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70th Anniversary tomorrow tragic tale please read and spare a thought

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This article was printed in a British regional paper this weekend as tomorrow 21/07/14 is the 70th anniversary of the tragic events that have been uncovered researching a simple group.

A chance discovery by a keen amateur historian and medal collector has led to the uncovering of a remarkable tale of gallantry, hardship and finally the ultimate sacrifice paid by a local lad from Dedham Essex during ww2.

Paul Dwyer has been collecting medals since his Granddad entrusted him with his WW2 awards over 35 years ago. “Having researched my Granddad’s WW2 service, you could say I was bitten by the research bug”, explains Paul; “Those small postage boxes of medals never worn, left in a drawer or cupboard have fascinated me ever since and I have become a bit of a history detective fascinated by the man, or woman behind the medals”.

Recently in a North West auction house just such a neglected group came up for sale Paul was immediately interested for two reasons, one the postal address was Dedham Essex an area well known to Paul due to many happy childhood holidays spent in the area as family live in Tiptree and Layer De La Haye, also the fact that the document with the medals indicated they had been sent to the next of kin of a soldier who had not survived the conflict.


“I could see in the auction catalogue the medal issue certificate stated that they had been posthumously issued to the family of Private L. E. Francis and the vendor had told the auction house he had been killed in action in North Africa. This all tied up with the four medals they were the 1939-45 Star, the Africa Star, the Defence Medal and the 1939-45 War medal, a typical group for a soldier who served and died in the North Africa campaign.”. Paul’s next step was a visit on line to the commonwealth war graves database. http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead.aspx

“Based on past experience I was expecting dozens of records for casualty’s called L. E. Francis however there was just one with that exact naming”. The record states:

Private No: 6016265 Leonard Edward Francis Son of James and Agnes Francis, of Dedham, Essex. Date of Death: 21/07/1944 Age: 23 Regiment Essex Regiment 2/5th Bn. Grave Reference: I. C. 10.Cemetery: PRAGUE WAR CEMETERY

“I knew I had found my man but something was very wrong, the date of death and the final resting place made no sense whatsoever for a 1942 North African casualty, however I had a hunch which proved to be correct with a terrible twist, I knew instinctively this was a group that needed and deserved further investigation”.


This is Leonard’s story.

A quick check of the 1911 Census finds the Francis Family living in Threadneedle Street Dedham Essex the head of the Household is James Francis a 40 year old gardener with his Wife Agnes aged 32. At this time they have three sons William 13 Leslie 11 and Stanley aged 6, Leonard Edward was to be born in 1921.

Leonard began his ww2 service in a war raised 2nd line territorial battalion of the local county regiment the 2nd/5th Essex Regiment, as in 1939 with the outbreak of war the 4th and 5th Battalions had to be doubled in size with the rush of volunteers, thus forming the new 2/4th and 2/5th Battalions.

The 2/5th Essex (TA) battalion was to be overwhelmed in the North African campaign at Deir-El-Shein in 1942. The Essex men were part of the18th Indian Infantry Brigade and where allocated the suicidal task of holding up Rommel’s rapidly advancing troops to give Monty and the Eighth Army a chance to regroup, hopelessly outnumbered the rearguard action was completed with the utmost gallantry and the Brigade suffered appalling casualties, the survivors became prisoners of war including Private L. E. Francis. However, the north Essex men had the satisfaction of knowing that the 24-hour delay their dogged resistance against Rommel's Africa Korps was an essential factor in gaining time for the withdrawing Eighth Army to reorganise and stand on the line as they dug in and prepared defences at a little known railway siding called El Alamein. This was to be the launch point for a major allied attack and a decisive victory marking the beginning of the end for the German Army in North Africa.

The next official sighting of Leonard is in 1943 when he appears on the Prisoner of War roll of POW's held by the Italians in August 1943, he is recorded as present in Campo 70, Monturano near Fermo. This would be just prior to him being moved along with all prisoners held in Italy to Germany due to the allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and then the invasion of the Italian main land. Red Cross records then show Leonard as being transferred to Germany with kriegsgefangen number (prisoner of war number) 250960, to Stalag IV B, Lager 22a at Mühlberg Germany’s largest WW2 POW camp.

Leonard then had the misfortune to be sent as slave labour, in complete contravention of the Geneva Convention to a chemical/synthetic oil refinery Sudetenländische Treibstoff Werke in Brux Czechoslovakia. It was here that the final tragic act of Leonard’s war service was to take place.

