27.22 – Harriet Whitham, John, Charles, and Mary Eliza Gavaghan

Another war grave, and a stirring tale of bravery in the face of the most pressing danger.

Harriet Whitham was the tiny sister of Mary Eliza Whitham, later Gavaghan, and died in 1891 only two years old. Mary Eliza grew up as part of a large family, the daughter of Charles and Caroline (Kay) Whitham of Well Street above Hanging Ditch (the area now known as Honey Hole). She married John Gavaghan in 1907 and they had seven children, one of them being Charles on February 11th 1911. His father was a coal miner hewer, not an easy job back then. Or indeed ever.

Charles married Annie McNicholas, a cotton ring spinner who lived in Burnley Road, in Todmorden in the Oct – Dec quarter of 1939. A newspaper report shows that he married when he joined the army, and our intrepid researchers are still working on finding his marriage records. He shortly after joined the 1st Airbourne Battalion of the Border Regiment. Below is a brief rundown of what his battalion got up to. It was…a lot.

  • 20 September 1939: It went to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.
  • May 1940: It was involved in action during the retreat to Dunkirk where it was evacuated and returned to the UK.
  • 09 July 1943: They landed in Sicily, Italy. The majority of the Battalion ended up in the sea and unable to complete their objective to capture Syracuse, a town on the East coast.
  • July (later) 1943: Evacuated from Sicily and shipped back to North Africa, leaving the Battalion’s equipment behind.
  • September – November 1943: Back to strength they took part in the fighting in Southern Italy. After the action, returned to the UK for further training.
  • 17 September 1944: In the same Division the Battalion took part in The Battle of Arnhem “Operation Market Garden”.
  • May 1945: The Battalion along with other units of 1st Airborne went to Norway to oversee the surrender of the German forces.

After the Battle at Arnhem, he was recommended for the Military Medal on Friday 22nd September, and received a Mention in Despatches(MiD) for his actions, as well as the Dutch Bronze Cross. The citation reads as follows:

“At Arnhem (Holland) on the 22 September 1944 the wireless communication from C Coy to Bn. HQ had completely broken down.  C Coy at that time were being attacked by a greatly superior enemy force.  L/Cpl Gavaghan, who by that time was the only signaller available at Bn. HQ volunteered to attempt to break through to C Coy with a telephone line and equipment to repair the wireless set.  The route to C Coy was under extremly heavy mortar and artillery fire, and enemy snipers had infiltrated into the woods and were sniping at the slightest movement.  L/Cpl. Gavaghan, without regard for his personal safety, took the line,
managed to get to the forward positions at the time of the attack, and sent back information that enabled HQ to lay on artillery support.  The fact that communications was re-opened, saved the Company from being overrun and it was the courage and devotion to duty of L/Cpl. Gavaghan only that opened communications.  His action was an outstanding example, and an inspiration to all that were in the same area as he was working”

After escaping back to the UK, following his Return across the River (RAR), he was amongst the troops sent to Norway as part of Op Doomsday to keep order and disarm the German forces in Norway in May 1945. Corporal Gavaghan and twelve other members of Signals and Pioneer Platoons of HQ Coy were flown to Norway in a Stirling Mk V LK146 of 1096 Squadron RAF on 10 May 1945. The aircraft crashed in fog en route to Gardemoen airfield, 30 miles north-north-east of Oslo. As the majority of the Battalion had been turned back to the UK due to the adverse weather conditions, the bodies were not recovered until the 23rd May, almost 2 weeks later. With the whole Battalion now successfully deployed to Norway, Captain Bill Baldcock, Reverend John Rowell and a small party of men from S Company were dispatched to recover the bodies. They meticulously searched the wreckage of the plane almost completely pulling it
apart to ensure that all of the bodies were recovered. Once this task was complete each body was carefully sewn into a blanket and buried in a small local Cemetery that the party had prepared near to the crash site, with the Padre performing the burial service.
Corporal Gavaghan was amongst those killed instantly in the crash on 10 May 1945, aged 34 years old. He is now buried along with all other Border Regiment soldiers killed in the crash at Western Civil Cemetery, Oslo, Norway where the casualties were later reinterred.

Halifax Evening Courier, July 5th 1945

“If in the years to come, you meet a man who says, “I was at Arnhem”, raise your hat and buy him a drink.” – War correspondent Alan Wood, 1944.

John and Mary Eliza shared the pain of growing old having outlived not just Charles but several other of their children, as mentioned before. It’s something more common for people buried earlier at this graveyard but wasn’t outside the realm of possibility even after antibiotics and improvements in healthcare. War did not discriminate. They died in Burnley in 1957 and 1974 respectively. Charles’s wife Annie remarried in 1946.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *