Youngest British serviceman to die in Second World War to get memorial recognition in Ossett hometown

Reggie Earnshaw, who lost his life during the Second World War, aged 14. Photo: PA.
Reggie Earnshaw, who lost his life during the Second World War, aged 14. Photo: PA.

Reginald Earnshaw was 14 when he lost his life in the Second World War. After biographical research, he will now be recognised in his first hometown. Laura Drysdale reports.

He lied about his age in his determination to help the war effort and at just 14-years-old Reginald Earnshaw paid the ultimate sacrifice.

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In 2010, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission officially declared Reggie the youngest known British service casualty of the Second World War - and now, after biographical research, he will be formally honoured and remembered in the community in which he spent his early years.

“Some 78 years after his death Reginald Earnshaw’s name will be engraved on the Ossett War Memorial,” says local historian Alan Howe. “It will sit alongside the names of another 408 men and women of Ossett who died in service in both World War One and World War Two - the Ossett fallen.”

Early life

Born in Moorlands Maternity Home, Dewsbury in February 1927, Reggie lived in Ossett, Wakefield until the age of five. Those early days were spent at The Millers Arms pub, today known as The Brewers Pride, with his single mother Dorothy and her widowed father Wilson, who had been licensee there since 1914.

By 1932, Reggie had moved with his mother and her new husband, Eric Shires, to Dewsbury and seven years later, then with two siblings - Pauline and Neva - in tow, the family relocated to Edinburgh after Eric gained new employment in the city.

Come February 1941, Reggie left school at the statutory age of 14. “The country was at war and there was much talk of feats of daring do, which fired the imagination of many young boys,” Alan explains. “Reggie was one of them and he was determined to help the war effort whilst seeking excitement and adventure.”

War effort

He joined the Merchant Navy at Leith Docks, telling them he was 15 and born in 1926. “Reggie’s family say that there was never a suggestion that he had run away and gone to sea but rather that he was proud of what he had done and rushed home to tell his mother. Like her, he was a free spirit, whose enthusiasm was to be encouraged not stifled.”

Sadly, he served for just five months. On July 5, his merchant ship, SS North Devon, was attacked by German bombers, fracturing its main steam lines. In the early hours of the following morning, the stranded vessel was attacked again. Six men were killed, including cabin boy Reggie.

Back in 2005, Reggie’s former shipmate Alf Tubb, then aged 82, decided to find out what had happened to his friend, and with the help of mercantile researchers, tracked down an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Edinburgh where Reggie had been buried.

In the years that have followed, a headstone has been mounted on the grave and a memorial stained glass window has been installed in the Edinburgh church where his funeral service took place.

New recognition

With Reggie’s story making newspaper headlines in the past decade, biographical information about his life has also been pieced together through local history research, with the help of his descendants.

Alan, who has carried out recent research on Reggie’s life, particularly in West Yorkshire, says: “Reginald Earnshaw will end his journey where it began - in Ossett.”

A war project, led by Alan, culminated last year in the names of the Ossett fallen being engraved on stones around the base of the town’s Grade II-Listed war memorial.

On Remembrance Sunday this November, Reggie’s name will be added to those stones, alongside the names of six other Ossett men, discovered since the unveiling, who died in the two conflicts.

“From then and forever, Reginald Earnshaw, the youngest known British service casualty of World War Two, will be known as one of the Ossett fallen,” Alan says. “He has returned to his first home.”