The 21st of July 1944 is a day that will be familiar to many students of WW2 as the day of the failed assassination attempt on the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. News travelled fast throughout the Reich and emotions were running very high, the radio whipped up public emotions explaining that a conspiracy by treacherous dogs had failed to kill the glorious leader of the German people and promising swift retribution against those responsible. On this very day a massive advance was made by Stalin’s Red Army crossing the Polish border for the first time and this was also the day chosen for an air raid to be carried out by B24 bombers of the 456th Bombardment Group United States Army Air Force. Their target was the industrial complex around Brux 900 high explosive and incendiary bombs fell on the refinery causing DM 21,200,200 worth of damage and stopping essential production for over a month.

Part of the industrial complex anti-aircraft defences was the creation of artificial fog over the target area and as a result many bombs landed on civilian areas and 195 members of the local population died. Anti-Aircraft fire brought down four American aircraft many of the crew members successfully bailed out of their stricken aircraft, tragically the local population was in no mood for respecting the rights of prisoners of war and at least 8 crew members were beaten to death and lynched on the spot, one was even tied to a motor car and dragged around the area until he died

British prisoners working as slave labour where not permitted access to the air raid shelters they were in fact locked outside the shelters and expected to find their own cover wherever possible as a result several died in the air raid. The Red Cross returns record the same details cause of death, date of death and burial for the following British servicemen enslaved at the oil refinery all records are identical with just one exception:

Archibald William Burt 275252, Stalag IV B, Lager 22a 5440072, 9th battalion Durham Light Infantry, died 21 7th 1944 buried 27th 7th 1944, Cause of death bombing air raid (USAAF).

Edwin Joseph O’Flanagan 223889, Stalag IV B, Lager 22a 5504777, 5th battalion the Hampshire Regt. died 21 7th 1944 buried 27th 7th 1944, Cause of death bombing air raid (USAAF).

Alan Lewis Goslett 224321, Stalag IV B, Lager 22a, 19686 4th Field Regiment South Africa Artillery, died 21 7th 1944 buried 27th 7th 1944, Cause of death bombing air raid (USAAF).

Robert Ward 275249, Stalag IV B, Lager 22a, 1533335 Royal Artillery HQ 4 A.A. Brigade, died 21 7th 1944 buried 27th 7th 1944, Cause of death bombing air raid (USAAF).

Then Finally the record for Private L. E. Francis:

Leonard Edward Francis 250960, Stalag IV B, Lager 22a born 21st 10th 1921 Dedham Essex , 6016265 2/5th Battalion, the Essex Regiment Died 21 7th 1944 22nd buried 27th 7th 1944 Cause of death GUNSHOT WOUNDS

Under the cover of this intense air raid Leonard made the fateful decision to attempt escape the full facts will probably never be known but the fact remains he was shot dead by his captors. Unarmed and no doubt weakened by years of enforced hardship this was nothing short of murder, a despicable cowardly way to end the life of this brave 23 year old man.

Leonard’s final sacrifice however did not go unrecognized and in the London Gazette April 1945 we find the following record.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve posthumous award

Of a Mentions-in-Despatches to the following in recognition of

gallant and distinguished services in the field

Essex Regiment 6016265 Private L. E Francis.


This official recognition of Leonard’s sacrifice took the form of a Certificate and a Bronze Oak leaf to be attached to the ribbon of his 1939 -45 War Medal as shown in the now correctly mounted group. These awards are extremely rare as awards for executed escapee's and the official recognition of escapers gallantry can be traced to November 1943 when the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee decided that prisoners of war belonging to the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force who were killed while trying to escape shall be regarded as eligible for consideration for the award of a posthumous Mention in Despatches.

So finally an almost complete history can be reunited with the medals of Leonard Edward Francis of the 2nd/5th Battalion the Essex Regiment (M.I.D.) From the rush to arms in 1939 as a young 19 year old “terrier” to the blazing heat of a gallant rear guard action in North Africa. Transported across Europe through Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic as a POW only to have his young life ended the night he attempted to flee an air-raid and captivity in 1944. I will be visiting Prague Cemetery on the 21/07/1944, 70 years to the day of this terrible incident, I will pay my respects and lay some flowers on his grave.

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Dear Forum

Had a good couple of days in Prague despite mother natures attempt to kill me! The rain and thunder and lightening was awesome I am pleased to report all the CWGC graves are in superb condition and it looked like school children had laid flowers that very morning on the graves of those killed in the factory bombing 21/07/1944 and private L E Francis grave. Unfortunately the rain was so heavy I couldnt get a better picture than the one I have already posted above.

However a real bonus when I arrived home in direct response to the Newspaper article this has been sent to me.


Best regards


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Congratulations on a great piece of research! This result is an example of the best possible reason for the hobby of medal collecting! Leonard Edward Francis died tragically and was forgotten by all but a few, but now he can be remembered and respected by many because of the medals he earned, but never saw.



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