As a tribute to two of their uncles, John and Patricia Edwards and John's brother Kevin, from Wednesbury, have provided us with the story of the contrasting fortunes for two brothers who went bravely into battle as soldiers of the British Army.
"When the Second world war broke out in 1939, little did Henry Goldie Mansell and his wife Mary Ann, of 11 Oakwood Street, West Bromwich, realise that like many Black Country folk their family life would change forever. Henry and Mary had seven children, Samuel, Mary Ann, Florence May (John and Kevin's mother), John Henry (Jack), Thomas Leslie (Tom), Henry Goldie and Gwendoline (who died as a child), all born in the Oakwood Street family home. Our two uncles, Jack and Tom were born three years apart, 1923 and 1926 respectively, Jack being the eldest. They both joined the Army when they became eligible, Jack joined 'S' Division of the 2nd Battalion South Staffs Regiment, and Tom the 5th Battalion The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry.
Towards the end of the War Jack took part in the famous Operation Market Garden, a bid to capture and hold the bridge at Arnhem. 'S' Division's arrival was a little less than dignified as they crash-landed in a Horsa glider somewhere in Holland, along with a six-pounder anti-tank gun. As the history books tell us, "Market Garden" didn't go according to plan. Relief for the troops already in place wasn't forthcoming and as the ammunition began to run out, the British soldiers couldn't stop the advancing German column. Jack got hit by an enemy bullet which he thought had passed through his abdomen, but to all the family's amazement an x-ray taken just a few years ago revealed the bullet still embedded in his body.
After being wounded Jack was taken in and given shelter by a brave Dutch family who lived not far from the bridge. Eventually, however, his hiding place was discovered and he was taken prisoner, along with several other soldiers who had fought so stubbornly at Arnhem Bridge. During this time Jack and his comrades were twice lined-up to be shot, but for some reason the Germans changed their minds. Thankfully Jack was now relatively safe and was route-marched off to a POW camp where he saw out the rest of the War working in the mines until the Americans arrived to liberate all the prisoners.
During his incarceration Jack had no idea what was happening on the other side of the wire. Back home in West Bromwich the Mansell family had received some devastating news. Two telegrams had arrived, one saying Jack was missing presumed dead, and the other confirming that Tom had been killed in action. On Thursday 22nd March 1945, just weeks away from the cessation of hostilities, Tom had tragically been killed by a land mine at the age of nineteen. The family grieved for the two boys, but Jack in prison was oblivious of the terrible fate that had befallen his younger brother.
You can imagine the family's mixture of shock and delight when Jack appeared on the doorstep in Oakwood Street one day after repatriation. Our mother Floss told us as kids, she nearly fainted when she saw her big brother casting a shadow across the doorway. Jack was obviously euphoric about his return home, but his joy soon turned to despair when he learned of Tom's death. All the family had as keepsakes from Tom were postcards he had sent back home from France, a copy of his will, his damaged cap badge, some rosary beads, a photo of his grave sent by the Army and a photo of him and another soldier. We don't know who the other chap is sat by him, but the family just wondered whether he might have been another Black Country lad who Tom had made friends with. Does any Bugle reader know who the soldier might be?
Shortly after the War, Jack returned to Germany with the Army as a dispatch rider. Whenever he had some spare time he would cover many miles on his motorbike searching the war cemeteries for Tom's grave, but without success. This feeling of not knowing where his brother's last resting place was would weigh heavy on Jack's mind for many years. Then, in the late 1990's the family had a stroke of luck. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission were contacted and they revealed Tom was buried at the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, Kleve, in Germany. In September 1999, Jack and his nephew Kevin Edwards had the chance to visit Arnhem for the 55th anniversary of Operation Market Garden. It was the first time Jack had been back to Arnhem since the War, and he enjoyed taking part in the Veteran's Parade. He and the other chaps who made the trip were overwhelmed by the warmth, gratitude and respect shown by the Dutch people to them as old soldiers.
It had always been in Jack's mind to use the visit to Arnhem as the chance to finally pay his last respects at Tom's grave. Kevin and uncle Jack found the cemetery at Kleve, and also Tom's last resting place, bedecking the grave with a wreath of poppies. It was a very emotional moment for the both of them. The weight had finally been lifted from Jack's shoulders as he bade farewell to his kid brother. Who could have known that when they parted all those years ago, one would return to the Black Country, and sadly, one wouldn't.
Uncle Jack enjoys life to the full, maintaining it with a terrific sense of humour, and when we celebrate his 80th birthday in a few days time, we will also have the memory of Uncle Tom uppermost in our minds."