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The Fallen of Kirkby

Fred Simpson

Fred Simpson
  • Son of George and Mary Simpson of Soutergate.
  • Private, 3859707, 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders.
  • Killed in Sferro, Sicily, 20th July 1943, aged 27.
  • Buried in Catania War Cemetery, Sicily.
  • Also commemorated on the war memorial at Field Broughton, Cumbria and in the Book of Remembrance of the Highlanders in Edinburgh Castle.

Fred Simpson was the youngest of six children brought up by George and Mary Simpson in a one-up-one-down cottage then opposite ‘Morden’ in Soutergate, but which has since been pulled down. Fred’s siblings were: James, Eleanor (known as Nellie), William, Harold and Edgar; the last two boys worked in the quarry. Mr Simpson had worked for the Furness Railway Company at Kirkby station, but had died in 1918 when Fred was just two. His widow and eldest child, Eleanor, were in the painful position of having to go to Ulverston to buy mourning clothes, just at the time when everybody else was celebrating the end of the First World War.

Fred was a good artist and had a particular talent for drawing dogs. He found plenty of subjects for his pictures after leaving Burlington School at 14 to work at Harlock Farm. He walked there and back each day, sometimes bringing several dogs home with him for the night. As well as confirming that he had been a good artist, Dick Cooper described him as “a lovely dancer”.

Eleanor, the only girl in the family, was in service in the Field Broughton area near Cartmel, where she met and married Joseph Pattinson. Joseph became Farm Manager at Broughton Grove Farm, and Fred moved to that area too, going into farm service in the Cartmel Peninsula, and apparently lodging some of the time with his sister and brother-in-law. He came back to Kirkby shortly before the Second World War, perhaps because his mother was now elderly and needed help, and maybe because of his own asthma, and got a job with the Council on the “crusher”. This was a machine that crushed stone for road repairs and moved around the area from one roadside quarry to another, with the men cycling to whichever quarry was being used at the time.

Unfortunately this change of career led to Fred Simpson’s death (as with Thomas Hudson, q.v.), because the council job was not a reserved occupation, so Fred could be called up, whereas if he had stayed in farming he would have been safe.

Private Fred Simpson, left, in what looks like a call-up picture
Private Fred Simpson, left, in what looks like a call-up picture

In spite of his asthma, Fred was passed ‘A1’ at his medical, following call up in March 1940. He went initially to Preston to join the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, but was transferred to the 1st Battalion the Gordon Highlanders – something that happened to many men in both wars, without them having any say in it.

(In the picture at the start of this tribute, Fred is wearing a Loyal North Lancs cap badge.)

Fred Simpson went through the North Africa Campaign with the Highlanders, and was wounded at El Alamein. After a month in hospital he returned to his unit in time to be among the first allied troops to enter Tripoli. He then moved on to Sicily with the 1st Army.

On 19th July 1943 the 1st Battalion the Gordon Highlanders were involved in heavy fighting for the Sferro Bridgehead. They advanced on foot through a wadi, and took the village of Sferro, where B and C Companies attempted to dig in on hard ground. The enemy bombarded the bridgehead throughout the daylight hours, and the 1st Battalion took many casualties, including their Chaplain, Company Sergeant Major Bell, three Lieutenants and Private Fred Simpson. Dick Cooper, who managed to see and photograph Fred’s first grave, with its simple wooden cross, believed that Fred was killed when the truck he was in was strafed by an enemy plane.

Captain J. Robertson wrote to Fred’s mother:

“It was such tremendously bad luck that, having survived the Battle of North Africa, he should lose his life so early in a new campaign. You will be glad to hear that he suffered no pain but was killed outright. Like all these lads he was a hero and died doing his duty. In and out of action he was a fine man and a friend to all his comrades.”

In October 1943, while serving with an anti-aircraft regiment in Sicily, Bill Smith, a close friend from Fred’s Field Broughton days, made a difficult and potentially hazardous journey to find Fred’s grave. In a moving letter to Joseph and Eleanor, he described what he found:

“There were fourteen graves in all, in a line. Fred’s was the third from the end. I took a keen survey of each, and noticed that the majority were men in Fred’s regiment and division. Upon reaching Fred’s, my heart sank within me to think that this was the last, probably, that I would see anything personally belonging to him. I owe you all so much, and do not know what to say. The last person of us to see him alive was myself, and I am only one out of many who would give up all to see his grave.”

When the war ended, the burials from the later stages of the Sicily Campaign were collected together in Catania War Cemetery. This burial ground contains the remains of 2135 casualties of the Second World War, of which 112 have not been identified. The cemetery is close to Catania Airport, and only 7km south west of the port of Catania. Pedestrian access is always possible. His grave is in Block IV, Row D, Grave 5.

The allied invasion of Sicily by 160,000 Commonwealth and American troops began on 10 July 1943 and ended on 17 August.

Private Fred Simpson is also remembered on the war memorial at St Peter’s Church, Field Broughton, where his sister’s brother-in-law, John Richard Pattinson, lies in a war grave dated 1917. Fortunately both Dick Cooper and Bill Smith survived the war.

News cutting of Fred Simpsons death

News cutting reads:

Kirkby Highlander Killed in Sicily

News has been received that Private Fred Simpson of Soutergate was killed in action in Sicily on 20 July. He was serving with the Gordon Highlanders, having joined the forces in March 1940. He served throughout the North African campaign, being wounded at El Alamein. After a month in hospital he rejoined his unit and was among the first troops to enter Tripoli. In private life he was engaged in farm work and was well known, popular and highly esteemed by all. His father, Mr George Simpson, died 25 years ago when Fred was two years old, and deep sympathy is extended to his mother, with whom he resided.

Note:
In both world wars, people who were doing what was considered to be essential work for the war effort were excused military service. These jobs were designated “Reserved Occupations” or in WW2 “essential work”. Such a job would not only protect you from Call-up: it was meant to prevent you from voluntarily leaving to join the services, though that did not always happen. For Kirkby men, farming was just such an occupation, but the quarry was not. However some men did manage to leave their job to volunteer to fight. Ones we know about, and there may be many others, are Fred Simpson, Thomas Henry Hudson, Fraser Farish and Gilbert Parker-Johnson: these men were true heroes.

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