The families who continue to honour Melton’s wartime heroes

In the summer of 1944, the social scene was thriving in Melton despite the war.

Wednesday, 13th October 2021, 5:19 pm
Relatives were among those gathering for the reunion memorial service for 156 Battalion at Melton's St Mary's Church EMN-211013-091737001

Paratroopers, billeted in the town, enjoyed themselves at dances at the old Corn Exchange, in Nottingham Street, and watching movies at The

Regal Cinema.

They were members of the 156 Battalion, based at Staveley Lodge, on Nottingham Road, and they mixed freely with young women from the Remount Depot, Land Army girls from local farms, and the Army NAAFI, leading to weddings, children and grandchildren in many cases.

Pauline Smith (daughter of Jack Brophy) of Melton Mowbray wearing the bush hat of Sergeant William Hurst, 156 Parachute Battalion, who won the Commander-in-Chief Certificate at Arnhem, later of the SAS EMN-211013-111010001

Some of the romances were sadly cut short when many of the paratroopers did not return from their iconic drop into Holland for Operation Market Garden in the September of that year.

Survivors from the Battle of Arnhem have taken part in reunion memorial services for many years, at Saltby Airfield, where they were flown out from, and at Melton’s St Mary’s Church.

Most are now gone but their relatives and serving members of the Parachute Regiment and other armed forces continue to attend and keep their memories, and their sacrfices, alive.

The latest services were held on Friday and Saturday, 77 years on from Arnhem and 80 years since the Battalion was first formed, in Delhi, India, when it was initially named 151 Battalion.

Freda Kemp, widow of veteran Lew Kemp who was wounded at Arnhem, laying a wreath at the 151/156 Parachute Battalion's memorial plaques in St. Mary's Church, Melton Mowbray, assisted by Padre The Reverend Brian McAvoy. EMN-211013-091757001

It was one of the earliest parachute units in the British army, being formed a year before the Parachute Regiment, and represented a new form of warfare.

Casualties were high, however, with men exposed to ground fire as they descended into conflict - only 26 men were able to return to Melton from the dozens who had been dropped on to Ginkel Heath in Holland, and the under-strength battalion was disbanded shortly afterwards.

Many relatives of those brave paratroopers were in attendance for Friday’s Saltby Airfield service, which was hosted by the Buckminster Gliding Club who provided lunch.

There were trips along the runway provided by Paul Turner in his 1940s jeep and Air Marshall Philip Sturley, the ex-Base Commander at RAF Cottesmore, spoke of the special relationship that the paras have with the RAF who helped train them from the very early days up to the present day.

Relatives of Sergeant John O'Reilly Senior left to right: Ellie; Stephanie; Fenella; Alice two granddaughters and two great granddaughters from the Vale of Belvoir). EMN-211013-091546001

The service was conducted by Military Chaplain, the Rev Brian McAvoy, and wreaths were laid by Maj Sean Phillips, of 4th Parachute Battalion, and the Air Marshall at the airfield monument.

The annual dinner was held at the Sysonby Knoll Hotel, in Melton, later in the day.

Two of the grandsons of the original commanding officer, Lt Col Martin Lindsay, were present and serving Brigadier Robin Lindsay gave a stirring speech about the early days of the 151 who were very much the pioneers of this new kind of warfare.

He repeated the words spoken by his grandfather when addressing his men for the first time in Delhi: “From this time on you will no longer be like other soldiers. You will be special and will eventually be tougher, fitter and better trained.”

The gathering at Saltby Airfield to pay tribute to the 151/156 Battalion heroes from the Second World War EMN-211013-091627001

Rupert Hague-Holmes spoke about George Lea, the battalion adjutant in India.

George later when on to lead the SAS in the Malayan jungle and then in Borneo.

So successful was George that he won a DSO, was promoted to the rank of general and later knighted.

On Saturday morning, at St Mary’s Church, in Melton, another service was held by Chaplain McAvoy using the Bible which had been given to Maj Jeffrey Noble by the Red Cross whilst he was a prisoner of war.

Deputy Mayor of Melton, Councillor Alan Hewson, and Deputy Mayoress, his wife Jane - who both attended - had a personal interest in the battalion as the family farm at Eastwell near Melton had been used by the battalion for battlefield training in 1944.

Bagpiper, Bill James, piped Freda Kemp - the widow of veteran Lew Kemp - into the church as she was accompanied by James Pockney, the grandson of Lt Col Sir Richard des Voeux, the commanding officer at Arnhem who was killed in action.

Roy Henderson, Will Stark and Niall Cherry in the Willys Jeep at the Saltby Airfield the reunion service marking the 80th anniversary of the formation of 151/156 Battalion at St Mary's, Melton EMN-211013-091727001

The church was full of music in the form of hymns accompanied by organist James Gutteridge, as well as songs from World War Two sung by the Orston Choir, led by Astrid Moules.

Act of Remembrance, the Last Post and Reveille were sounded as the wreath was laid by Freda Kemp at the battalion’s memorial stones.

Speakers Niall Cherry and Martin Wenner elevated the occasion with their respective talks on the men of the 151 Parachute Battalion and Cpt Michael Wenner’s post-war diplomatic career.

Maj Sean Phillips talked about the importance of the Jordanian flat, which was presented to the battalion by The Emir of Transjordan in 1943 and carried by the battalion into battle.

Sgt John Gibbard, of the Leicester Parachute Regiment Association, spoke of Maj Jeffrey Noble’s Army service.

‘The Boy’, as he was nicknamed by his CO (due to his youthful looks), was given command of the battalion’s medium machine gun platoon, seeing action in Italy and in Arnhem.

Last year, when he passed away, it was not possible for members of the 156 family to be present at his funeral due to the pandemic, but he was remembered at this annual memorial service.

Following the traditional hymn of Abide With Me - which had been sung by the wounded survivors at Arnhem, the service closed with prayers and the National Anthem.

A gathering followed at the Harboro Hotel with an appropriately Indian-themed lunch, given the origins of the Battalion.

Left to right: Sergeant John Gibbard of the Leicester Parachute Regiment Assocation; Pony Major Jamie Richards with pony Pegasus; Standard Bearer Derek Peters also of the Leicester PRA. Outside St Mary's, Melton EMN-211013-091747001
Lynn Tomkinson (centre), whose father was Royal Signaller John Jeffries, wounded at Arnhem. Far right is jeep owner Paul Turner wearing 1940s Para uniform. EMN-211013-111000001
A slouch hat which belonged to Sergeant William Hurst, of 156 Battalion, and which was brought to the Saltby service on Friday by his son Mike Hurst. EMN-211013-091707001
Mayor of Melton, Councillor Alan Hewson, with Deputy Mayoress, Jane, with attendees at the reunion service at Melton EMN-211013-091536001