b. 09/06/1914 Newcastle upon Tyne. d. 27/06/1942 Mersa Matruh, Egypt.
Adam Herbert Wakenshaw (1914-1942) was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 9th June 1914, the youngest of six children of Thomas and Mary Wakenshaw to survive childhood. Thomas was a labourer and the family struggled against poverty and hardship. At the age of 14, Adam left St Abysm’s RC Boys’ School to work underground at Elswick Colliery. In 1932, aged 18, he married Dorothy Ann Douglass. By 1939, they had three children, John, Thomas and Lilian, and were living at 16 Duke Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
When World War II broke out in September 1939, Adam left his labouring job and joined the Army. In 1940, the British Expeditionary Force was defeated and forced to retreat to Dunkirk. Private Adam Wakenshaw, although wounded, was one of the lucky ones to escape. His unit was the 9th Durham Light Infantry – the same territorial unit that had seen Thomas Young and Roland Bradford awarded the VC in World War I.
In February 1941, his eldest son, John, aged just 7, was killed in a road accident near their home. Adam was given a few days compassionate leave to return to Newcastle. It was the last time Dorothy and this two other children would see him.
On 21st June 1942, Tobruk fell as the German Army in North Africa pushed east towards Alexandria in Egypt and the Suez Canal. At Mersa Matruh on the Egyptian coast, the British Eighth Army tried to halt the German advance. Before dawn on the 27th June, the German 90th Light Division moved against the 151st (Durham) Brigade of the 50th Division. The blow landed first on the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry. The Battalion occupied a small plateau, Point 174, about 17 miles south of Mersa Matruh, where the ground was flat and rocky, making it impossible for the men to dig in. Instead, the men lay behind boulders or small, quickly-built stone walls. Before them on the gentle forward slope were 9 DLI’s 2-pounder tank guns. Each of the four guns had its own crew. One crew included Wakenshaw.
At 5.15am, the German infantry attacked, and as they advanced, a tracked vehicle carrying a light gun came within close range of Wakenshaw’s tank gun. The 2-pounder opened fire and a direct hit stopped the vehicle dead. Then another German mobile gun opened fire, and all the Durhams, manning the 2-pounders, including Wakenshaw, were dead or wounded. With the anti-tank guns silenced, the Germans moved forward towards the damaged tracked vehicle. If the light gun was brought into action, the 9th DLI’s infantry was in trouble. This movement was seen by Wakenshaw lying near his gun. Though he had been severely wounded, with his left arm blown off above the elbow, he crawled back to his gun. There, with the help of his gun aimer, Eric Mohn, who had been also seriously wounded, they started to prepare the gun. With just one arm, Adam loaded the shells and five more rounds were fired. One direct hit set the vehicle on fire, and damaged the gun. A German shell went off and Mohn was killed. Wakenshaw was thrown away from the blast.
Unbelievably, he dragged himself for a second time over the rocky ground and back to his gun. There he placed one more round and prepared to fire. Sadly, a direct hit on the ammunition near to him, killed him instantly. There was nothing to now stop the German advance and soon the rest of the 9th DLI infantry was surrounded. That evening, after the Germans had withdrawn, other Durham soldiers from the 8th Battalion searched the battlefield. Amidst the wreckage of his gun, they found Wakenshaw, and buried him where he fell.
He was later re-buried in 1943 in El Alamein War Cemetery, and was posthumously awarded the VC. The medal was presented to his widow, Dorothy, and passed through the family to his daughter, Lilian. The medal was then donated to the Durham Light Infantry Museum, and is currently in storage following the closure of the Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: DURHAM LIGHT INFANTRY, DURHAM.
BURIAL PLACE: EL ALAMEIN WAR CEMETERY, EL ALAMEIN, EGYPT.
PLOT XXXII, ROW D, GRAVE 9
Iain Tidey – Image of Wakenshaw VC’s grave.
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map.
Thomas Stewart – Image of the Wakenshaw VC Medal when displayed at the Durham LI Museum.
Andrew Swan – Image of the Wakenshaw VC Black Plaque at the Discovery Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne.