The newspaper photograph shows a young boy, eight years old, fists clenched, dressed in khaki battle dress. On his head, pushed back, is a soldier's cap with DLI badge. Standing by his side is a woman, his mother, dressed all in black. She is holding a cross against the boy's left breast pocket. Tt is 4th March 1943. Dorothy Wakenshaw and her son, Thomas, are outside the gates of Buckingham Palace and King George VI has just presented her with the Victoria Cross awarded to her husband, Adam. Her husband, though, is not with her. He lies in his grave in Egypt. For he was killed by the very act for which he gained the Victoria Cross - the last soldier of The Durham Light Infantry to gain this supreme award.
Adam was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 9th June 1914, the youngest of six children of Thomas and Mary Wakenshaw to survive childhood. Thomas was a labourer and the family struggled constantly against poverty and hardship. At fourteen, Adam left St Abysms' RC Boys School to work underground at Elswick pit. In 1932, aged eighteen years, he married Dorothy Ann Douglass. By 1939, they had three children, John, Thomas and Lilian and were living at 16 Duke Street, Newcastle upon Tyne.
When the Second World War began in September 1939, Adam Wakenshaw left his labouring job and joined the Army. In 1940, the British Expeditionary Force was defeated and forced to retreat to Dunkirk. 4270383 Private Adam Wakenshaw, though wounded, was one of the soldiers who escaped. His unit was the 9th Battalion DLI - the same Territorial battalion that had seen Thomas Young and Roland Boys Bradford both awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War.
In February 1941, John Wakenshaw, aged just seven years, was killed in a road accident near his home. His father was given a few days compassionate leave to return home to Newcastle. It was the last time that Dorothy saw her husband.
On 21st June 1942, Tobruk fell as the German Army in North Africa pushed east towards Alexandria and the Suez Canal. At Mersa Matruh on the Egyptian coast, the British Eighth Army tried to halt the German advance. Before dawn on 27th June, the German 90th Light Division moved against the 151st (Durham) Brigade of the 50th Division. The blow landed first on the 9th Battalion DLL The battalion occupied a small plateau, Point 174, about seventeen miles south of Mersa Matruh, where the ground was flat and rocky, making it impossible for the soldiers to dig-in. Instead, the men lay behind boulders or small, quickly-built stone walls. Before them on the gentle forward slope were 9 DLI's 2-pounder anti-tank guns. Each of the four guns had its own crew. Their morale was high. All had been highly trained. One crew included Private Adam Wakenshaw.
About 5.15am, the German infantry attacked supported by tanks and artillery. As they advanced, a tracked vehicle towing a light gun came to within close range of Private Wakenshaw's anti-tank gun. The 2-pounder gun opened fire and a direct hit on the vehicle's engine stopped it dead. Then another German mobile gun opened fire, and all the Durhams manning the 2-pounders, including Adam Wakenshaw, were killed or seriously wounded.
With the anti-tank guns silenced and the gun positions swept by intense mortar and shell fire, the Germans moved forward towards the damaged tracked vehicle. If the light gun could be brought into action, 9 DLI's infantry lay only two hundred yards away. This movement, however, was seen by Adam Wakenshaw lying near his gun. Though he had been terribly wounded, with his left arm blown off above the elbow, he crawled back under fire to the gun. There, with the help of Private Eric Mohn, the gun aimer, who had also been badly wounded, Private Wakenshaw loaded the shells with one arm and five more rounds were fired. One direct hit set the tracked vehicle on fire and damaged the light gun. Then a German shell burst near by. Private Mohn was killed and Adam Wakenshaw, once again brutally wounded, was thrown away from his gun by the blast.
Unbelievably, he slowly dragged himself for a second time over the rocky ground and back to his place by the gun. There he placed one more round in the breech and was preparing to fire, when a direct hit on the ammunition killed him and silenced his gun for ever. There was nothing then to hold up the German attack. By 7.30am, the three forward companies of the 9th Durhams, who had helplessly watched the terrible drama below them, were surrounded and, one by one, overrun. On that day, the battalion lost twenty dead and three hundred men taken prisoner.
That evening, after the Germans had withdrawn, other Durham soldiers from the 8th Battalion searched the abandoned battlefield. Amidst the wreckage of his gun, the body of Private Wakenshaw was found stretched out at the back of the breech block beside the ruined ammunition box. He was buried in the hard ground where he had fallen. He was twenty-eight years old. On llth September 1942, the London Gazette announced the award of a posthumous Victoria Cross to Private Adam Herbert Wakenshaw for his "conspicuous gallantry" and "self sacrifice and courageous devotion to duty", [Citation]
In 1943, the body of Adam Wakenshaw VC was re-buried in the El AlameinWar Cemetery in Egypt, with full military honours. In January 1945, a reporter for the "Egyptian Mail" described his visit to this site.
"In the Centre of the cemetery was a two-pounder anti-tank gun, painted with the familiar dun-coloured camouflage of the Eighth Army but now twisted and shell-shattered. Against the shield rested a wreath of withered white roses and purple bougainvillaea. The ribbon fluttered and the dry petals rustled in the freshening wind. It was the gun served by Private Wakenshaw."
Later, this anti-tank gun was sent home to stand outside the Regiment's Depot at Brancepeth Castle, near Durham City. Today Adam Wakenshaw's gun, still bearing the scars of battle, rests in the DLI Museum in Durham.
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