The Carvings in the Tower (4)

On October 27th and November 12th, I wrote about the life of Richard Vernon Milnes, one of the more senior members of the OTC (Officers Training Corps). In May 1940, a group of eight of them all climbed up to the School Tower and carved their names and their message on a stone window sill. I told Richard’s story as far as July 30th 1940, the last day of the Summer Term, when he left the High School for ever at the end of the six years he spent there.

When Richard walked out of the High School for that last time on that particular date, neither he, nor his friends, could have been particularly sure about how the war would turn out or whether England would be invaded and conquered by Christmas.  Still less did Richard know that he had just 1,281 days left before he died in a place which, at this point, he had never heard of.

Obviously, I should have completed the story of Richard’s by writing about the 1,281 days before his death. But I got it wrong. I was so keen to get on to the next name carved in the stone that I got ahead of myself. I missed out the sad details of Richard’s tragic death.  So accept my apologies, dear reader. And let’s pick up the tale, and read on……..

Soon after he left the High School, Richard married his wife Barbara. Their first daughter was born on January 1st 1944.

Shortly afterwards, Richard applied to become an officer. This desire to serve his country, though, would rob him of his young life. Aged only 21, while “undergoing training”, Richard died of pneumonia, probably in the hospital at Portree, the main town on the Isle of Skye in the Western Scottish Highlands. This was on February 29th 1944. I have found nothing precise about his death and probably never will. Here’s Portree today:

Initially, few men wanted commissions and many men dropped out of the training. Changes were then made to attract men from more humble backgrounds, and to break the mould which said that only the upper classes possessed sufficient brain power to be an officer. The rigidity of the system was quite astonishing. Even in the South Notts Hussars, High School boys were always limited to being just corporals or sergeants. The officers had always been to more illustrious schools in the region such as Repton or Uppingham.

Promises for change had been made, though. Candidates were no longer asked which school they had attended. New leadership activities were used to test out the candidates, with an emphasis on problem solving and command tasks.

Successful applicants were then sent to Officer Cadet Training Units. To improve their physical fitness, these were in the Brecon Beacons or the Scottish Highlands, particularly the Black Cuillins on Skye, which were possibly the most difficult mountains in the whole country:

Many problems occurred with this physical training, which was often in such terrible weather that the men’s health was affected. Cadets frequently suffered from exhaustion. And the constantly cold, wet weather could affect everybody after an entire month in the mountains, hiding in ditches filled with cold water or sleeping in a freezing damp tent. And there were lots of twenty mile marches. And runs up steep hills. And night marches in the pouring rain.

Would-be officers require outstanding qualities but not at the expense of their deaths. Most, though, did not want to be returned to their units and they were completely willing to risk their own lives. And there were deaths. Two 19-year old cadets, for example, drowned in North Wales, trying to cross a river patrolled by “enemy” troops.

During his physical training, Richard Milnes died of pneumonia, one of the greatest killers of the twentieth century.

One other Old Nottinghamian serviceman died of illness during the war, a butcher’s son from Ilkeston Road, named Peter Vernon. He died in the North Atlantic at the age of 23, through “illness contracted during naval operations in northern waters on H.M. Motor Minesweeper 260″, battered ceaselessly by extra strong winds and freezing rain. Peter probably died in the Invergordon Royal Navy Auxiliary Hospital.

Portree and Invergordon are only 90-100 miles apart and Peter died on January 26th 1944, just over a month before Richard Milnes would pass away. It may well have been the same spell of awful weather that killed them both.

Richard Milnes was buried in Stronuirinish Cemetery near Portree. He was 21.




Filed under History, military, Nottingham, The High School

16 responses to “The Carvings in the Tower (4)

  1. re the business of only letting the ‘upper’ class become officers and the others becoming Sergeants or Warrant Officers. I had five years in the Australian Army as an officer and the very best people once could have to rely on were sergeants or Warrant officers. I have a story to tell about that sometime.

    • The British army failed to learn the lessons of WW1 where they had had to promote common men because the upper class Lieutenants etc were mostly dead. Exactly the same process happened in WW2, presumably because we had to use up the incompetent upper class officers before the war could be organised properly.
      And don’t hold back from telling your tale. It’s always interesting to see the world from a different point of view.

  2. GP

    So young. Although they choose that life, losing a 21-year old to pneumonia is heartbreaking.

    • As far as I can see, the people at the very top were either ignorant of what was going on, or just didn’t care. A very large mistake was made by having the actual exercises themselves, particularly the various PT drills, supervised by old sergeants who knew very well that they had reached their own limits of promotion, and pay. They knew too that these limits were all determined by the class system, and that they had stood no chance from the very start.
      These men, though, were only too happy to take their revenge on the cadets they were in charge of. If they could make life a place of pain for a potential officer, then they had had a good day.
      When you add to this the fact that the cadets were desperate to succeed, and to avoid “RTR” on their record (Returned to regiment) the seeds have been sown for a good many tragedies.
      Even now, every few years, recruits keen to join the various special forces suffer casualties. And it’s usually “died of heat stroke/exhaustion” on a moorland somewhere, on a day of record temperatures.

      • GP

        That happened here when my son was in Marine boot camp. A Drill Sgt. ignored the fact that each day had had a black heat flag out. One morning, before the flags were displayed, he sent his unit of men out on a march. Eight of them died from the heat. I only knew about this because my son’s unit was sent out to retrieve them.

      • For most decent English people that would surely be a “Manslaughter” verdict, or, if regarded as the fault of an organisation, a “narrative” verdict, which is “a factual statement of the circumstances surrounding someone’s death, without attributing the cause to an individual.”
        The forces’ life is made all the easier in that they do not seem to be as rigorously subject to English law as non-military organisations would be…..
        “All serving soldiers, and some civilians accompanying the Army abroad, are subject to military law at all times and wherever they are serving…. Offences are investigated by the Royal Military Police”.
        In court, forces’ defendants and witnesses frequently try to avoid awkward questions by saying “I cannot answer because of the Official Secrets Act.”

      • GP

        I know the Sgt. was held accountable, but the exact verdict I do not know.

      • Jeff Tupholme

        I always thought a description of the military as ‘a state within a state’ was interesting – which would seem broadly accurate because as you say, it has its own laws, police and courts, as well as its own territory of course.

      • I agree with you. Indeed, the Army, in particular, has got away with a lot of deaths of cadets on hot days when anybody with the least amount of sense would have stopped them continuing. The problem, of course,is the cadets themselves, who dearly do not want to be sent back to their usual regiment.
        To be honest, I don’t really see why the armed forces enjoy this independence from the ordinary courts. Their Official Secrets Act argument must surely be applicable in only a very small number of cases.

  3. So even in training illness was a contributory weapon for the enemy

    • Yes, it was, although numbers were only small. They would not compare remotely, for example, with the casualties in RAF training, especially on multi-engined aircraft.
      I was chatting a while back with a friend of mine who had bought one of the four volumes I had so far published about the High School’s war dead. He said that the first person described was “died without enemy involvement”, and so was the second. And the third. Eventually it was a run of five. And that was my impression too. Writing about young men perhaps caused a bias, but overall, the Germans did not kill as many Old Nottinghamians as you might have thought.

  4. How very sad to lose two young men in such circumstances. I was surprised that Richard wasn’t buried nearer home where his young wife and child were, that must have tore right through them.

  5. In WW1, I think that casualties could initially be brought back to the UK but around 1915 or 1916, numbers were so huge that this came to an end, although one ex-prime minister did have his own son brought home.
    In WW2 the lesson had been learnt, and nobody was brought home. For deaths in England, I think that if you paid, the remains could be brought back but otherwise they stayed in the nearest cemetery to where the person was stationed/killed. The one Old Nottinghamian, picked up in his dinghy by Air-Sea-Rescue, was brought back to Nottingham.
    I must admit though, that I am not 100% certain about all of this.

  6. Coming from a photographer’s point of view, the images you included in this post are stunning, John. However, the sad tale is not. How sad this young man died from training in wretched conditions. Those mountains really do look fierce! Great post and I thank you. I actually read this in its entirety without flinching. SMILE

    • I’m glad you got through it without flinching, Amy !
      The photograph of the mountains was taken from a well known viewpoint at a tiny village called Elgol. The mountains themselves are usually considered to be the only ones in the UK which it is impossible to climb without using climbing ropes and other specialist equipment, although, as you rightly point out, it was the cold wet weather that finally put paid to this poor young man.

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