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.