I recently watched a moving and informative program made by the famous English footballer Gary Lineker about his granddad who served in the medical corps in WW2. He was in the Allied landings at Salerno, Italy on Sept 9/10 1943. He was a caring and brave man who did his very best to help the wounded and dying in that terrible event. My granddad’s brother Alan Atherton was one of the dying. Perhaps Gary Lineker’s grandad was there at the end for Alan. It was a program that shed more light on a story that is much overlooked.
This is Alan’s story:
After the death in 1919 at a time when John Atherton was away on service as an army driver of his young son Roger it took some time for him to come to terms with his son’s death and on his release from the army John settled back with Sarah in the family home in Bury Street. Shortly afterwards they were able to obtain a house on Vale Street in Darwen and this location is just around the corner from Bury Street so the tragic memories were still vibrant in this area for the family. John and Sarah miss having a young child happily playing around the house and the memories they feel could only be softened by having another child. In 1924 Alan is born to them and they are thankful that some great comfort comes from this. Alan is an unusual boy in the sense that he is not as small in stature as the Atherton family tend to be. In fact in his teenage years he will go on to become an accomplished weightlifter in the town. Darwen in fact has had a long tradition of excellent sportsmen in this field and back in my youth I can remember the celebrity type status afforded these strong men who represented the town in hard fought competitions. Where these genes come from to be found in Alan I can only speculate, but perhaps by 1924 the Atherton family were not quite so poor and their diet had improved substantially causing Alan to be a healthy boy. He is a person that is well liked in the town and although quite reserved in character he makes a good impression on people, he is clever and has an excellent future ahead of him. Alan is well capable of being able to continue to bring the Atherton’s farther out of the poverty they have endured up until the Great War. The young man is a respected member of his local church and helps out with the youth groups there and he has no shortage of female admirers but sadly he will never get the chance to marry and have children.
The outbreak of World War 2 changes everything for Alan and the people of Darwen. Many men enlist straight away and the town will also be affected by German bombing raids during the course of the war. Several people are killed in Darwen in 1940 when bombs are dropped and a terrible incident when a bus going up Marsh House Lane hill is machine gunned by enemy aircraft coming down the valley. Part of the reason for Darwen and Blackburn being a target for German bombers is the close proximity of the ROF armament factories and their locations are well known to the Nazis but despite that they never actually make a direct hit on the factories. Darwen like so many towns in England joins in trying to reach the target of raising funds for a Spitfire aircraft and the town despite it being a low income area achieves its objective. Today there is a large silver statue of a Spitfire in the centre of town commemorating the determination of the townspeople to raise the funds.
On enlisting for service Alan initially joins the RAF but his stay there is a short one. My Grandfather John Thomas Atherton also joined the RAF; he would have been around 32 years old at the time. His RAF service is shrouded in mystery but I believe he was based in the North of Scotland and was on ground support rather than training as a pilot but more research will eventually uncover the facts, unless it was top secret of course. Alan soon becomes Alan Atherton Ordinary Seaman D/JX 368308 and is posted to North Africa in 1943 at the Combined Operations Base called HMS Hamilcar in Djedjelli (Djidelli) Algeria. Despite it being seemingly named as a ship HMS Hamilcar is actually a land base specifically for the landing craft that are to be used in operations similar to D-Day storming the beaches of Sicily and Salerno. Alan is specifically be training for the Allied landings on the Salerno beaches and unfortunately for the crews of these floating tubs there will be no element of surprise to the enemy in the actions planned for the beaches of Italy. The African base at Djidelli is a busy one and preparations are constant and thorough but Alan does have the opportunity for some rest and recreation and visits to the town are occasionally possible but much of the entertainment on the base will be watching American movies and obtaining any beer that they can source to kill the boredom of the repetitive nature of the preparations for the invasion of Italy. Alan and his colleagues always laugh off any dangers, they are young, Alan is not even 20 years of age yet, still a teenager, but the dangers are real and ever present in the mind. Stories of early casualties are always filtering through and sometimes they are be confronted with the reality as wounded pass back from the front through the base and other allied areas of North Africa. It is a long way from the small industrial town of Darwen, it was a hard life there to a degree but it was familiar and comfortable in its way, now the brutal war has transformed Alan’s life totally and his immediate course in life is set and determined for him by others. His future is in the hands of the commanding officers and he must stay on the course they have set no matter what it may bring.
