b. 30/10/1912 Smethwick, Staffordshire. d. 28/03/1942 St Nazaire, France.
William Alfred Savage (1912-1942) was born at 7 Raglan Avenue, Cape Hill, Smethwick on the 30th October 1912. He was the son of James William Savage and Catherine (nee Dolman). He went to Cape Hill School in 1917 and on leaving there worked at the M & B Brewery, Cape Hill. On 28th March 1936 he married his childhood sweetheart, Doris Ellen Hobbs, who was a conductor on the local buses. They set up home in Durban Road, which is round the corner from Raglan Avenue and the brewery.
Savage joined up on 18th December 1939. He chose the navy and was posted to Chatham where he trained as a gunner and shortly after he was taking part in missions aboard small motor boats dropping off agents in France and Norway. Savage was selected for “Operation Chariot”, a raid on German facilities at the French port of St Nazaire on 28th March 1942, planned because St Nazaire was the only dry dock on the Atlantic Coast capable of holding the Tirpitz. This warship was a constant threat to the Atlantic Convoys which were a vital lifeline for the British Isles. Destroy St Nazaire and The Tirpitz sphere of damage would be confined to the North Sea area.
So, it was that on 26th March 1942 the destroyer HMS Campbeltown and 18 motor gunboats left Falmouth in Cornwall on a mission to destroy the dock. The intention was for the flotilla to sail right up the Loire estuary into the harbour itself. Once there HMS Campbeltown would ram the dock gates and would have it’s consignment of explosives time detonated. The gunboats and the destroyer itself carried a complement of commandos who were to be put ashore with the objectives of destroying other key buildings and causing as much confusion as possible.
Surviving commandos were to make their way back to the gunboats for the escape but the cost in human life was expected to be high. Plans for bomber support were abandoned owing to bad weather which increased the risks for the attacking force. In fact, as soon as the flotilla entered the estuary it found itself under attack from both sides of the bank, despite this heavy fire the attack was carried out and deemed a success. In all 144 men were killed, 215 were captured, and 271 made it back to England.
Apart from Savage four other VCs were awarded for actions during the raid. The paperwork for Savage’s recommendation for the VC was started on 31st March with a report by Commander Ryder which was sent to the Admiral of the Fleet (Forbes). In it Ryder gave his reasons for the recommendation saying, “Able Seaman Savage showed conspicuous gallantry and skill and devotion to duty as gun-layer of the pom pom in MG 314 during the St Nazaire raid. Completely exposed and under heavy fire from time to time, he engaged positions ashore with great accuracy. He also replied with vigorous and accurate fire against ships which attacked us on the way out. It is regretted that Savage was killed at his gun, but he is submitted that his high standard of devotion to duty should be recognised”.
In another awful twist for his family, he had been killed on his wedding anniversary. His body was brought back to Falmouth in Cornwall and he was buried in the local cemetery. Only his brother Roland was able to make the journey to Falmouth for the funeral. The St Nazaire raid in fact saw more than 100 men decorated for valour. Savage was apparently known to his shipmates as “Henry the Eighth” or “Beardy” due to his similarity to the King.
Savage’s VC was presented to his widow Doris at Buckingham Palace in June 1942. She made the trip from Cape Hill accompanied by his brother Lieutenant Roland Savage who was a member of the Home Guard. King George VI remarked to her that: “You must be very proud of him”. Doris Savage was indeed proud of him, asked for her thoughts on him she said that: “He was a most conscientious man and utterly loyal to his comrades. He would never tell me anything of the dangerous sort of work he was doing. No matter how closely he was questioned he would never give us the slightest clue”. Doris later remarried but always kept her first husband’s VC in her handbag. In 1990 she sold it, along with his other service medals, to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, GREENWICH, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: TOWN CEMETERY, FALMOUTH, CORNWALL.
Section K Row C Grave 15
Kevin Brazier – Image of the Savage VC Grave in Falmouth Cemetery.