat which engulfed him a little more than 25 years later.

In the wake of Dunkirk, Johnson was among more than 10,000 British troops cut-off and forced to capitulate after finding themselves trapped, with their backs to the sea, in the tiny French fishing port of St Valery-en-Caux.

Now, nearly eight decades on, memories of one of the darkest episodes in the long history of the Royal Norfolk Regiment are being stirred once again by news that the medals earned by a soldier whose courage was a redeeming quality of wretched defeats in two world wars are coming up for auction.

What Mayfair-based medal dealers Dix Noonan Webb are describing as an 'outstanding' 10-strong group of decorations to the late Major Gordon Saffery Johnson are expected to fetch upwards of £5,000 when they go under the hammer next Wednesday.

They are headed by a Distinguished Service Order which honours not only Johnson's gallant leadership in extremis but the desperate defiance displayed by hundreds of Norfolk territorial soldiers, many of them from towns and villages in the west of the county, whose brave resistance during a fighting retreat was followed by five wretched years as prisoners of war.

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According to associate director Mark Quayle, the medals, which recognise Johnson's consistent bravery during a career spanning more than three decades, will hold special appeal to collectors by virtue of their sheer range.

'With its awards for gallantry and distinguished service in two world wars and medals representing his participation in a number of campaigns in between, from Afghanistan in 1919 to Burma and the North-West Frontier in the 1930s, it is clearly a multi-faceted group, the size of which is testament to the variety of his career over a long period of time.

Defeat and debacle: British and French soldiers march into captivity from the beaches near St Valery

Defeat and debacle: British and French soldiers march into captivity from the beaches near St Valery-en-Caux, scene of one of the worst disasters to befall the Royal Norfolk Regiment during the Second World War. - Credit: Archant

'And that scope, covering so many areas, so many campaigns, undoubtedly makes him, his career and his medals stand out.'

Collecting interest aside, Gordon Johnson's magnificent group of medals represent something much more profound, providing as they do an emotive and enduring link to a catastrophic defeat that touched the lives of hundreds of Norfolk families who received nothing in the way of tangible compensation.

Johnson was one of only a handful of men from the 7th Royal Norfolks whose actions in adversity in June 1940 were officially recognised.

For the professional soldier called out of retirement to fight yet another war, it would prove an ironic climax to a career already marked by considerable distinction.

Born in 1890, Johnson had been commissioned into the Territorial Force in 1912 before transferring as a university graduate to the Indian Army.

A military pioneer by training, his ties to the Royal Norfolk Regiment were unusually short-lived and even more unusually distinguished.

Having survived arduous campaigns in East Africa during the First World War that included the fiasco at Tanga in 1914, he had fought in a number of small-scale conflicts on India's strife-torn borders before bowing out in August 1939.

He was a grey-haired veteran of 48 with an unblemished record and an enviable tally of honours that included a Military Cross, a MBE and a mention in despatches.

End of the road: the smoking ruins of St Valery-en-Caux where Gordon Johnson’s career as a fighting

End of the road: the smoking ruins of St Valery-en-Caux where Gordon Johnson’s career as a fighting soldier effectively ended with an action that earned him a Distinguished Service Order. - Credit: Archant

But he had barely settled back into civilian life when he was suddenly handed an unexpected extension that would bring with it the most challenging period of his prolonged career.

In January 1940, just four months after the outbreak of the Second World War, he was back on active service in the unlikely guise as second-in-command of the 7th Royal Norfolk Regiment, a newly-raised Territorial Army battalion converted, much to the chagrin of its officers, from an infantry to a pioneer unit.

His arrival was greeted with a mixture of amusement and bemusement. Most of the officers thought him too old to be fighting another war. John Wood, a county cricketer turned subaltern, remembered him as 'a nice enough old boy' who seemed a little out of place. 'I recall him ticking me off one day and later apologising, saying 'It's my Indian stomach. I'm apt to get rather heated'.'

Mild-mannered or not, Johnson's engineering experience soon proved invaluable as the 7th Royal Norfolks became the first British pioneer unit posted to the much-vaunted Maginot Line on the Franco-German border.

Johnson the pioneer was in his element, organising the construction of a new system of outposts and strong-points in front of the massive underground fortresses. In a very short time he was placed in charge of 'all field works' in the area occupied by the battalion and when the German Blitzkrieg offensive finally put an end to the so-called Phoney War in May 1940, it fell to him to extricate the unit before it was overrun.

Sadly, his success proved only a short reprieve. By now attached to the 51st Highland Division and separated from the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force which was falling back to Dunkirk, he and the Norfolks found themselves fighting a series of rearguard actions alongside an increasingly beleaguered French army retreating along the Normandy coast.

Hopes of escaping via Le Havre having been blocked by German armour, the Anglo-French force crowded into the port of St Valery-en-Caux where plans were laid for a Dunkirk-style rescue operation.

The Norfolks were tasked with making a last-ditch defence in an effort to delay the enemy advance long enough for the main body to be evacuated.

It was a decision which very nearly cost Johnson his life. While accompanying his commanding officer on a perilous reconnaissance of the ground they were expected to hold, he almost blundered into a force of enemy tanks emerging from a nearby wood and headed for the cliffs overlooking the harbour.

Creeping away unseen, Johnson, together with his CO, spent the next few hours helping man an impromptu roadblock while small arms fire crackled around them.

Luckily for Johnson and the Norfolks there would be no final stand. An untimely sea mist intervened to prevent any large-scale evacuation. Unluckily for the overwhelming majority it spelled the end of their war.

Fewer than 50 soldiers from the battalion escaped to fight another day and Johnson was not among them.

Along with hundreds of local soldiers, he was originally posted as 'missing', his fate remaining unknown until the arrival of a letter from a 'French girl of the Red Cross' confirmed his presence 'in a convoy of prisoners' passing through Lille at the end of June.

Some five years in captivity would follow before he returned home to discover, much to his surprise, that his courageous example in the most trying of circumstances had been recognised with the award of a third gallantry medal, the Distinguished Service Order, second only to the Victoria Cross.

More remarkably, this hero of forlorn struggles in two global conflicts enjoyed a long and peaceful retirement, during which he returned regularly to Norfolk for reunions of his adopted regiment, till his death in 1977 at the grand old age of 86.

To the end he remained characteristically modest about his last and greatest distinction, telling fellow officer Major Eldred Wilson that he 'didn't know what he got the DSO for'. 'As far as he was concerned,' he added, 'he had just done his job.'

Steve Snelling is currently researching and writing a history of the 7th Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment. If you have any letters, diaries, photographs or family information relating to men who served with the unit during the Second World War he would like to hear from you. He can be contacted by email at sjsnelling@sky.com or by telephone on 01603 435624.