Robert ‘Bob’ Brown (1919-1985) was born as the ink was drying on the Treaty of Versailles. The youngest of 13 children born to Enos and Mary (née Bailey), he never knew his four eldest siblings because they had died before his birth. His oldest brother, Frederick, had been due to sail with the RMS Titanic in 1912 as a steward, but illness prevented him from registering. ‘Freddie’ volunteered for the British Army in 1914 and went missing somewhere on the Western Front in 1916.
As a single man with no dependants, Bob was conscripted under the Military Training Act (1939) before being formally enlisted at Shorncliffe army camp in November that year. Aged just 20 at the time, his peacetime trade of painter and decorator was considered useful to the Royal Engineers who were based 50 miles away in Chatham. After four months’ basic training, he was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force in late April 1940. As part of the headlong flight of allied forces from Dunkirk, he was evacuated aboard the destroyer HMS Wakeful on May 27. It was during this crossing to Dover that Wakeful came under air attack and suffered some minor damage above the waterline. The following day, Wakeful returned to Dunkirk and embarked a further 640 men, but in the early hours of May 29 she was torpedoed by E-Boat S30 and sank almost immediately with a loss of all but 27 lives.
For the next four years, Bob served with signalling and anti-aircraft companies in London and the south coast. He cheated death a second time in 1941 while seconded to a Bomb Disposal Company working at Southampton docks. An unexploded SC250 had smashed through the roof of a warehouse and the Royal Engineers were despatched to deal with it. After several fruitless hours attempting to defuse the bomb, the team were stood down to await further instructions, and it was while they were packing up their gear onto the truck, thirty metres away, that the bomb detonated. None of the six-man team were seriously injured, although some received minor wounds and Bob was treated for a perforated eardrum and concussion.
He was part of the Overlord invasion force, landing in France on Saturday June 10, 1944 (D+4) on another ill-fated vessel, the HMS Prince Leopold. She was a former cross-Channel ferry converted into a landing ship, but she would be torpedoed and sunk by U-621 on July 29, 1944. The grisly scenes on the Dunkirk and Normandy beaches stayed with him for the rest of his life. He then served with an Engineers’ bridging company building Bailey and Pontoon bridges as the Axis forces were pushed back through western Europe. When the war ended, he was in Bad Eilsen (Lower Saxony) in charge of a small work gang comprised of German prisoners-of-war. He said of this experience: “Everyone was grateful it was over at last, and we all just wanted to get home, the German lads as well.” One of those Germans, Lube King, remained his friend for several years and the two corresponded often until Lube died in 1955.
Their desire to “get home” was dashed when his unit was informed it would be transferred to the Far East, but while undergoing refresher training and receiving their inoculations, the war ended in Japan in August 1945. Instead, he was sent to Egypt for six months to work on mine clearance in the Western Desert.
Bob was eventually discharged from the Royal Engineers with an exemplary service record on June 17, 1946. He died aged 66 in 1985, survived by his wife and son. He was awarded the 1939-45 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal.