John Ernest Head was born in 1918 and prior to the outbreak of World War 2 worked at Messrs Adams Bros Ltd, Raunds. He and his brother Sam, 3 years his elder, were keen members of the Raunds Harriers.
Sam had joined the Navy in late 1938 / early 1939 after a trip to Northampton where his family thought he had gone to watch the “Cobblers”!
John received official notification that, in accordance with the Military Training Act, 1939, he was “required to present himself for military training on Saturday 15th July1939 at the Northamptonshire Regiment Depot in Northampton”, having been medically examined and passed as “Grade One” on 19th June.
With that notification, he also received a travel warrant and a postal order for 4 shillings, being “an advance which will be recovered from your pay”. He duly accepted His Majesty’s invitation and joined the 5th Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment as Private, 5887050, leaving behind his mother in Raunds and fiancée at her home in Rushden.
While he was home on leave in October 1939, he and his mother heard that HMS Royal Oak, on which brother Sam was serving as an Able Seaman, had been sunk by a German U-boat in Scapa Flow.
They, and Sam’s Rushden sweetheart, were therefore much relieved when a telegram was received from the Rear-Admiral, Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, confirming that Sam had survived to tell the tale, unlike two other local men, Able Seaman Ernest Westnutt and 2nd Class Stoker A F Allen of Rushden, who perished.
In January 1940, John, together with five other Raunds pals, embarked for France with the British Expeditionary Force and some weeks later a patrol from their battalion, reported as being the first Territorial unit to have been in direct contact with the enemy, achieved some degree of national fame when they captured a German gramophone!
The newspaper report of the day described the action as follows:
“Led by a young subaltern, the patrol entered an uninhabited village in no-man’s-land. They surrounded a cottage which German soldiers were believed to have used, weapons ready for instant action, and went inside. No enemy was found. The Nazis had evidently departed in a hurry, leaving behind an ancient gramophone and 22 German records.”
Later that year came a much grimmer experience for John and thousands of his colleagues, Dunkirk.
Of the six Raunds pals who had left England that January, only five returned, Dennis Eaton being killed during the mass evacuation, he lies in a cemetery in Belgium.
John, however, did not escape totally unscathed, receiving painful rearguard shrapnel wounds which confined him to Pinder Fields Emergency Hospital in Wakefield, Yorkshire from 26th May until 11th June.
An article in the local press shows a thoughtful looking John above the caption “RaundsSoldier ‘Doing Fine’ In Hospital”, going on to explain that he was “now in a militaryhospital ‘Somewhere in England’ recovering from the effects of wounds received in action”.
John's Dunkirk medal.
On 4th July, after a short period of leave, he was transferred to the 9th Battalion, The Buffs (Royal East Kents) based at Fleet, Hampshire where his unit were housed in an ex maternity home. He remained with The Buffs until the autumn of 1942, and during this period, after a number of promotions, had achieved the rank of Colour Sergeant by January 1942.
By September 1942, he had again been transferred, this time being assigned to the 9th (Tanganyika Territory) Kings African Rifles and he found himself on a ship sailing for South Africa, making landfall on 6th November. After several weeks “resting”, he moved on again for East Africa, joining his unit in Dar-es-Salaam just before Christmas 1942.
Army life in East Africa over the next 3 years or so was varied to say the least.
At one extreme, spending 28 days leave billeted with a chum at the residence of the Governor of Tanganyika and his wife, Sir Brian and Lady Freestone, swimming everyday in the Indian Ocean, waited on by servants, with the war seemingly a million miles away.
This contrasted starkly with a tour of peace keeping duty in Ethiopia, providing a show of strength against the “shifta” rebels, who were intent on ousting the recently reinstated ruler, Haile Salassi.
Shifta was the local name for peasant bandits and they were believed to have been receiving support from over the border in Somalia.
At the end of the war, John’s exemplary conduct and military character were rewarded by him being recommended for a British Empire Medal.
In late December 1945, with the war now over, John set sail for England, arriving home during early January 1946, the military authorities completing his demob on 20th April 1946 when he was transferred to the Army Reserve.
In October 2006, John is still going strong and living in Rushden, sadly his brother Sam was not so fortunate, for despite surviving all that the War could throw at him, he was tragically killed in a road accident in May 1946 – may he continue to rest in peace.
Our thanks go to John Head for sharing his wartime experiences and memorabilia with us at both the Open Morning of 16th September and a subsequent home visit. 10/2006