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Siblings who grew up ‘poor as church mice’ posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross and George Cross

LORD ASHCROFT The sleepy Norfolk village of Whissonsett, population 488, is mentioned in the Domesday Book commissioned in 1085. Yet it also has another claim to fame that is apparent from a village sign erected, by chance, exactly 900 years later.

For the sign, unveiled in the summer of 1985 just a stone’s throw from the village church, honours the memory of two remarkable brothers: Derek and Hugh Seagrim. They are the only siblings ever to be awarded, separately, their country’s foremost gallantry awards: the Victoria Cross (VC) and the George Cross (GC).

Tomorrow I will visit Norwich School, an independent school where I was a pupil six decades ago, to deliver a short lecture to staff and pupils on two of the five sons of the former Rector of Whissonsett, an eccentric ex-missionary.

Derek and Hugh Seagrim pictured with their mother. Lleut Derek killed and captured 20 Germans in north Africa. Maj Hugh Seagrim sacrificed his life to save villagers from the Japanese 

On Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, as we pay our respects to our war dead, it is appropriate to recall the astonishing gallantry of two brothers who gave their lives for their King, their country, their comrades and for wider freedoms. They thoroughly deserve their accolade as ‘the bravest of the brave’.

Derek Anthony Seagrim was born on September 24, 1903, in Bournemouth, Hampshire. He was the son of the Rev Charles Seagrim and his wife Annabel, who were said to be ‘as poor as church mice’ but who were loved by their communities.

The couple moved around the country with the Rev Seagrim’s postings, and Hugh Paul Seagrim, their fifth son, was born on March 24 1909, in Ashmansworth, Hampshire. Later the family moved to Whissonsett, 23 miles north-west of Norwich, where the Rev Seagrim became the Rector, living in a rambling, eight-bedroom Victorian rectory.

Derek and Hugh attended King Edward VI School (now known as Norwich School) where they were sporty rather than academic: indeed Hugh played as goalkeeper for Norwich City reserves. All five brothers were destined to serve as officers in the military.

Lieut-Col Derek Seagrim (pictured) was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in action at the Mareth Line in Tunisia in March 1943

Lieut-Col Derek Seagrim (pictured) was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in action at the Mareth Line in Tunisia in March 1943

After attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Derek Seagrim was commissioned into the Green Howards in 1923 and over the next 16 years served in several countries including Jamaica, Palestine and China.

Early in the Second World War, he served as Air Liaison Officer with the RAF in East Africa. The following year he was promoted to Major and from 1941-2 he served as Staff Officer in the Greek campaign.

In October 1942 he was promoted to Temporary Lieutenant Colonel serving as Commanding Officer of the 7th Battalion, The Green Howards, at El Alamein, the town on Egypt’s north coast famous as the location of a key Second World War battle.

However, it was for bravery elsewhere in Africa, in March 1943, that Lieut Col Seagrim was awarded the VC – Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy.

After a series of indecisive battles over the previous three months, the Allies sought to regain the initiative and decided that the British Eighth Army would advance west from Libya into Southern Tunisia. By the end of February it had reached the Mareth Line, a series of fortifications which stretched from the coast to the Matmata Hills.

On the night of March 20/21, the Allies attacked the Mareth Line and Lieut Col Seagrim’s battalion was tasked with capturing an important objective on the left flank of the main force.

However, the enemy’s defences at this point were extremely strong and the area was protected by an anti-tank ditch 12ft wide and 8ft deep, with minefields on both sides. Furthermore, the battalion came under a most intense fire from artillery, machine-guns and mortars.

Realising that this point was vital to the success of the main attack, Lieut Col Seagrim placed himself at the very front of his battalion even though his men were dropping dead and injured all around him from the hail of fire.

The officer personally helped his team place the scaling ladder over the anti-tank ditch and was the first across. Then he led the assault, firing his pistol and throwing grenades, including attacking two machine-gun posts that were holding up the advance of one of his companies.

It was estimated that he personally killed or captured 20 Germans during his rampage, and soon the objective was won. The next morning the enemy launched a huge and prolonged attempt to recapture the position, but the battalion stood firm. Lieut Col Seagrim moved from post to post until the attackers were all killed or seen off.

Just 15 days later, however, he was badly wounded at the Battle of Wadi Akarit, Tunisia. He died at a military hospital in Tunisia on April 6, 1943. He was aged 39 and unmarried. His posthumous VC was announced in The London Gazette on May 13, 1943, when his citation concluded: ‘By his valour, disregard for personal safety and outstanding example he so inspired his men that the Battalion successfully took and held the objective thereby allowing the attack to proceed. Lieutenant Colonel Seagrim subsequently died of wounds received in action.’

In February 1944 his VC was presented to his mother, Annabel, by King George VI at an investiture at Buckingham Palace.

At that time, his younger brother Hugh was also serving his country with great distinction. After also attending Sandhurst, he had been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant with the Indian Army, later serving with the Rajputana Rifles and the Kumaon Rifles.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he was serving as a Captain and, from 1940-1, he was attached to the 3rd Battalion, Burma Rifles, during which time he was promoted to Temporary Major. After a spell at Quetta Staff College in India (now part of Pakistan), he returned to serve with the Burma Rifles during the retreat from Burma.

From early 1943 onwards, Maj Seagrim was chosen to serve in an elite special force – Force 136 of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Maj Seagrim’s group operated in the Karen Hills, with the gallant support of the local Karen people. From February 1943 he led a number of successful ambushes, and the Japanese intensified their attempts to track him and his followers down.

In their efforts to capture Maj Seagrim and his followers, the Japanese coerced and tortured local villagers.

