Lives Cut Short

A wartime story or stupidity can kill

Not all the lives that were brought to an untimely end during the Second World War between 1939 and 1945 came about due to the direct result of enemy action. It is quite possible that the details of the sad deaths in 1940 of Patrick Corksey, aged 15 and James Howard, aged 14 is well known, because their story is recounted in, among other places, “Basildon”, by Peter Lucas. I recall the day of their demise well.

The land mine attached to a parachute that landed north of Dunton Road in an open field on the 21st September did not explode on reaching the ground. Having been observed falling, the ARP arranged for the Army to attend to deal with it. The bomb disposal “squad” attended and had decided that it would be safe to detonate it where it was and, accordingly, Laindon police toured the district warning the residents of a big “bang” timed to take place the following day at 11am. They suggested windows be left ajar to reduce the risk of the subsequent blast causing enough vibration to fracture the glass. 11am the following day came; no big bang, the absence of which was never explained. Exactly 24 hours later, completely without warning, the land mine exploded. It was sometime before the sad reality of what had happened to the two lads whose curiosity had got the better of them, was revealed.

These two deaths would have been, on reflection, rapid, unlike that of 17-year-old Joseph O’Neil of “Landsdow”, Park Avenue, Langdon Hills. He was to die of the injuries he sustained due entirely to his own stupid action on the 1st March 1941. Joseph was what was called an auxiliary fireman, a considerable number of whom had been recruited to supplement the regular Fire Brigades in the wartime emergency situation. There is no doubt, whatsoever, that they had earned their salt in the worst days of the “Blitz” on London and, being based at East Ham, young Joseph would have had experience of some of the worst of it.

Whether it was the bravado engendered in a young man by having gone through danger and emerged intact or not that encouraged a total lack of caution will never be known. But, on the 1st March he came home to Laindon after completing a night shift at East Ham with what appeared to be a cannon shell that was used by the RAF fighters at that time. He told his father, Edward O’Neil who, incidentally, was a fireman also, but of the “regular” version, that the shell had “dropped at his feet” while he had been on duty. This was quite feasible, because all kinds of material, not all of derived from enemy hands, fell from the sky during heavy air raids. Constant warnings were issued about approaching such material, nevertheless, it was a matter of pride among the younger elements of the populace to be able to boast about how much “shrapnel” they had picked up.

As the senior O’Neil was to inform the Billericay Coroner at the inquest on Joseph later in the month, he never saw the cannon shell, which he assumed to be a dud again until, while he, his wife and the children of his family, including Joseph, were all sitting in the living room of their home when he heard his wife say “Don’t put that on the fire,” immediately after which there was a terrific explosion.

What had happened, as Police Sergeant Watson was to explain at the inquest, was that Joseph had apparently decided to remove the detonator from the cannon shell while he was sitting in the living room. Whether it was because he was sitting too close to the open fire that, like most homes at the time, was heating the room or because he stupidly threw the detonator onto the fire after removing it could not be clearly established but what was apparent was that whatever Joseph actions were, they had revealed, in no uncertain terms, that the cannon shell was in fact very much “alive”. As a result it had exploded, causing severe injuries about Joseph’s hands, face and chest and throwing him across the room onto his mother who was also badly injured by the blast.

Mrs. O’Neil and the deceased were conveyed by ambulance summoned by the Police Sergeant  to St Andrews Hospital at Billericay where both were admitted late on March 1st and Joseph’s condition seemed to have improve on the following morning but, as the resident surgeon was to tell the inquest, his condition deteriorated later in the day and he passed away on the following morning. At least, the surgeon was able to inform the Coroner’s Court that he expected Mrs. O’Neil to make a full recovery from her injuries.

Poor Mr Edward O’Neil who had lost a son and nearly lost his wife as well came in for some stick at the inquest because he, as a fireman, had to admit that he was well aware of the dangers of picking up items like that his son had bought home. He had also to admit that he was well aware of constant broadcast messages, via radio and the press, of the need to inform the “authorities” of such potentially dangerous items and that he would always regret not having done so.

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