Topic June / July 2020. JACK GALLAGHER B.E.M. (1902-84) is more than a local hero in the village of Selsey, England, where he was responsible for the formation of the local troop of the Legion of Frontiersmen and of what expanded to be “D” Wessex Squadron. He was the epitome of a true Frontiersman. He considered himself just an “ordinary” man, but was one of those very few whose extraordinary charisma stayed with all those who met him, and who can never forget him.
With a twin sister Jennie he was born in South Shields and proud of it, the son of a Master Mariner who was the last to sail a three-masted schooner down the River Tyne in 1895. All through his life, Jack was a deeply Christian man with his beliefs fostered by his father. His father had insisted that Jack learned how to defend himself with his fists and always stood up to bullies at school. “He believed in teaching us in being able to take care of ourselves when need arose”. Jack joined the Boy Scouts and wrote an interesting account of how the Scouts, especially on coastal areas served the country in 1914 after the war started.
Our Scoutmaster and his assistant joined the army, the Troop was left to carry on with only its Patrol Leaders in charge.
Many of us volunteered for “War Service”, some became messengers at the headquarters of the local territorial unit, others went as coast watchers with H.M. Coast Guard. Others went into camp at important railway centres, here they patrolled with the police to see that there were no suspicious trespassers.
On one occasion we found a rather suspicious character and pursued him, we reported him to the police. Later we found out that he had been arrested and it was proved that he was up to no good, and duly sentenced and punished.¹
Jack was always very proud to wear on his uniform above his medals the small ribbon which showed that he had been one of the pre-First War members of the Boy Scouts who had acted as a messenger and assisted in the defence of Britain in 1914.
At the age of 15 Jack attempted to join the Royal Flying Corps, but the Recruiting Sergeant would not believe that he was “nearly eighteen”. He hoped to be able to follow his father in a seafaring career, but unfortunately he had a problem with the sight in his left eye so was not acceptable for training as a bridge officer. His first job was working for a bank with the chance of a posting to France as he was quite proficient in French, but an indoor career was not for Jack and his health suffered. He joined an agricultural college and learned farming as an apprentice in Northumberland, where he also became a skilled horseman. He then worked for a very mean farmer in Buckinghamshire until he finally had a blazing row with his employer and left him, especially as he learned that the farmer had been a conscientious objector in the war. Farming jobs were hard to find in the1920s so he went to sea doing various menial jobs before deciding to work his passage to Australia and seek a new life. He spent 12 years in the Outback, herding sheep and cattle. Although he worked his passage back to Britain many times, he retained a great love of Australia until his dying day.
At the start of War in 1939, Jack was again at sea on the collier Tamworth, a vital but unromantic task carrying coal and coke for the factories and homes of southern England. In the summer of 1940, the English Channel became the most heavily fought over small stretch of water in the world. The Germans wanted control in preparation for invasion of England, and required absolute supremacy with the Channel swept clear of all British shipping. Britain needed the vital route kept open. Collier convoys were under constant attack from German dive-bombers. Many of these small old colliers were defended by just one Lewis gun. Jack Gallagher was the merchant navy gunner on the Tamworth and he had a 12-pounder gun in the stern. This was there to deter E-boats, as the limited angle of inclination made it unsuitable for use against the dive-bombers. On 25th July 1940 convoy C.W.8 started with twenty-one merchant ships, including the Tamworth. At four in the afternoon off Kent, Jack saw hordes of specks in the sky coming from the French coast. He reported to the second mate who thought that Jack was seeing spots before his eyes, but before long they were attacked by numbers of Junkers 87s. An E-boat was also heading towards them, but a round from Jack’s 12-pounder caused it to turn back. The Lewis gunner on the bridge began blazing away at the diving planes. The Tamworth suddenly ceased steaming, out of control with engines stopped, as a stick of bombs had burst in the water underneath her keel. For a few moments when the German planes were at the bottom of their dive, they were within the sights of Jack’s gun. He fired and the delighted crew began shouting at him “You’ve got it, you’ve got it!” Dazed by all the noise and slightly wounded, Jack realised that a cloud of smoke and debris in the sky was the remains of Junkers 87, which must have exploded when his round had hit its petrol tanks. A destroyer laid a smoke screen around the surviving lame ducks in the water and a tug came out of Dover to tow in the Tamworth while the Germans continued to dive-bomb the mere half of the convoy left afloat. Attacking E-boats began to come out of France but two British destroyers were sent out in response.
Jack Gallagher was awarded the B.E.M. for his bravery that day and was presented with the medal by King George VI at Buckingham Palace. During that war the B.E.M. was mainly a gallantry medal and not a civilian one. On 26th September, Jack was still on board the Tamworth, which was beginning to be known as the “unsinkable ship” although she was heavily scarred. The ship was unloading coal at Phoenix Wharf in Southampton on one of the much-remembered days when Southampton received a terrible pasting. It is claimed that in ten seconds one hundred and fifty bombs landed in the area and the Vickers Supermarine works on the other side of the river, and an important target for the Germans, was completely destroyed. It was a terrible day for Southampton and the Docks.
Just after Christmas that year, Jack was on leave, and during one of the worst fire raids on London he tumbled into a City underground station for shelter, where he actually stumbled into Frances Sympson. She was from a City of London family and lived just around the corner. Fluent in French, her wartime job was as an interpreter to General de Gaulle. It was not to be long after this romantic meeting that they married. After the War Jack and Frances moved around the country until in 1966 they settled in Selsey where his enthusiasm brought about the formation of what was to become for years one of the most active troops of the Legion. He had previously joined the Legion Canadian Division when they were living in Croydon.
He was regularly to be seen on parades riding his fine horse Tom. He died in 1984, and no-one who ever met Jack Gallagher has ever forgotten the quiet and unassuming, but exemplary and brave Frontiersman.
Information on Jack Gallagher’s service in the War is taken from “The Coal-Scuttle Brigade” by Alexander McKee (Souvenir Press 1957 abridged paperback edition Hamlyn Paperbacks 1981), which is recommended and thought-provoking reading about the unsung heroes of the Channel convoys in the Second World War.
¹Information on Jack’s early life is taken from his own reminiscences, a copy of which is now lodged at the Legion of Frontiersmen Archives at the Peel Special Collections and Library, University of Alberta.
More about the Canadian Division (UK Command) and its visits to Belgium and France are to be found at:
In his later years Jack Gallagher was taken to the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon where there was a Junkers 87 suspended from the ceiling – the first time Jack had looked upwards at one since the war. We have been unable to ascertain if there is any copyright to the excellent illustration of a Junkers 87 (possibly Steam Artwork). We will be happy to credit if advised. This is a volunteer non-commercial website and blog.
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