Friday, March 13, 2009

“A Paratrooper’s Exploit”


Front cover of a wartime Christian tract by George Skelly MM
George parachuted into Normandy on the night of 5 / 6 June 1944
[Courtesy of Mr Eva Elliott, George’s cousin]

Some years ago while studying the Battle of Normandy of 1944 I came across the story of a Conscientious Objector by the name of George Skelly. Subsequently, George had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), parachuted into Normandy with the Parachute Regiment in the early hours of D-Day and then been awarded the Military Medal for gallantry. George Skelly MM originally came from my hometown of Whitehaven, Cumbria.

This is a link to a previous story I wrote about George Skelly MM and his brother John Skelly for the BBC "People's War" website
For additional information click on ‘Comments’ below

3 Comments:

Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

In October 2008 relatives of George’s, including his daughter, visited his hometown of Whitehaven to research his life. Mrs Margaret Crosby, a reporter and features writer with the local newspaper (‘The Whitehaven News’) contacted me and I was able to give George’s relatives some of the information I had about him;

To read the article in ‘The Whitehaven News’ click on this link:
http://www.whitehaven-news.co.uk/home/george_skelly_the_unassuming_hero_1_251658?referrerPath=home/search_results_page_2_2837
As a result, I was given a copy of George’s Christian tract about his exploits in Normandy by his cousin, Mrs Eva Elliott, the front page of which is shown in the above photograph. I never had the privilege of meeting George, but he can only have been some brave fellow. Conscientious Objectors such as George were certainly not cowards.

Friday, 13 March, 2009  
Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

(2) A little background information

George Skelly MM was one of the three sons of James Skelly and Mary Ann Skelly (née Williams) - his two brothers being John Williams Skelly and Joseph ('Joe') Skelly. George was born in the family home near Whitehaven harbour (Mark Lane area). In 1926 the family moved to a miner's house at nearby Kells, Whitehaven.

Although originally baptised into the Church of England (at St Nicholas Church, Whitehaven) George and John had joined the Christian Brethren church as children. Thus, because of a deep-rooted religious conviction that it was wrong for a Christian to kill, when war was declared in September 1939 they registered as Conscientious Objectors. At that time they were in 'reserved occupations' - John working in the coal mines and George working for West Cumberland Farmers.

It is necessary to know of these beliefs in order to understand the subsequent events, which are outlined below. George Skelly did eventually volunteer for the Army as a Non-combatant. Firstly, he served with the Pioneer Corps and secondly in the Medical Corps (RAMC), where his section was attached to the Parachute Regiment.

This was the path that led 97002557, Private George Skelly, Royal Army Medical Corps from Whitehaven, Cumberland to parachute into Normandy with the 6th Airborne Division on the night of 5 / 6 June 1944. D-Day, the date of the long-awaited Allied invasion of N.W. Europe, had arrived.

(3) An Airborne Crossing of the Channel

On 5 June 1944 the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an 'Order of the Day' to the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force:

"... The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere are with you. ....

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing else than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."

Allied Airborne troops were among the first to go into action in Normandy on the night of 5 / 6 June 1944: including the American 82nd and 101st Divisions on the right flank of the Normandy Landing Beaches and the 6th British Airborne Division (British / Canadian) on the left flank. George Skelly's section supported the British paratroopers, landing east of the Orne River in the vicinity of Ranville. He wrote about the crossing in the Christian Tract "A Paratrooper's Exploit":

"On the night of the 5th June, 1944, about 600 of us Paratroopers were gathered together on an aerodrome in the South of England. We were to have a short service prior to getting into the planes. The Padre, who was himself within twenty-four hours dead, read to us from the first chapter of Joshua, concluding with:

'.... the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.' (Joshua 1:9)

Shortly after 12.30 am on the morning of 'D-Day' we were crossing the Channel in the Stirling Bombers. The door out of which we were to jump was already open, and the anti-aircraft guns could be heard meeting the planes ahead.

Opposite to me was a young fellow who had slept in the bed nearest to mine for some months previously. I had become very friendly with him. Often I had spoken to him of eternal matters, but like so many, he had had no time for God. Yet, as we crossed the Channel that morning, he was singing, with tears rolling down his cheeks:

'Rock of Ages, cleft for me
Let me hide myself in Thee'."

(NDLR – these are the first lines of a Christian hymn).

In the tract, George Skelly explains that the difference between the two of them was a trust in God - particularly significant in such circumstances.

(4) A long journey under enemy fire

Despite only about half the paratroopers having reached the rendezvous locations, all the objectives were taken during the cover of darkness. Ranville village (a short distance to the east of the River Orne Bridge) was the first village in mainland France to be liberated - at about 02.30 am on 6 June 1944. The German counter-attack on this eastern flank of the Allied bridgehead in Normandy began in earnest soon after daybreak.

According to George Skelly's testimony, at this time he was with one other RAMC fellow and about seventy paratroopers from one Company of the Parachute Regiment. They were then surrounded by the counter-attacking forces. The wireless (radio) had been damaged during the parachute drop. Thus, they had no means of communication and they were cut off from the rest of the Battalion.

