Sussex family hit the headlines in Second World War, with father and six sons all serving at the same time

The White family of Shoreham hit the headlines in Sussex during the Second World War, as dad William White and his six sons were all serving at the same time.

Friday, 31st July 2020, 2:23 pm

As we reported in July 1944, ‘if this is not a Shoreham record, it cannot be far from it’.

William White, known as Bill, was 67 at the time and a corporal in the Home Guard with the Shoreham Platoon, having given four years’ service.

Sons Bill, Ern, Jim, George, Len and Christopher featured several times in the local press during the war.

From left, Chris, Len, Bill, Bill senior, Ern and George - at the time, Jim was absent as his wife Doreen was expecting a baby

By 1944, Corporal Bill White, the eldest of the six sons, was a prisoner of war, captured while serving with the Pioneer Corps at Abbeville in 1940, and Lance Bombardier Ern White was in Scotland with the 21st Army Group.

Guardsman Jim White was wounded while serving with the Coldstream Guards in the Egyptian campaign and was in hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, where he happened to find brother George, sick with malaria.

Sergeant Len White and brother Sergeant Christopher White had recently met in Italy, when Len, with a week’s leave, had been ‘scouting around’ and discovered his brother.

At one time, Bill, Ern and Jim had all featured in our wartime Herald Picture Gallery of Honour.

Len White, aged 77, with brothers Ern and Jim at Hove Town Hall for an Eighth Army reunion

Gerald White, Len’s son, has done a lot of research into the family history, particularly focusing on his father, the fifth son of Bill and Ellen White, of West Street, Shoreham.

Len was born on May 20, 1913, and brought into the world by his grandmother Caroline White, a qualified midwife.

Gerald said: “The house at 41 West Street was small, with only two bedrooms. The brothers went to St Peter’s RC School.

“Their father and Uncle Leonard were in the Army but Leonard, a fusilier, was wounded at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 and died due to his injuries.”

Ellen White with her boys, from left, George, Bill, Ern, Len and Christopher, wearing Fusilier cap badges for the funeral of their Uncle Leonard, who died in the First World War

Len left school at 14 and went to work as a trainee plasterer with R.A. Gates and Co builders, alongside Ern and Christopher, and their father.

He and Ern enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1936 and they joined the 113th Regt Royal Artillery, based in Worthing.

Len met Freda Nutley the following year and the couple were married in Portslade in 1937. They made their home in Connaught Avenue and Gerald was born in January 1938.

Gerald said: “During this time, he spent his spare time removing the ancient apple trees from the back garden. The gardens formed the site of a big apple orchard and almost all the house owners removed the old trees. They provided only small apples and were afflicted by a virus.”

Cuttings from the archives showing how the White family featured in the news during the Second World War

When the Second World War broke out, Len was called up but his first posting was not far, only to Buckingham Park, where the regiment ‘dug in’ their field guns, ready for enemy landings.

Later, when the regiment was posted to Dover, the guns were hidden under bogus haystacks.

Keen on keep fit, Len volunteered as a physical training instructor and joined the Durham Light Infantry at Shorncliffe. Unfortunately, an accident in the gymnasium resulted in a pulmonary embolism but after a spell in hospital, Len was declared fit to return to duty and in 1942, his regiment was posted overseas as part of the 56th (London) Infantry Division, known as the Black Cats.

Freda, by now expecting her second son, Anthony, and young Gerald had to say goodbye without knowing where Len was going.

After three weeks at sea, Len landed with in Bombay before travelling on to Iraq, where they dug in around Kirkuk. From here, the men were moved to North Africa to support the Eighth Army, the Desert Rats, and Len spent Christmas Eve 1942 at Nazareth.

In January 1943, they were in El Alamein under the command of General Bernard Montgomery.

Medals awarded to Len White

Gerald said: “Monty visited all of the formations and gave them a pep talk, told them what was expected of them, and when in action, they did not disappoint. They beat the Germans and had their first major victory over Axis forces.”

Len’s own gun team fired 200 rounds of 25-pounder shells. It is said his ears were bleeding from the constant shelling.

While in North Africa, a scorpion bit Len’s leg and it turned septic, so he was hospitalised and ended up missing the boat to go to Sicily with his regiment. When he was well enough to return to service, he joined the 92nd Reg RA for the journey and the landing at Taranto in Italy was unopposed.

The Black Cats were in line again in a plan to invade Anzio and as Len’s gun was run ashore in a tank landing craft, the enemy, on the beach head, was taken by surprise. The regiment dug in at Nettuno but as General Mark Clark, the new commander, decided to consolidate the beach head, it gave the Germans time to organise a defence. This was supported by two giant railway guns, which the Black Cats called Anzio Annie.

It was during this time that, having toothache, Len reported to the American dentist, who took an impression, then removed the offending tooth, and the following day, a new denture was fitted.

Life on the beach head was dangerous, especially with the shelling from Anzio Annie, and many of the Black Cats were killed. Eventually, after the loss of hundreds of men, the allies broke the German defence, leaving the road to Rome open to attack and capture.

It was at Naples that Len, who had a week’s leave, found his brother Christopher and together, they visited Rome. They discussed the fate of brother Bill, who had been captured, Jim, who was in Cape Town, wounded, along with brother George, who had malaria, and Ern, who had been too old for overseas service and had been posted to Scotland.

In summer 1945, Len returned to Shoreham and was met by his mother and father, wife Freda and the children, Gerald and Anthony.

Gerald said: “West Street had been decorated with flags, strung out across the road. A large brown paper poster was fixed to the wall outside 41 West Street and in bold letters, it read ‘Welcome Home Len... Welcome Home’.

“The war was soon put into the past and Len found employment with builders Strattons of Shoreham. He soon got into the habit of catching the early train to Crawley, plastering houses built on the new estate to rehouse families bombed out in the East End.

“Margaret was born in September 1947, Christopher was born in January 1949 and Peter completed the family in 1951. Freda thought she was going to have a Christmas baby but Peter was born on December 21.”

No doubt the other brothers were given a similar homecoming, as we reported the flags out in West Street when Bill returned from the prison camp, released by the Desert Rats.

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