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22 September 2014
Auction News



Medals and Military Antiques to be sold on September 26

Christopher Proudlove reporting

Medals awarded to a Welsh naval hero who helped drag men alive, dead and dying out of gallons of fuel oil and up on to the deck of his stricken warship which had struck a mine will be sold by leading South Wales fine art auctioneers Rogers Jones Co. The saleroom’s second auction of medals and military antiques is on Friday September 26.

Able Seaman Ernest Thomas of Trealaw, in the Rhondda Valley, was serving aboard HMS Hunter, a H-class destroyer, which during the Spanish Civil War was enforcing an arms blockade when she struck a mine south of Almeria on the afternoon of May 13, 1937.

The ship suffered severe damage, with a heavy list, and her radio wrecked and bow flooded. Eight of her crew were killed and 24 wounded. The mine had been laid several weeks earlier by the ex-German Spanish Nationalist E-boat, the Requete.

Recording the award by George VI of the British Empire Medal to Thomas, The London Gazette of November 12, 1937 report reads: “An explosion caused by the mine occurred underneath the Stoker Petty Officers` and Torpedomen`s Mess Decks. To reach the ratings on these mess decks, this party had to jump down 8 feet, the ladder being blown away, into 3 feet of oil fuel and on to a deck which might not have been intact.

“During this period they remained in imminent risk of falling through the shattered deck into the water and fuel. Moreover, they were under the impression that the ship was about to founder. Their exertions to save life consisted of dragging living and dead men from under wreckage and out of the oil fuel and passing them up on deck. This operation lasted from 5 to 10 minutes. The rescued were in very severe danger from having swallowed oil fuel and had they been left would undoubtedly have died. Others were severely burnt and immersion of their wounds in oil fuel, if prolonged, would undoubtedly have caused death.”

HMS Hunter was under repair for the next year and a half, rejoining the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in early 1940. On April 6, she escorted destroyer minelayers as they sailed to implement Operation Wilfred, a plan to prevent the transport of Swedish iron ore from Narvik to Germany.

In the ensuing First Battle of Narvik on April 10, Hunter’s flotilla attacked the German destroyers that had transported troops to occupy the port. but she suffered a torpedo hit and capsized. Thomas was among the 107 crew who were killed. His British Empire Medal, 1939-45 Star and War Medal are expected to sell for £600-800.

The sale also includes a number of First World War medals and militaria, notably the Military Medal, 1914-15 trio, Death Plaque and commemorative scroll to Sergeant V.J. Russell, of the 14th Welsh Regiment.

Original newspaper clippings record that Russell, from Swan Street, Swansea, “was awarded the Military Medal for heroism displayed at Ypres in July 1917 when he went through barrage fire in the performance of his duties”. He was killed in action on May 10 1918. Another original newspaper clipping headed “A Gallant Soldier, Swansea Sergt-Major's Fate” records a letter to Russell’s mother from Capt. W.O. Jones (who was wounded himself).

The letter reads: “Dear Mrs Russell, I am grieved to have to convey the sad news that your beloved husband, Sergt Major V.J. Russell was killed in action yesterday. At the time he was standing at my side talking to me. It may somewhat console you to know that his death was instantaneous, for the shot hit the heart. Your husband proved himself a gallant soldier and faithful to duty at all times”. The clipping goes on to record “a distressing feature is the fact that it was only on St. David’s Day - just eight weeks ago when home on leave - that he [Russell] was married” (estimate: £1,600-£1,800

A 1914 group of three campaign medals, Death Plaque and commemorative scroll recalls the tragic career of Private Percy Pennington, of the 2nd Battalion Welsh Regiment. The son of John Pennington, a paper-maker, and Mary Elizabeth Mountford, a weaver, living in Kingsbury Place, Cwmaman, Percy enlisted in Cardiff in the first year of hostilities and saw action at Mametz Wood and Bazentin Le Petit Wood, as the Battle of the Somme entered its second phase.

According to battalion diaries, battalion HQ was set up in a huge shell hole and at 4am on July 16, 1916, the Germans began a frontal attack and a raid on “Welch Alley”. They were held up initially by machine gun and rifle fire, but fierce fighting resulted in heavy losses as the battalion withdrew to their original position. Five officers were wounded, but the battalion consolidated and launched a counter-attack towards the German stronghold at High Wood, that would eventually fall nearly two months later.

In the July 16 action a large number of the battalion were wounded including 21 soldiers by a single shell blast. Pennington died of wounds sustained that day and his grave in the field was later visited by George V, a moment captured by four large photographs and a newspaper cutting, poignantly to be sold with the medals. Also included is a wealth of personal material including Pennington's postcards home to his mother and photographs of him with his family before the war (estimate: £900-£1,100).

With more than 375 lots, this second sale of militaria also includes a diverse range of items appealing to all collectors with a military interest, including a number of quality Japanese swords, commando knives and wartime antiques. It will be on public view on Thursday September 25 from 10am to 7pm. For further information, please contact the auctioneers, telephone 02920 708125 or cardiffinfo@rogersjones.co.uk.


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