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GWR Route: North Warwickshire Line

GWR Route: Banbury to Wolverhampton

Bordesley Station: gwrbg2291

Engine Cleaner, Peter Frederick Smout and Examiner, Frederick Francis (Sexton) Blake honoured for bravery with the George Cross

Air Raid 26th – 27th August 1940 – The award of George Medal to Engine Cleaner, Peter Frederick Smout and Examiner, Frederick Francis (Sexton) Blake, and the award of the British Empire Medal to Yard Masters Clerk, James Ernest Clarke; all being employees of the Great Western Railway.

From the London Gazette 24th January 1941

At 11pm a bomb fell in the road near a timber yard next to Bordesley Railway Yard. Cleaner Smout, aged 17 years on hearing bombs falling left his cabin and immediately commenced dealing with incendiaries, using his hands and feet to cover them with ballast. He then volunteered to take a locomotive along the blazing goods shed, although bombs were still falling, and draw the wagons to safety. N his first journey he was accompanied on the footplate by the Depot Master's Clerk, James E Clarke but on three other trips he went alone although by this time the offside of the footplate was too hot for him to touch. Throughout the night his coolness and courage set a fine example to the other members of the railway company's staff and, but for his action, it would not have been possible to save any of the wagons lying near the burning goods shed.

Examiner Blake observed a wagon on fire and, with assistance propelled the burning vehicle to a place of safety by hand. After doing this, Blake went to the shelter and prevailed upon more of the staff to help him. He organised a squad of men and removed other burning trucks, He also acted as Shunter to Smout, and operated the point levers, which had become so hot, by using his cap. Blake afterwards put out a number of incendiary bombs using his hands and feet to cover with ballast until he found an old shovel. He then found a stirrup pump with which he extinguished the lesser fires on several trucks. Throughout the night Blake showed little regard for his own safety, By his example he led other members of the staff to help save the Company'Company’ss property.

JE Clarke generally supervised, did all possible to get volunteers from the shelters, assisted in removing wagons and extinguishing incendiary bombs, and moved about in all parts of the depot with total disregard for danger.

Extract from Heroes of Road and Rail (Chapter VIII) by George C Curnock published 1941

Peter Smout - “I booked on for duty at 8:57pm. At 11 o'clock a bomb fell in the road the other side of the timber yard, smashed a gas main, and lit up the whole yard. It was a bit frightening at first, but I forgot it when I saw the flames from the gas main had set the timber yard alight, and sparks were blowing right into our big ‘empties’ station. This was a huge wooden shed, nearly 200 yards long and about 30 wide, with platforms from which we loaded up empty crates and packing cases, often filled with straw. Wagons ready to be loaded stood inside the shed. Others were on the roads alongside. August had been very hot and dry and everything was like tinder. In no time the shed caught fire.

Frederick (Sexton) Blake – “As we went over the lines Clarke said’ There are wagons in that shed. We'll have to get them away from the fire if we can’. ‘We want a shunt engine’, I said, ‘If we can put a road or two between them and the shed it might be enough’. Looking for an engine we went up the sidings to the bridge, and there found one that had been left standing Clarke looked at it and saw it was under steam. ‘Can you drive?’ he asked me. I was about to say I'd have a try, when I saw young Smout coming across under the bridge. ‘Hi, son!’ I called out, seeing his loco cap. ‘Can you drive an engine’. ‘I know how’ said the lad ‘what do you want me to do?’ ‘We've got to go and fetch those wagons away from the fire’ Clarke replied. He thought Smout looked out young to take on such a risky job, son added: ‘If you show me how to do it, I'll drive the engine’. ‘I may as well do it myself,’ said young Smout"

Peter Smout (again) – “It was the first time I had driven an engine. I knew how, of course. My main thought was ‘can I get it to do the job?’ When I got on the footplate I had to look at the gauge. The steam was down to a minimum. When an engine is left standing you've got to put it right down for fear of it blowing-off. That meant I had to get the steam up. There wasn't time to wait for it to get well up, and that was the trouble all the time. Just as the steam was up to a point where I was ready to start a big bomb fell on the houses behind the timber yard. I suppose it was aimed at our fire. After that I got her going. Blake was acting as shunter. Without him we couldn't have done the job. He had to uncouple wagons we wanted to pull away from the burning shed and couple them up to my engine. Our first shunt struck fast after moving a yard or so, Blake, not being a shunter in the ordinary way, hadn't realised that all the brakes would be set. When he found that out, he went all down the line releasing them. As well as coupling and uncoupling, he had to work the points. The shed was by this time a white-hot mass of fire, Flames were blowing out over the roads where we were working. Some of the couplings were too hot to hold, so were the levers on the points nearest the fire. To make things worse, the engine hadn't enough steam up to pull a heavy load, and we had to take a few wagons at a time, which meant more journeys. All the time we were doing this Mr Clarke was helping and directing. In all it took us a couple of hours.

Fred Blake (again) – “There were flames shooting up to 200 feet, making everything in the yard stand out as clear as daylight” With Smout pushing that engine up and down with myself and Clarke dodging about in the open, and everything on the move, I couldn't help but think those chaps up there in the air above us must be saying: ‘Look at those shaky so-and-so's down there, running about, the bloody fools!’ My worst job was the points. Every trip Smout made, I had to shift them twice, taking the wagons off one line and putting them on another. If I'd been taller it would have been easier. I could have put more weight and leverage into it. The points swelled up with the heat and the handles got hotter and hotter. What I did was to pull my coat over my head as far as I could, take my cap in both hands, sling it over the lever, and pull for all I was worth. Smout was having a bad time with the heat too. His footplate got so hot you couldn't touch it on the offside. When we had been working two hours and had shifted three trains, Clarke said: ‘We've done all we can. You take charge’ I went back to the bridge to have a smoke and had a quiet time until three in the morning, when Jerry let loose a lot more incendiaries. We got this lot out, and the ‘All Clear’ went at 4:30am. ‘What did you do?’ I asked young Smout. ‘The firemen had got their engine up to the shed by then’ he said. ‘I watched them until it was my usual time to go home’ ‘Did you tell your father about your engine driving?’ the lad smiled in his quiet way. ‘I didn't say anything. I was just as surprised, ad Dad was when the notice came about my medal’ Blake was almost indignant about the recognition given to him for his share in the job. ‘To tell you the honest truth’ he said to me. ‘As I see it, I had no right to a medal, when I went up that Russian river, standing up to the middle in cold water and seeing those mines come floating down the shallows, with just one rod sticking up and tumbling about in the water – well that was different. 300 went out on that job, and only 33 came back. We earned our silver badges all right. The King knew mine when I went up for the George, and spoke to me about it. What with the mines, and the Dover Patrol off the Belgian coast, this blitz seems pretty tame to me, and that's a fact!'

Further details:

  1. Peter Smout lived in Acocks Green. The locomotive he drove was pannier tank No 7758 – see 'gwrt537'.
  2. Frederick Blake had been a first class stoker in the Royal Navy for 21 years and during the First World War had severed on minesweepers. In 1920 he received a Mine Sweeper Medal for his post war work clearing mines in Russian rivers.
  3. James E Clarke was a yardmaster Clerk at Bordesley Junction and a member of the Home Guard. He lived in Arden Road, Acocks Green.

The above is extract is from ‘Heroes of the Birmingham Air Raids’

Robert Ferris