Monday, 14 November 2011

Article - A tale of amazing bravery from one of Doncaster’s finest heroes

IF I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.

The words of the famous Rupert Brooke war poem could have been penned specifically for Corporal John William Harper.

Of course, the harrowing reality is that he was just one of thousands of gallant British soldiers whose final, tragic moments were played out on World War II battlefields across Western Europe.

But Cpl Harper’s story is one that lives on, thanks to a dedicated team intent on keeping his memory alive.

Over the coming days, Hatfield Colliery Band, members of Hatfield Town Council and family relative Gordon Harper will visit the compact, rural town of Merksplas in Belgium, a stone’s throw from the border with the Netherlands for a series of remembrance events.

For it was near here on September 29, 1944 that the married, Hatfield born and bred peat worker, was fatally gunned down by German soldiers as the trench warfare of World War Two raged across Europe.

He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry that can be awarded to British forces and remains the only Doncaster-born soldier in the medal’s 155 year history to pick up the honour.

Gordon said: “John’s story is an amazing one, one that should be preserved and told to future generations. Acts of bravery like his should not go unnoticed and forgotten and that’s why we are keeping his memory alive.”

The story begins nearly 100 years ago with John’s birth in the then small and mostly agricultural village of Hatfield Woodhouse. From his home in Slay Pits Lane, young John and his father George worked the land as peat cutters on the fertile fields in and around the village.

He married a local girl, Lily, and the pair moved to a house in Thorne. But the couple’s lives were to change with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and in April 1940, John, like thousands of others, was enlisted into the war effort as the menace of Nazi Germany spread rapidly across mainland Europe.

Signed up to the York and Lancaster Regiment, Cpl Harper’s finest hour, but sadly tragic final moments, came in 1944 as the battle to liberate Belgium and Holland entered its final bloody stages and the platoon under his command battled to seize the Depot de Mendicitie near Antwerp from enemy hands.

In a handwritten memoir passed to the family, Geoff Cooper, a former comrade of Cpl Harper takes up the story: “At about 4am on the day of the attack, we left the copse and advanced about a mile towards the depot.

“After climbing over a fence, we were told to fix bayonets and at the order, charge. We had to gallop over this open area, about three hundred yards or so to the moat bank where, unbeknown to us Germans were dug in. We flattened ourselves with Cpl Harper at the helm.

“He motioned to us to be quiet - you could see the Jerry helmets. But thinking it may be part of the Polish Armoured Division, he called across, heard the name Fritz and that’s where the main attack began.”

Under a hail of grenades and gunfire, Cpl Harper rampaged through the German troops, taking prisoners, shooting the enemy and seizing their dugouts in a violent and fearsome firefight.

“Cpl Harper went to investigate, bringing another prisoner. Then he went a second time with our section’s left over grenades and took out a machine gun nest, allowing our supporting back-up to move through.

“But unfortunately he was killed while returning to us, his section. He was kind, thoughtful and considered us 18-year-olds as if we were his siblings.”

In the days that followed, the area, including the nearby town of Merksplas fell to the Allies, largely thanks to Cpl Harper’s selfless courage - and so began another chapter in the story.

The soldier was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his valour and buried at the nearby Leopoldsburg war cemetery - and then the story of his bravery remained untouched for another quarter of a century - until a chance discovery by Gordon unearthed the tale once again.

For one morning in 1968, while himself stationed in the military in Libya, Gordon was idly leafing through a copy of The Victor comic and became fascinated by the story on the front page - The Stubborn Tyke - which told Cpl Harper’s story in stirring comic book fashion.

And when Gordon recounted the story to his family, he was amazed to find that Cpl Harper was actually his dad’s cousin.

“No one had ever mentioned it,” he said. “But the whole amazing story came out. I was fascinated.”

Since then, Gordon has set about helping to keep the story of his brave relative alive and was instrumental, along with members of Hatfield Town Council, in establishing a permanent memorial in Hatfield Woodhouse cemetery while his medal is now on show at the Y&L Regiment Museum in Rotherham.

A memorial has also been erected in Merksplas and over the next few days, members of Hatfield Colliery Band will mark Cpl Harper’s life with a series of remembrance concerts and services in the Belgian town, now officially twinned with Hatfield.

“He is treated like a real hero over there,” added Gordon. “Children are taught about John and what he did - they have a real reverence for him.”

“We have built up strong links with Merksplas to organise cultural exchanges such as this one,” he added. “John’s sister Joan is still alive and she is extremely proud of her brother.

“She told me that he was a very humble man who would rather walk away from confrontation rather than get involved. It is hard to believe that he had that in him to do what he did. His is a truly remarkable story.”

And at the going down of the sun in a small corner of Belgium this weekend, the courageous deeds of one man will be well and truly remembered.

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