Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Forgotten heroes: how family history research helped trace Malta’s bomb men

My quest to find out more about Lt G D Carroll’s service during the blitz on Malta, and put his name in its rightful place in history, was well underway. But among the wealth of World War 2 records, I had discovered there were three other Bomb Disposal Officers who served after him, whose names did not appear on any ‘list’ either (see 2 March). I decided that each of them deserved recognition for their part in keeping the Island’s people free from the danger of UXBs.

And if my book was going to be more than a daily log, I had to know something about them, and what stories they might have to tell. I needed to trace these officers – or their families, if sadly they were no longer around.

I had three signatures on Bomb Disposal Reports: F W Ashall, T Whitworth and H Lavington – and nothing more. I’d learned very quickly that no personnel records for World War 2 are yet in the public domain.

Thanks to my late brother Chris I had an alternative. He’d asked me to carry on his research into our family history. I’d accepted willingly, not realising at the time that he left me a way to connect with three important characters in UXB Malta.

So where to start? I had no full Christian names, although at least the surnames were not too commonplace. I didn’t know which part of England they were from. I could only estimate their age range from the other BD Officers, Malta: Lt E E C Talbot was 21, Lt G D Carroll was 23 and Lt T W T Blackwell 34.

I turned to the Ancestry website to search for their births by surname. I struck lucky with Ashall: Frederick W came up, born in Lancashire – and he was married there. A search of Ancestry’s British Phone Books suggested he returned to Lancashire after the war. I went to BT Enquiries: there was no F W Ashall but there was a possible entry for his wife. I picked up the phone, and a few weeks later I was sitting with Mrs Ashall and her son, listening to stories of Frederick’s time in bomb disposal.

There were two Henry Lavingtons, both born in Hampshire. One trail went cold in London, the second had a surprise in store. According to Ancestry, from the 1950s one Henry Lavington had lived in Gillingham, Kent – barely three miles from George Carroll. I could scarcely believe it when a cheerful Henry himself answered my telephone call. I was privileged to meet him several times, before he sadly passed away last year.

There were 48 T Whitworths (Thomas, Trevor, Terence etc). I’d almost given up hope of finding the right one, when I visited Henry for the first time. He worked alongside Whitworth, and was fairly sure he came from Lancashire, so I posted a ‘seeking old comrades’ notice in the local paper. No response. By this time I had narrowed the field to about 6 candidates, their spouses and children, whose birth places might give me a clue to their whereabouts. I called a few possible descendants, with no success.

When I hit a brick wall like this in research, I often ease my frustration by putting the elusive item into a Google search, to see what comes up. This time I found Thomas Whitworth, Master of Hatfield College, and there was the text “During World War II, Whitworth served with the Royal Engineers (Bomb Disposal) in North Africa…”. It had to be the same man. Sadly he died in 1979 but his wife was named, and with that I could trace his family.

I only wish I could have tracked down all those who served in RE Bomb Disposal in Malta. Other routes such as Genes Reunited can be useful but it’s a matter of chance to find a relative close enough to know about their wartime service.

But Chris unknowingly left me one more gift. Going through his papers one day, I found an email from someone responding to one of his searches for our great-grandfather’s birth in Malta. She wrote that her grandfather, Harry Turner, had served in RE Bomb Disposal there during the war. I was on my way to meet another family…