The unknown soldier, the unspoken story

A poignant picture in the snow. Dad is held several inches aloft, insinuated between an unknown soldier and Dad’s older brother Jimmy (taken around 1940). He swells with pride betwixt the two – the uniformed schoolboy betraying his adulation with a grin. The family dog walks past the garden scene prompting some hilarity by the other two as they stand framed by the barren garden pergola.

The unknown soldier, dad (Norman Finch) and his brother (Jimmy Finch). Circa. 1940. Highlands Avenue, Leatherhead, Surrey.

No amount of staring at this picture will provide answers to this conundrum: who is he? Who is that soldier who is deserving of such veneration by my dad?

Perhaps if I zoom in on his cap badge in this wintry photo I can find out what regiment he was in? What an undertaking. Hours of pawing through World War II regimental cap badges. Is this a good way to use my time. I’ve now got through 25 badges and only 10 more to go. None of them seem to match except with a little bit of imagination. The limits of pixelation leave me with only guess work. But then I see a candidate, the cap badge for the Essex Regiment. That seems to fit. The gaps in the figure seemed to match with the profile of a castle surrounded by oak leaves and a Sphinx on top. Can I see this ornamentation or am I just indulging my confirmation bias?

Zoom in on cap badge of unknown soldier comapred to Essex Regiment badge.

Let’s be honest: as I grew up I wasn’t in the habit of listening to my dad’s second hand war stories. I did remember some mention of a ‘cousin Vic’ but nostalgia had no place in my life: nor did it play a part in any of my siblings’ lives. We were too busy getting on with our own. Alas, in the words of Joni Mitchell, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’.

Some months later, long after I had given up any hope of identifying this seemingly significant other person, happenstance reignited my curiosity. It stemmed from a long lost relative to whom I had become acquainted only recently. Keith had become a daily part of my life ever since his phone number had been given to me by a distant relative (Georgina) in New Zealand. He talked with similar reverence about an Uncle Nick, not the Vic Finch that my dad so often spoke of at the breakfast table. But then a passing remark by Keith informed me that his proper name was Victor Finch although everyone knew him as Nick. Could this be the unknown soldier that appeared in the wintry garden photo?

I shared the photo with my not-so-distant relatives in New Zealand and with Keith who lived in London (my second cousin). Only Keith remembered what he looked like, but yes, he remembered the spirited smile. We have our man!

So do we know anything about him? It transpired that Georgina’s daughter Sam had already done the groundwork. We had often wondered what seemingly inconsequential finds she had uncovered in the loft when she visited our house in Tenterden on her travels from New Zealand. Being from a younger generation than myself, she had surprisigly taken the time to listen to my father before he passed away. Some of the artefacts in the loft including a few letters from a prisoner of war camp had been explained to her.

Operation Chariot

What are the facts behind this puckish character: and why did he attract this adoration from my father?

It seems that Nick (Vic) was not a regular soldier. He was a commando. In fact, he was one of the first commandos: undertaking an operation instigated by Winston Churchill. Tehy were a maverick group of soldiers that were handpicked for their ability to ‘paddle their own canoe’. Much to the consternation of the regular army, their training did not involve mundane marching drills. Instead, all their preparation involved real-life simulations across gruelling terrain.

The operation in question was called ‘Operation Chariot’. The St Nazaire Raid or Operation Chariot was a British amphibious attack on the heavily defended Normandie dry dock at St Nazaire in German-occupied France during the Second World War. Many senior military personnel felt that it was unlikely to succeed and the soldiers were unlikely to evade capture. I’m no military historian, but looking at the perilous tasks involved, the only thing that seemed to weigh in its favour was its unlikeliness. Surely no sane commander would sanction such an operation.

On 28 March 1942, 341 sailors and 264 commandos finally sailed from Falmouth to undertake Operation Chariot. Against all the odds the operation succeeded, but 169 were killed and about 200 were taken as prisoners of war: cousin Nick was one of them. His details appear on the Commando Veterans Archive.

If you want to know more about Operation Chariot, you could check out the documentary narrated by Jeremy Clarkson (yes, the same broadcaster and journalist who claimed ‘it’s not my job to be woke’). Whatever your opinions of Jeremy Clarkson, it is a well-researched piece of journalism that highlights just how fraught with danger the operation was.

Looks can be deceiving

We have a record of Nick as a prisoner of war – it’s a propaganda image showing him amongst his colleagues looking healthy and joyous. Notice the unmistakable bushy eyebrows that can also be seen in the wintry photo.

Vic Finch amongst other POW prisoners. Copyright: Commando Veterans’ Archive

But there was no mistaking that these prisoners of war suffered terribly at the hands of the German army, particularly in the ‘long march’. This is recounted by Sam:

“Grandma mentioned he was on the ‘long’ or ‘death march’ though didn’t give any details.  As Allied forces approached his POW camp it was evacuated and they had to march east I believe towards another one [POW camp] in Germany itself (his was based in what’s now Poland).  I think it was also winter and they definitely had extremely little if any food especially if you weren’t the first into each village along the way.  Many didn’t survive such marches from illness, starvation, injuries, exposure and complications from being frozen, and those who couldn’t keep going/keep up were often killed by the soldiers.  He would have likely seen others who were shot so his thinking he was to be shot would have been very horrifying and a very real threat.  Conditions in the camps had deteriorated before this and the Red Cross Parcels were blocked or stopped and this was where many of them got their main food from.  There are stories told of them having to stuff their faces with as much as possible because all stocks of parcels they already had were going to be destroyed too.  So they were already in a terrible state before the marches commenced.”

Nick and his fellow prisoners were freed by the Allied forces as the war came to its conclusion in 1945. His nephew Keith remembers his uncle Nick with great affection and was always struck by his fearless attitude. This piecing together of a war story has cemented a connection that perhaps was unattended for too long. Revisiting this story has allowed the past to be part of the future: his nephew Keith is now truly connected with a wider Finch family. His grandfather Bertram (Nick’s father) and our grandfather (William) were close brothers born in the very same year. The same could be said of Georgina and her daughter Sam in New Zealand whose recollections and research have been indispensable for this article.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to our relatives in New Zealand, Sam and Georgina for their research underpinning some of this story. Also thanks to Keith for his verbal recollections of ‘Uncle Nick’. Finally, thanks for the contribution by my brother James Finch in identifying resources related to Operation Chariot.

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