Recent Research Experiences Part 2

During our recent visit to England we had 2 other research goals:

1. Was James Darby at Dunkirk?

Peter’s father was a Grenadier Guard during World War 2.  He had been a volunteer soldier from 1930 to 1933 so was called up as a reservist.  Did he take part in the amazing evacuation from Dunkirk?  We did ask!  The war was so painful that often he wouldn’t talk. Some times he said he was there but some times he said he remembers watching the troops disembark.  Was his battalion part of the British Expeditionary Force that was evacuated from Dunkirk? What can we find out?

What we did?  Not everyone has the opportunity to visit their cousin in England and then have several days in London to do whatever you want!  One morning we took the tube to Tower Station and went to see the amazing display of over 880,000 ceramic poppies in the moat at the Tower of London – it was a tear jerking sight – then wandered over Tower Bridge and caught a bus to the Imperial War Museum.  Schools were on holiday break and the lineup was over 200 yards long!  – but it kept moving!  Many of the great museums in London have free admission!  Once inside we headed to the Research Library and searched for books on the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940.  The BEF was sent to France/Belgium in Sept 1939, there was no action until 20 Mary 1940 and the evacuation ended on 4 June 1940.  All 3 Battalions of the Grenadier Guards were there and we were able to locate them on each day of the battle and find when they were evacuated.

What we could have done? 1.  Booked an appointment with the research library at the Imperial War Museum – there is an online form, 2.  Studied Dad’s military records more carefully – and been more believing of what it said – but don’t you wonder how they manage to keep all those military records up to date – especially when a war is on?

Here is where Dad’s military records say he was during the war:

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Military record says he was at home in Britain until 1943 when he went to North Africa.  Important to try and find a person’s military records.

  1. Did a Royal Surgeon really save James Darby’s eyesight? 

In 1942 James Darby told the story of being blinded by sand during tank training exercises in England.  They put him in a hospital in Millbank, England, and told him that his condition could not be treated. For 5 months he said he was trying to accept his blindness and that he started learning to make crafts as a blind person. He said that a Royal Surgeon came by and told him that he might be able to help him but there were some risks.  He accepted the risks, had surgery, and eventually his eyesight was restored so he could go back to fighting in World War 2.   

Where was the hospital grandpa was in during world war 2?  How could a Royal Surgeon just happen to pass by?

What we did?  Visited the Guards Museum at Wellington Barracks in London – right next to the parade ground where Dad would have had to march up and down.  Was told that there was a military hospital at Millbank.  Went to the Tate Britain Gallery at Millbank and asked about the history of the area and if there had been a military hospital nearby.  Told that Millbank (which is just a few hundred yards upstream of the Houses of Parliament) had been the site of the largest prison in Europe in the 1800s – that this was where many of the convicts were deported to places like Australia.  Eventually the prison was demolished – it was a terrible place! – and 3 buildings were constructed on the site: 1.  Gallery for Tate Britain – a very beautiful building to house treasured paintings by British artists, opened 1897, 2.  A military hospital, and 3.  The Royal Army Medical College .  After our visit to the art gallery we went to some adjoining buildings and eventually found someone who could tell us more of the history.  For the past 10 years the buildings have been used as a college of art, but in basement of one of the buildings there was still a room labelled Morgue – was this the hospital?  Turned out no, it was the medical college and the old hospital was less than a 100 years away.  But it did explain how a Royal Surgeon – from the Royal Army Medical College – came by!

What we could have done?  More online research on military hospitals in Millbank – even a search of Wikipedia would have given information on the Military Hospital and the Royal Army Medical College – which has extensive articles with pictures of both.  The hospital was the Queen Alexandria Military Hospital opened in 1905 and closed in the 1970s.  Part of the hospital was used as an extension of the Tate Art Gallery.  The Royal Army Medical College was opened in 1907 and closed in 1999.

It was great to walk in your father’s footsteps!


Remains of Queen Alexandria Military Hospital, Millbank, London

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