Youngest Brit to die in WWII to be given proper resting place

Alf on ship
Reginald's comrade Alf Tubb, now 86, aboard the SS North Devon

By Oliver Farrimond

HE was one of hundreds of thousands of young men killed fighting the Nazi menace during the Second World War – perhaps even the youngest.

Slain aged just 15 by German bombers aboard a merchant navy ship, Reginald Earnshaw has lain in an unmarked grave in his adopted hometown of Edinburgh for decades.

But now, thanks to the efforts of one of the men who served with him aboard the SS North Devon, the young sailor who died fighting for his country will finally receive a fitting headstone.

And new research has even shown that he might have lied about his age to join the war effort – making him the youngest British casualty of the Second World War.

86-year-old Alf Tubb served alongside Reginald as a machine gunner, and tried in vain to save his friend when the ship was attacked by German bombers en route to Tyneside on 6 July 1941.

Six sailors died in the attack, but the memory of his young friend drove Alf to chase down details about his life.

Alf, who was only 18 himself while aboard the vessel, said: “He was a cheerful lad, and we used to chat in the saloon of the ship.”

“After we were attacked, my last memory of Reggie is seeing him carried off the vessel when we docked at Immingham – he’d been cooked by boiling steam.

“During the attack he was trapped in his cabin, I tried desperately to get to him but the steam was like a scalding wall.

“That image has stayed with me forever, so the most important thing to me now is that he gets a fitting headstone.

“I am glad that after all these years the sacrifice of such a young man – my pal – will be properly marked.”

Decades after the war, Alf’s quest to uncover more information about his friend revealed that although originally from Dewsbury, in Yorkshire, Reginald lived in the busy port area of Granton in the Capital.

Research also revealed that although Reginald supplied his date of birth as 2 February 1926 when enlisting, there is no-one in Dewsbury with his name born on that day.

However a Reginald Earnshaw was born on exactly the same date a year earlier, which would make the brave seaman the youngest Brit to die in the Second World War.

Alf added: “I knew he had to have a grave somewhere because I saw his body being carried off the ship – but when I found his resting place in Edinburgh there was just a bare patch of earth.

“This is the culmination of a quest, of a sort, and now his proper granite headstone will be there for ever more for this lad who gave his life.”

Further details about Reginald’s life are sparse, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is appealing for any next of kin to contact them.

The fitting of Reginald’s granite headstone will take place in a ceremony at the Comely Bank cemetery in Edinburgh on July 6, which his friend Alf will attend.

The SS North Devon

Alf, who served with British forces as far afield as North Africa, Italy and the Arctic during the war, added: “I remembered him partially because he was so young.”

“I don’t think he enjoyed the sea life too much – I remember him saying that he was looking forward to going back home to see his mum.

“He was a slim, cheerful lad, with a shock of blonde hair – almost white, in fact.”

Describing the attack that claimed Reggie’s life, he said: “I could tell that we were about to be attacked, so I went on watch ten minutes early to get my eyes used to the darkness.

“We were bombed twice – I know I shot down one of them but it turned into absolute chaos and I was blown off my post.

“Men were diving into the sea, and the ship was listing badly, I thought we might sink.

“Somebody told me that Reggie was still in his cabin above the engine, and I went to try and get him out, but the steam was just too hot.”

“I’d heard that during the first world war troops used to pee on towels, and put it over their faces to protect against gas.

“I tried that with the steam but it didn’t help at all – you just couldn’t breathe because of the heat.”

Ranald Leask, a spokesman for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said: “The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is delighted that it can finally mark Reginald’s grave with a headstone.

“We are indebted to Alf Tubbs whose tireless and selfless efforts will mean his friend and shipmate will receive a fitting and lasting tribute to his sacrifice.”