b. 13/08/1943 Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire. d. 25/05/1971 Belfast, Northern Ireland.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 25/05/1971 Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Michael Willetts (1943-1971) was born on 13th August 1943 in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, the son of Samuel and Annie Willetts (nee Orton). After school, Michael took a temporary job in Summit Colliery (also known as Kirkby Colliery) before on 20th March 1962 he volunteered for the Parachute Regiment. After passing the parachute selection course at Aldershot and qualified to be posted to 3 PARA.
On 9th October 1965 he married Sandra Long, who hailed from the same part of Nottinghamshire as Michael. They went on to have two children, Dean and Trudy. He was promoted to Corporal on 26th January 1967 and shortly afterwards joined the Signal Platoon where he was promoted to Sergeant on 28th January 1970. He proved himself as a talented radio operator and was selected to be the Radio Operator in the Battalion Rover Group. At the time of his appointment he was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Peter Chiswell, and they were stationed in Malta GC with a company in Cyprus and Libya. They were also involved in NATO operations in Greece at the time.
In early 1971 the counter terrorism situation in Northern Ireland became critical. As soon as 3 PARA were back in the UK from the Mediterranean, they were deployed to the Province. On arrival, they were initially in Armagh for the first two months, and then later in West Belfast. By the early summer the battalion was involved in intensive operations in the city. In order to maintain the rule of law, police stations needed to be kept open and accessible to the public. The most critical of these locations was Springfield Road RUC Station, which also operated as Battalion HQ.
On 25th May 1971, a terrorist entered the police station in Springfield Road carrying a suitcase, from which a smoking fuse protruded. He dumped it on the floor and fled. In the room were a man and a woman, two children and several poilce officers. One of the officers raised the alarm and began to organise the evacuation of the hall past the reception desk, through the office and out via a door into the rear passage. Sergeant Willetts, who was on duty in the inner hall, heard the alarm and sent an NCO up to the first floor to warn those above. He then proceeded to the reception area and saw a police officer thrusting people through the hall and office. He held the door open while all passed safely through and then stood in the doorway, shielding them. In the next moment the bomb exploded with terrible force, mortally wounding Sergeant Willetts.
Michael’s body was returned to England and he was buried in the churchyard of St Mary of the Purification, Blidworth, near Mansfield, Nottinghamshire on 1st June 1971. A memorial service was held at the Royal Garrison Church in Aldershot on 7th July 1971, attended by the Lord Mayor of Belfast. On 21st June 1971, it was announced that Sergeant Michael Willetts would be awarded a posthumous George Cross, Inspector Edward Nurse of the RUC the George Medal, and Police Sergeant John Wilson and PC Hugh Shaw both awarded the British Empire Medal. Michael’s widow Sandra was presented with his George Cross at an investiture in July 1971. Michael’s GC and his General Service Medal 1962 with clasps for Radfan and Northern Ireland were auctioned by Christie’s on 14th March 1985. They were purchased by the National Army Museum, Chelsea. Sadly, the medals are not currently on display. In 2015, a memorial bench was placed near to his grave.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL ARMY MUSEUM, CHELSEA.
BURIAL PLACE: ST MARYS, BLIDWORTH, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE.
Kevin Brazier – Image of the Willetts GC Grave
Thomas Stewart – Images of the Willetts GC Medal Group at National Army Museum, and of the 3 Para Memorial at Aldershot Military Cemetery.