b. 06/08/1916 Doncaster, Yorkshire. d. 29/09/1944 Antwerp, Belgium
John William Harper (1916-1944) was born on 6th August 1916, the eldest of four children, to George Ernest Harper and his wife Florence (nee Parkin) in Hatfield Woodhouse, near Doncaster, Yorkshire. He had two brothers called Stanley and Peter and a sister Joan, and they lived in Slay Pits Lane. John was educated at the local primary school in Hatfield Woodhouse. When he left school, he joined his father as a peat cutter on the fields around the village.
He married a local girl, Lily, and the pair moved to a house in Thorne. But the couple’s lives were to change with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and in April 1940, John, like thousands of others, was enlisted into the war effort as the menace of Nazi Germany spread rapidly across mainland Europe.
John enlisted in the 4th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment and was promoted to Corporal prior to the action which led to the award of the Victoria Cross in late September 1944.
In the early hours of 29th September 1944, the Hallamshire Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment attacked the Depot de Mendicite, a natural defensive position surrounded by an earthen wall, and then a dyke, strongly held by the enemy. Corporal Harper was commanding the leading section in the assault. The enemy were well dug in and had a perfect field of fire across 300 yards of completely flat and exposed country. With superb disregard for the hail of mortar bombs and small arms fire which the enemy brought to bear on this open ground.
Corporal Harper led his section straight up to the wall and killed or captured the enemy holding the near side. During this operation the platoon commander was seriously wounded and Corporal Harper took over control of the platoon. As the enemy on the far side of the wall were now throwing grenades over the top, Corporal Harper climbed over the wall alone, throwing grenades, and in the face of heavy, close range small arms fire, personally routed the Germans directly opposing him. He took four prisoners and shot several of the remainder of the enemy as they fled. Still completely ignoring the heavy spandau and- mortar fire, which was sweeping the area, once again he crossed the wall alone to find out whether it was possible for his platoon to wade the dyke which lay beyond. He found the dyke too deep and wide to cross, and once again he came back over the wall and received orders to try and establish his platoon on the enemy side of it. For the third time he climbed over alone, found some empty German weapon pits, and providing the covering fire urged and encouraged his section to scale the wall and dash for cover. By this action he was able to bring down sufficient covering fire to enable the rest of the company to cross the open ground and surmount the wall for the loss of only one man. Corporal Harper then left his platoon in charge of his senior section commander and walked alone along the banks of the dyke, in the face of heavy spandau fire, to find a crossing place. Eventually he made contact with the battalion attacking on his right, and found that they had located a ford. Back he came across the open ground, and, whilst directing his company commander to the ford, he was struck by a bullet which fatally wounded him and he died on the bank of the dyke.
Harper was buried in Leopoldsburg War Cemetery near Limburg, Belgium with full military honours. He was gazetted for a posthumous VC on 2nd January 1945, and the medal was presented to his widow in an investiture at Buckingham Palace. His medals are now held at the York and Lancaster Regimental Museum, Clifton Park, Rotherham, Yorkshire.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: YORK/LANCASTER RGT MUSEUM, ROTHERHAM.
BURIAL PLACE: LEOPOLDSBURG WAR CEMETERY, LIMBURG, BELGIUM.
PLOT V, ROW B, GRAVE 15
Kevin Brazier – Harper VC Grave and Cemetery Plan
Helen Acton – Plaque at Hatfield Woodhouse Primary School
Victoria Cross Trust – Image of the VC Plaque in Lakeside Shopping Centre, Doncaster.
Thomas Stewart – Image of the Harper VC Medal Group at Clifton Park Museum, Rotherham.