Because the Allied paratroopers had suffered heavy casualties, George asked permission from the Captain to make an attempt to reach the Regimental Aid Post (R.A.P.) and get further medical aid for the wounded. The Captain gave his permission saying, “Best of luck!”

It was for this act of gallantry, voluntarily going for medical aid to help many wounded comrades while under continuous machine gun and sniper fire, that George Skelly was subsequently awarded the Military Medal. Crawling through a corn field on the outskirts of Ranville, George soon found he was pinned down by Germans in a house about 30 yards (30 metres) away. George took out the pocket Bible he always carried and opened it. On this occasion, lying in a cornfield on the outskirts of Ranville he read the 57th Psalm of the Old Testament, and put his trust in God to see him through to the R.A.P..

This is how George Skelly described that journey:

"By a direct route, the R.A.P. was about three-quarters of a mile away. Yet, the journey took me two-and-a-half hours and I was fired on by a machine-gunner and by snipers. Looking back on that journey, I am certain God led me every step of the way".

Ten days later, George Skelly was wounded in both legs and left arm and evacuated back to the U.K. He was taken to the Royal Infirmary, Liverpool. For a time, it looked as though George may lose his left foot. But, eventually he pulled through.

One of those who visited George in hospital was his cousin, Mrs Eva Elliott who kindly allowed me to have a copy of "A Paratrooper's Exploit". Despite the pain from his wounds, George remained cheerful during his time in hospital. He often quoted from the Bible with a smile. On 31 August 1944 the 'London Gazette' printed the announcement that Private George Skelly, RAMC had been awarded the Military Medal.

[Direct quotations of George Skelly above were taken from "A Paratrooper's Exploit", printed by THE VICTORY TRACT CLUB, Clapham Crescent, London S.W.4].

(5) A coward or a hero?

I once asked the late Mr John Skelly, brother of George Skelly MM, if anyone had ever called him a coward because he had registered as a Conscientious Objector in WW2. But no-one had actually said so to his face. Regarding George being awarded the Military Medal, John told me:

"My brother being decorated was evidence that to be a CO was not to be a coward".

The world being the way it is, being made up of all sorts of people, I still wondered if there had been those who had said to others, or even thought, that John and George were 'cowards' because they had been Conscientious Objectors. In WW1 it was common for C.O.s in Britain to be given a white feather as a sign of cowardice. This did not happen to the same extent in WW2. But many C.O.s may have faced some difficult moments because of their high principles.

For some years I had also been wondering if the Jimmy Perry and David Croft (writers of the classic BBC TV Comedy series about the Home Guard in WW2) had ever come across George Skelly's tract. In one episode, 'Branded', Private Charles Godfrey reveals in this fictional tale he wished to resign from the Home Guard because he had been a Conscientious Objector in WW1 and would not be able to kill. Initially Private Godfrey was branded a coward by other members of the platoon. Later, paralleling the real-life story of George Skelly, it was revealed Pte Godfrey had volunteered for the Medical Corps and crawled through 'No Man's Land' under heavy fire to save the lives of many wounded comrades and been awarded the Military Medal.

One of George Skelly’s relatives researching his wartime story was Mrs Elizabeth Gibb. It turned out that Mrs Gibb’s husband had even worked on the “Dad’s Army” T.V. series. Therefore, there was even a link, although a slight one, between the T.V. series and the family.

In October 2008 Mrs Gibb contacted David Croft, Producer of the "Dad's Army" programmes asking if they had indeed heard of George Skelly before writing the "Branded" episode. In his reply, Mr Croft replied that they were not aware of George Skelly's story. So it was a coincidence after all, although they did find it a remarkable one! At least we now know the truth! Fiction does sometimes mirror reality. Of all the “Dad’s Army” programmes made, the 'Branded' episode is actually the personal favourite of Jimmy Perry.

Mrs Gibb and another relative believed that a Memorial Plaque had been commissioned in Whitehaven Town Hall to recognise George being awarded the Military Medal. However, nobody else now remembers such a plaque, and nobody mentioned this to me when I initially researched George's story some years ago. I have seen many memorial plaques in and around Whitehaven but never come across one mentioning George Skelly MM.

Despite this lack of a memorial, in 2008 I donated many documents, photographs and personal testimonies from the Normandy Veterans Association (West Cumbria Branch) to the Cumbria County Archives. I also included the story of George Skelly MM with this archive material. Future generations will still have access to the information for years to come.

Very rarely did George Skelly MM talk or write about his wartime experiences, and very rarely did anyone see his medals. There may be no memorial plaque in his hometown yet the story of this ‘quiet, unassuming hero’ as he has been described is one that should be known.

Monday, 16 March, 2009  
Blogger cee said...

Hello,

I have one possible correction on the location of George Skelly's heroics. Contact me and I'll set you on a course to verify.

Otherwise a very interesting story and I thank you for taking the time to make it known.

Yours truly,

Chuck

Wednesday, 01 June, 2011  

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