Daily Archives: 14th April 2020

A History Run Part Three

Peter Bell

WAKENSHAW ROAD AND HEAVISIDE PLACE. GILESGATE

On the 27th June,1942, south of Mersa Matruh North Africa, Private Wakenshaw was a member of the crew of a 2-pounder anti-tank gun. An enemy tracked vehicle towing a light gun came within short range. The gun crew opened fire and succeeded in immobilising the enemy vehicle. Another Nazi mobile gun came into action, killed or seriously wounded the crew manning the 2-pounder, including Private Wakenshaw, and silenced the 2-pounder. Under intense fire, Private Wakenshaw crawled back to his gun. Although his left arm was blown off, he loaded the gun with one arm and fired five more rounds, setting the tractor on fire and damaging the light gun. A direct hit on the ammunition finally killed him and destroyed the gun. This act of conspicuous gallantry prevented the enemy from using their light gun on the infantry Company which was only 200 yards away. It was through the self sacrifice and courageous devotion to duty of this infantry anti-tank gunner that the Company was enabled to withdraw and in safety. The original gun is currently in storage by Durham county council after the closure of the DLI Museum.

Michael Heaviside was born in Station Lane, Gilesgate, in October 1880. The Heavisides were a long-standing Durham City family, and Michael was the grandson of Thomas Heaviside, who owned a pioneering photographic business in the city. Whilst still a boy, Michael moved with his family from Durham to Kimblesworth, where his father worked in the colliery as head keeker [inspector] and Michael went to the local Council school. Later, the family moved to Sacriston.

On the evening of 5 May 1917, the battalion returned to their barricades on the Hindenburg Line, near Fontaine-les-Croisilles, France. Only one hundred yards separated the British and German positions but the terrible fighting of the preceding days had died down. Snipers and machine gunners were, however, still active and any movement attracted deadly fire. Then about 2 o’clock the next afternoon, 6 May 1917, a sentry noticed movement in a shell hole about forty yards from the German barricade. A wounded British soldier was desperately waving an empty water bottle. Any attempt to help this soldier in daylight would result in almost certain death for the rescuers. Michael Heaviside, however, said that he was going to try. Grabbing water and a first aid bag, the stretcher bearer scrambled over the barricade and out into no-man’s-land. Immediately, he came under heavy rifle and machine gun fire from the German positions and was forced to throw himself to the ground. He then began to crawl sixty yards across the broken ground from shell hole to shell hole to where the wounded soldier was sheltering. One eye witness later wrote –

“We could see bullets striking the ground right around the spot over which Heaviside was crawling. Every minute we expected to be his last but the brave chap went on.” As he crawled closer to the German lines, the firing increased. –

“The enemy seemed to be more determined to hit him, for the bullets were spluttering about more viciously than ever.”

When Private Heaviside reached the soldier, he found the man nearly demented with thirst for he had been lying badly wounded in the shell hole for four days and three nights, without any food or water. Michael Heaviside gave the soldier water, dressed his wounds and then promised that he would return with help. That night, Michael Heaviside led two other stretcher bearers out across no-man’s-land to the wounded soldier and carried him back to safety. Without doubt, he had saved this man’s life. The London Gazette announced the award of the Victoria Cross to Private Michael Heaviside on 8 June 1917 for his “most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.”[3] He was the third soldier of The Durham Light Infantry to gain this award during the First World War.