In February 1944, after a year of effective operations behind enemy lines, Maj Seagrim’s force was itself ambushed. He escaped with a Karen officer but two fellow British officers were killed.

Incensed that Maj Seagrim had evaded capture, the Japanese arrested 270 Karens, including village elders. Many were killed, others brutally tortured but still those sheltering Maj Seagrim refused to give him up.

However, in March the Japanese got a message to Maj Seagrim that the campaign of reprisals and fear would end if he gave himself up: if not they would kill the villagers at the rate of one a day.

On learning of this assurance, Maj Seagrim walked out of the village where he was hiding and surrendered to the enemy on March 15, 1944. He was, of course, fully aware of the horrors that awaited him in Japanese hands. The Japanese moved him to Rangoon where he was court-martialled, along with eight other men from his patrol who had been captured earlier and, on September 2, 1944, they were condemned to death.

As soon as the sentences were read out, Maj Seagrim stepped forward and addressed the president of the court. He said that the other men were simply following orders – and that therefore only he should die and the others should be spared.

His pleas were ignored and the group was returned to prison where Maj Seagrim comforted the men and prepared them for their fate.

Indeed, his men were so inspired by his bravery and loyalty that they all concluded that they did not want any other attempts to be made for their lives to be spared: if their commander was going to die, they wanted to die with him.

Lieutenant Colonel Derek Seagrim. Derek Anthony Seagrim was born on September 24, 1903, in Bournemouth, Hampshire

Lieutenant Colonel Derek Seagrim. Derek Anthony Seagrim was born on September 24, 1903, in Bournemouth, Hampshire

Every evening before being captured, Maj Seagrim had conducted prayers around a campsite and read passages from the Bible to his men in Burmese. He confided to one man that during his 13 months in the Karen Hills he had read the Bible cover to cover 12 times.

While in prison, he encouraged his men to take strength from prayer. On the night before his execution, Maj Seagrim told one of those Karens due to die with him: ‘Don’t worry, Ta Roe, we are Christians and we must have faith in God. Pray to God, Ta Roe, and trust Him.’

Maj Seagrim went bravely to his death on September 14, 1944, aged 35. Like his highly decorated elder brother, he remained unmarried. His GC – Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry award for courage not in the face of the enemy – was awarded on September 12, 1946, when his short citation gave no details of his heroic work behind enemy lines.

It simply said his GC was ‘in recognition of most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner’.

However, Lieut Col J. R. Gardiner, who had made the recommendation, concluded: ‘There can hardly be a finer example of self-sacrifice and bravery than exhibited by this officer who in cold blood deliberately gave himself up to save others, knowing well what his fate was likely to be at the hands of the enemy…

‘I count it as a privilege to recommend this very gallant officer for the George Cross.’

Maj Seagrim, who had been awarded a military MBE in 1942, was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1944.

The recommendation for Maj Seagrim’s DSO, prepared while he was still alive and at the time highly confidential, stated: ‘This officer has remained 380 miles within enemy-held territory ever since its occupation by the Japanese forces in April 1942.

‘During this period he has sustained the loyalty of local inhabitants for a very wide area and thereby has provided the foundation of a pro-British force whenever occupying forces arrive in that area.

‘This officer has now been contacted by Major Nimmo, ABRO [Army in Burma Reserve of Officers], and is passing valuable military intelligence by wireless. The fact that he has remained alone in constant danger and has maintained pro-British sympathies in such adverse circumstances, has proved his determination, courage and devotion to be of the highest order.’

Major Hugh Seagrim. Derek and Hugh attended King Edward VI School (now known as Norwich School) where they were sporty rather than academic: indeed Hugh played as goalkeeper for Norwich City reserves. All five brothers were destined to serve as officers in the military

Major Hugh Seagrim. Derek and Hugh attended King Edward VI School (now known as Norwich School) where they were sporty rather than academic: indeed Hugh played as goalkeeper for Norwich City reserves. All five brothers were destined to serve as officers in the military

As a young boy, Maj Seagrim had been known as ‘Bumps’ because he was always getting into scrapes, falling out of trees and the like. While fighting in Burma, he was known affectionately as ‘Grandfather Longlegs’ because he was older than most comrades and he was 6ft 4in tall.

His posthumous GC was also presented to his mother, Annabel, by George VI at Buckingham Palace, this second family investiture taking place on December 2, 1947.

Long after the war ended, Annabel Seagrim briefly wore her son Derek’s VC and her son Hugh’s GC at a War Memorial Parade in Eastbourne, East Sussex. It is believed to be the only time that anyone has worn both prestigious gallantry awards in public.

Both medal groups are on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, although neither is part of my personal medal collection.

Today, Derek and Hugh Seagrim are buried thousands of miles from their one-time Norfolk home: the former in the Sfax war Cemetery in Tunisia, the latter in Rangoon War Cemetery, Burma.

However, the village of Whissonsett could hardly have done more to honour them: apart from the village sign, their names are on a family grave in the village churchyard and on the village war memorial, and a cabinet in the church contains memorabilia relevant to both brothers.

Furthermore, Norwich School, which I will be addressing tomorrow, has named one of its eight houses Seagrim in the brothers’ memory.

Over the next two days of remembrance and commemoration, I would ask you to spare a thought for these two brothers who both showed supreme self-sacrifice.

There is an inscription on the Kohima War Cemetery in India that perfectly sums up the courage of Derek and Hugh Seagrim on foreign soil during the Second World War. The words of John Maxwell Edmonds, the British poet, read: ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today.’

  •  Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on his work, visit lordashcroft.com. Follow him on Twitter @LordAshcroft

 



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