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The Fallen of Kirkby

William George Spry

William George Spry
  • Son of Amos and Maggie Spry of Wallend.
  • Lieutenant, 276064, 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry, Royal Armoured Corps.
  • Killed near Cheux, France, 30th June 1944, aged 22.
  • Commemorated on the Bayeux Memorial, Calvados, France, Panel 10 Column 2, and in the Book of Remembrance of Ulverston Grammar School (now Ulverston Victoria High School).

William George Spry’s parents were Amos and Maggie Spry (née Lewis) of Wallend. Amos was organist at the chapel in Marshside, and William (known as Billy) inherited his love of music, playing classical piano; he attended Burlington School.

The 2nd Northampton Yeomanry, in which William Spry served, was the heavy armoured reconnaissance regiment for the 11th Armoured Division, and was part of the spearhead for the Battle for Normandy which began with the D-Day landings in June 1944. The battle was to cost over 200,000 casualties, 40,000 of them killed, of which Lt. Spry was one. The 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry trained in Driffield, East Yorkshire in 1943, and it was there that Billy Spry suffered a cracked pelvis when he was hit by a reversing tank; he spent a few months in hospital, but returned to the regiment in good time for the D-Day invasion.

A and C Squadrons of the Yeomanry landed in Normandy on 16th June, but B Squadron was delayed by bad weather in the Channel. The operation code named ‘Epsom’ began on 26 June, with Spry’s Cromwell tank in position as Rear Link for A Squadron. This meant his job was to maintain radio contact with Regimental Headquarters, and his normal position would be 3rd tank of the 4 tanks of HQ Troop. The remainder of A Squadron consisted of four fighting troops of 3 tanks each. According to Mr Reg Spittles, who served alongside Billy as a Troop Corporal in A Squadron, Operation Epsom was part of the Allied breakout over the River Odon, and its objective was to capture Hill 112. On 26 June, A Squadron went into action at Cheux to recce, and if possible secure, three bridges over the river.

Mr Reg Spittles on a Cromwell Tank at Bovington Tank Museum
Mr Reg Spittles on a Cromwell Tank at Bovington Tank Museum

On the night of 29 June, while going to the assistance of the 15th Scottish Infantry in the area of Belval Farm, A and C Squadrons ran into the II SS Panzer Corps. All 7 officers and 27 other ranks were killed, captured or wounded in this action. Reg Spittles believed Lt. Spry’s Cromwell tank suffered a direct hit by enemy fire. Since it was impossible to recover his tank until later, he was first posted ‘Missing’, later confirmed as ‘Killed’. Due to the devastating effect of a direct hit on the inside of a tank, it was not unusual for no human remains to be found after the fire, which is why Lt. William Spry has no known grave.

The term ‘Yeomanry’ designates a section of the British Army, originally of volunteer cavalry. In the First World War there were 57 yeomanry regiments, linked to counties or regions, and after that conflict their role was mostly converted to armoured car companies, artillery, engineers or signals. However the last mounted yeomanry regiment was not disbanded until 1942. The 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry ceased to exist in the reorganisation of the Army and Territorial Army in 1971. It is not known how Lt. William Spry of Kirkby-in-Furness came to be serving in that particular regiment in World War II.

In 1944 the German Panzer was a far superior tank to the British Cromwell. The Cromwell was a small, light fast tank with a powerful 600 horse power Rolls Royce engine, but it couldn’t be driven at top speed because it was then too uncomfortable for the crew. It was also not particularly well armoured. It had a crew of five, and the hatches were tiny. It was well known that, confronted by an enemy Panzer with its superior armament, you had about two seconds to get out of the tank – something impossible for five men to do.

In 1947, Mr Spry received a letter from the Headmaster of Ulverston Grammar School. In his reply, he explained why he had not responded immediately:

In response to your note requesting names of old Grammar School boys who made the supreme sacrifice in the late war, I must apologise for the delay in reply, but I am sure you will agree with me that we who have suffered grief and sorrow hesitate to write about such unpleasant subjects.

The name of our dear son was:
William George Spry, 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry, Royal Armoured Corps, attached to the 11th Armoured Division. Rank: Lieutenant.

I am distressed to have to tell you that we do not know the exact place of his death. When we received the dreadful letter relating the circumstances that the War Office presumed him killed in action on June 30th 1944, the only place name mentioned was “North West Europe”, and since we received that communication on April 5th 1945 we haven’t received any more news from the War Office, but I have been told from other sources that he lost his life on the Normandy Beach Head, and I strongly suspect Caen, but I am intending writing to the War Graves Commission to see if I can get any more news.

Yours faithfully,
Amos Spry

The Bayeux Memorial (photo courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission)
The Bayeux Memorial (photo courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

The Bayeux Memorial in the Bayeux War Cemetery carries the names of over 1,800 men of the Commonwealth land forces who died in the Allied Offensive following the Normandy Landings of 1944, and who have no known grave. William George Spry’s name can be found on Panel 10, Column 2.

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