Building the World War Two section
11 Nov 2010
So far I have a list of 1,081 members of staff from 34 constituent companies and it appears that the group was represented in most of the major land, air and sea battles and events of the war from Dunkirk to the D-Day Landings and from the Battle of Britain to the sinking of the Montevideo Maru.
There are, of course, a greater number of staff magazines for this period than existed in the First World War which means that information on those serving is more abundant and easier to find. For the most part the letters home make more cheerful reading than those sent from the trenches of World War One with many young men sharing with the office back home their experiences of seeing new countries and their ready access to exotic fruits.
How much of this was the result of censorship or bravado is hard to tell but it is evident that the magazines with their cheery letters, office and service news, poems and cartoons were an important link to normality for those serving and especially for those unfortunate enough to be captured.
It is also clear that the staff left behind worked hard to keep the offices running in conjunction with their ARP, fire watching and home guard duties while dealing with the daily privations of war themselves and the air raids which killed at least 26 of their number, one as young as 15, and damaged dozens of branches.
On the General Accident staff we also have Mnsr du Corbier a member of the Dutch underground who was executed after being caught transmitting the news. Resistance of another kind was evidenced by the numerous members of staff who tried, and succeeded, in escaping from Prisoner of War camps. Several of “our” men were involved in the famous “great escape” from Stalag Luft III and one, Leslie Long of General Accident, was amongst those who escaped down the tunnel and was executed following his recapture.
On the sea the group lost men in many major naval disasters like Albert Carr of Norwich Union Fire who was killed with over 1000 others in the sinking of the POW ship the Montevideo Maru , or Michael Curnow of Commercial Union who died with 197 others when HMS Egret became the first allied ship to be sunk by a guided missile. Arthur Alexander of Norwich Union Life was one of an estimated 7,000 soldiers to die on the SS Lancastria when she was attacked and sunk by the Luftwaffe while evacuating them from France.
In the air our stories include that of John Chute Thomson of Norwich Union Life, who was one a small Swordfish Squadron sent on a suicide mission to prevent the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau getting through the channel, and Jack Sale who was killed in the infamous mid-air collision in August 1941 which led his plane to crash on to Blackpool’s Central Railway Station.
On land we have stories of numerous acts of bravery in battle and unlikely heroes such as Lennie O’Reilly of the Northern Assurance New York office who captured the SS Major General Anton Dunckern and forced him at gunpoint to walk to his Commanding Officer and surrender.
It has truly been an education and a privilege to put these stories together and I hope that they will be a fitting tribute to those who served, both in the forces and on the home front, during those years.