Guestpost: William Richard ‘Dick’ Hughes, KIA 21 November 1941

Editor’s Note: this blog is open to guest contributions relating to Operation CRUSADER in particular, but also more generally the desert war. I am very pleased that the first such contribution is about rememberance. One of the outcomes of our work on this blog has been to clear up personal histories for some family members of those who remained in the desert, or who died without talking very much about their experiences. We are grateful to Zeb for having taken the time to provide the post below, and look forward to contributions from other guest authors. Please contact us through the blog if you are interested.

Capt. William Richard ‘Dick’ Hughes, 1 R.T.R.

William Richard ‘Dick’ Hughes was an ordinary, middle-class Englishman, who was caught up in the horrors of war, and sadly died years before his time.

Captain Hughes, a prewar territorial soldier, was part of the 1st Battalion Royal Tank Regiment (1 RTR) when he was killed during the first day of the Tobruk Breakout. For details of the 1 RTR’s actions see at this link. He does not seem to have been assigned to a specific squadron, and it is possible he served with regimental HQ when he was killed.

Hughes was born on 11 March 1912, at his Essex Home, the son of Oswald (a bank clerk) and Elizabeth Hughes. He was educated at Dulwich College between March 1925 to July 1928. While at the College, he had his first experience of the military – being a Cadet with the College’s contingent of the Junior Division of the Officers Training Corps (OTC). This tradition is still carried on by the College’s Combined Cadet Force, today. After leaving school he joined Barclays Bank (West Kensington Branch), presumably his father’s bank, where he remained until the outbreak of War.

Hughes clearly enjoyed his time with the OTC, because he applied to join the 23rd Battalion of The London Regiment, part of the Territorial Army, on 20 August 1934 – being Commissioned a Second Lieutenant in that Battalion on 26 September. He later won the ‘Brigade Cross Country Run’ in 1936! Being promoted Lieutenant on 26 September 1937, he transferred to the 42nd Battalion of the Royal Tank Corps[1]. Hughes’ final promotion was to  Captain on 7 June 1939.  Whenever war is imminent the Territorial Army (now the Army Reserve) will be compulsorily mobilised. So as with the rest of the Territorial and Reserve forces, Hughes was mobilised on 1 September 1939 and  reported for duty on the same day.

His first posting was as to No 286 Transit Camp, being appointed joint Commanding Officer on 29 January 1940. He embarked, on 16 February, to go to France as a member of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – being appointed Commander of another Transit Camp at Le Havre. Hughes’ returned to England and was posted with the 56th Training Regiment at Catterick, on 7 July 1940. At this point, Hughes’ was offered a post ‘on the Staff’, which he refused thinking it was a job for an older man.  Hughes didn’t remain ‘at Home’ for long. Wanting to see some action, he volunteered for front-line duty, and on 3 January 1941 embarked to go to the Middle East theatre[2].

Once Hughes’ arrived there, he joined the 1 RTR on 27 March 1941. When events in the western desert moved unfavourably against the Empire forces a few days later, 1 RTR was urgently thrown into the Tobruk fortress to shore up its defences. It then remained continuously engaged in the fortress defense until the breakout operation in late November. Thus after defending Tobruk for 7 ½ months, Hughes’ was Killed in Action on 21 November, the first day of the breakout. That day, it is believed that he was tasked with bringing forward the fuel and ammunition trucks; it is thought that he was killed from fire from one of the German strongholds, which caught the trucks out in the open.

largeA9 Cruiser Mk I tanks on the move near Tobruk, 12 September 1941. Courtesy of the IWM Photography Collection, Catalogue No. E5547.[3]

Just before going to Le Havre, Hughes’ gave his mother a lace handkerchief. Some years after the War, she gave this handkerchief and a RTR sweetheart’s broach to her son’s niece, Sarah Hughes. Still with the handkerchief, is a small note from her detailing the gift and the death of Hughes’, a ‘brave and gallant gentleman’.

His medals laid unclaimed until 2006, when they were issued to Hughes’ great nephew in Australia, by the UK Ministry of Defence. The medals and the handkerchief provide a fine memorial to a brave and gallant man, who died aged 29, who had the opportunity to sit in a cushy number back in Britain, but chose to go the Front, and in doing so served his Country with distinction.

Zeb Micic

Contact the author directly: zeb.micic1 [AT] gmail.com

[1] 42 R.T.R. also served with distinction in Operation CRUSADER, having reached the desert in October 1941. It was in fact closely involved in opening the corridor to Tobruk, and had Capt. Hughes survived the first week of the operation he would likely have met some of his old comrades in arms.
[2] Probably on the Winston Special convoy WS5B, see at this link. The convoy arrived in Suez on 3 March 1941
[3] These would have been 1 R.T.R. tanks since all Cruiser tanks of the garrison were concentrated in 1 R.T.R.

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