The ‘mention in despatches’ is arguably the United Kingdom’s oldest form of recognition for gallantry or meritorious service on operations—the inclusion of the names of those worthy of being brought to the attention of the Admiralty or War Office became well-established in the 19th Century. An excellent, early example is the ‘mention’ of Serjeant Moore of His Majesty’s 86th Regiment of Foot for his leadership of a forlorn hope in the assault at Bharuch on 29 August 1803 during the Second Anglo-Maratha War, which appeared in the London Gazette in April 1804.
Unfortunately, in the modern era these awards are also the most difficult to research. Even with information from a recipient’s family, service records and unit war diaries, the reason for the majority of mentions is impossible to determine.
I was contacted recently by the family of a Royal Signals sergeant who received a mention in despatches for his conduct during the Burma campaign in the Second World War. Notwithstanding the wealth of information about him, we have been unable to track down any details of his award but his story is worth telling.
Harry May was born in Glasgow on 22 August 1913. He worked as a clerk and he was a pre-war Territorial Army solder. He had enlisted on 20 April 1939, just after the announcement that the Territorial Amy would be doubled in size, and joined 52nd (Lowland) Divisional Signals. He attended summer camp just prior to the outbreak of war and was mobilised on 2 September and posted to the newly reformed 15th (Scottish) Division. By trade he was an Operator Wireless and Line. In April 1940, he was promoted to Lance Corporal and a bit over a month later to Corporal. In June he was posted again, this time to 2nd Divisional Signals, the unit with which he would see out the rest of the war.
The Division had just escaped from the beaches of Dunkirk and was based now in Yorkshire, where it was refitting and preparing to counter a German invasion. Harry May spent two years in Yorkshire during which time he was introduced to Frances, the sister of one of his friends, Alwyn Simpson. The Simpsons lived on Kirkland Street in Pocklington and Harry and Frances Simpson became a couple.
In December 1941, the war began in the far-east. Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December and, four hours later, attacked Hong Kong. Burma was invaded in January 1942 and by April the British forces had retreated into India. Three British divisions were sent out to reinforce India. Firstly, 70th Division, which was disbanded in 1943 when its units were transferred to Special Force—the Chindits; secondly, 5th Division, which was sent to the Middle East after only three months, and, thirdly, 2nd Division.
The 2nd Division, including the Divisional Signals under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Claude Fairweather, was originally destined for Suez and the 8th Army and it departed the United Kingdom in April 1942 in a large convoy. The convoy, protected by its escorts, sailed far out into the Atlantic and then south to Cape Town, where everyone enjoyed some time ashore. Diverted to India, the Division arrived in Bombay (Mumbai) on 7 June and, after a period of training at Poona (Pune) moved to Ahmednagar where it conducted jungle training until committed to operations in April 1944 as part of 14th Army. Most famously, the Division fought at Kohima and in the actions to open the Imphal Road before taking part in the hard fighting through Burma. The Division was withdrawn to India in March 1945 for refitting.
Harry May’s war ended with his return to India and, with the Division destined for Malaya, he sailed for the United Kingdom on 23 October 1945 and was demobilised in January 1946.
How he earned his mention in despatches is not known. It was published in the London Gazette of 19 September 1946. This large Gazette published the final such list ‘in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in Burma’ and recorded mentions to 245 officers and men of the Corps. The only clue to Harry May’s award may be the small badge on his slouch hat, which indicates that he served at some time with 5th Brigade Signal Section.
To finish off the story I must record that Harry May married his sweetheart Frances Simpson soon after his return from India. They lived in Pocklington, although their first child was born in Glasgow in 1946. Harry May continued to serve in the Territorial Army, earning his Efficiency Medal in 1946 to add to his 1939-45 Star, Burma Star, Defence Medal, and War Medal 1939-45. He was discharged on the completion of his engagement on 10 February 1954. He died in 1969 and he and Frances, who died in 1988, are buried in Pocklington Municipal Cemetery.
Update, August 2019. Having seen the ’52’ badge on Harry May’s slouch hat, Graham Leyland, a former officer of the Corps, got in touch and sent me these photos of ‘D’ Section, 2nd Divisional Signals, taken in India in 1942:
Craig May for the photographs and information about his father.
Graham Leyland for the photos of ‘D’ Section, 2nd Divisional Signals.
1. (Back) London Gazette 7 April 1804. Issue 15691, p 437. For more information see page 434.
2. (Back) Later Chief Signal Officer during the 2nd Chindit Expedition.
3. (Back) Convoy WS18 departed Liverpool and the Clyde on 15 April and sailed via Freetown, Sierra Leone (29 April-4 May) and Capetown/Durban, South Africa (18 May-23 May) to Bombay, arriving on 7 June. See Naval History.
4. (Back) London Gazette 19 September 1946. Issue 37730, p 4697.