Alan leaves the base on the North African coast on Landing craft LCT581 around the 6th of September 1943. The bulky landing craft are carried by ship part of the way thankfully but even that still leaves a journey in unpredictable seas into the bay at Salerno of around 250 kilometres for Landing Craft LCT581. These vessels are basically just basic troop and ammunition carriers, they have no luxuries or frills about them, in reality they are just a glorified human cattle truck. The journey on D-Day for similar landing craft will be slightly shorter but as we know from these more well documented landings the conditions on a landing craft are horrendous and the majority of men will be seasick on this bobbing metal tub that would be tossed without any means of compensating for the roll and heave of this very basic sea craft. The occupants of the craft are in a sorry state by the time they were well into the bay at Salerno but well aware of the reality of the situation, the fact that their lives are now on the line, this is no sporting completion were you may have a few initial nerves, this is life and death and part of their convey was already in action in front of them on this day Friday the 10th September 1943. There is to be no tactical surprise as they head into the beaches at Salerno, in fact the German’s are totally prepared and confident that they will repel the invaders with ease. So much so that the convoy coming in to the beach is met with taunts of invitations to surrender but of course the landing craft continue into the theater of battle. Salerno will be a difficult and frustrating battleground for the Allies and for several days the positions will be set as defensive on the beachhead. Alan is going into a fearsome place and the German’s also have, unlike most of the time in Normandy, a degree of air power to call upon and they strafe the beaches when the Allies are attempting to dig into the beachhead. Alan never gets that far. His Landing craft ironically performs perhaps better than any other that day coming on to the fiery beaches of Salerno, only one member of that group of personnel on Landing Craft LCT 581 loses their life that day – it was young Alan Atherton from Darwen, Lancashire, my Great Uncle. How he dies is unclear but he is lost at sea in the bay of Salerno and his body is never recovered. There is a large military cemetery at Salerno for the Allied dead of that campaign and Alan is not among them. A young life of great promise, a man well loved and respected by his family and the people of his hometown is gone.
John Atherton, Alan’s father had been a widower when Alan enlisted but had just a few weeks before Alan’s death remarried to a lady named Ethel Walsh as we found out earlier. Joy and sadness seem to be inextricably linked to John’s path in life and this combination of the two in a few short weeks was particularly tragic. It was difficult to grieve for John and the family, there was to be no return home of Alan’s body and it would be some years before there would be any memorial to Alan. There was an air of sadness as we know about my Grandfather John Thomas and suffering this death of his young brother, a boy he had been so protective of being a much older brother hit him very hard and for him life became a serious matter, he would never openly be seen to be ‘having a good time’, all the joy had gone and he raised his family without any sense of happiness but he raised them well and took them a little farther out of poverty. That air of melancholy would remain with him but this was in stark contrast to my Grandmother Florrie who along with her sister Ethel in tow was the life and soul of any room or street they occupied, their crazy laughter seeming never to be stifled for very long. How I always thought this must have grated on my Grandfather who had lost so much and I for one could never quite understand where or how they met – two peas in a pod – I don’t think so.
Alan Atherton is recognized and commemorated by the country and I visited that spot in 2014. Alan is on Panel 101, Column 3 of the Plymouth Naval Memorial maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
It is very moving to visit the memorial despite Alan being only a reference on a plaque and not having an actual grave. When you walk around the memorial in Plymouth there are always people around it searching for a reference on the walls that is relating to an ancestor. A slightly surreal experience as often your thoughts are interrupted by someone who cannot work out the method of locating a plaque and you break away to help before returning to contemplate your own ancestor’s life and death. Alan is someone I never knew but he is an Atherton, a good man and someone who went through horrors that thankfully have been spared to any of his family since that time.