Sidney Frank Burchell was a man of indefatigable service in his nation’s hours of need. Both wars left him with painful wounds, physical and emotional, wounds that he sustained in action, carried them with him and never faltered from his duty.
Some have asked me why I rank members of the Air Raid Precautions (or Civil Defence) service alongside those of the fire service. ARP was formed of the same Act of Government that created the pre-Second World War version of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). The two go hand in hand to achieve two primary objectives – to fight fires, and to save life.
In society a disservice has been done to the legacy of the ARP by the 1970’s comedy Dad’s Army. Most persons when asked what they know of the ARP most commonly refer to Bill Pertwee’s portrayal of the pedantic ARP warden Warren Hodges in the classic TV series. Histories of the war, those written by learned historians such as Max Hastings or Martin Gilbert, popular movies, and television features, tend to focus on the fighting forces at the sharp end of the conflict – the front line. Scant regard is paid to the legions of supporting roles that ensured the front line were maintained with food, water, fuel, and ammunition. Even less known is the role of the merchant navy, the lines of the Red Duster, that armed with little more than hope took repeated risks to keep the nation supplied. Added to that is the comprehensive work, much of it done under fire, of the civil defence agencies. Among them the fire service has received the lions share of the attention, but how many among us know what the ARP truly did, besides ordering lights out!
Sidney Frank Burchell did not remain a warden for long, his skills and tenacity compelled the authorities to place greater responsibilities upon his experienced shoulders.
Sidney’s life began at Faversham, Kent, on 27 September 1894, the son of Charles and Fanny. When the Census of 1911 was taken Sidney, at 16-years old, was located in the staff residential accommodation of a large retail store in Clapham High Street where he was employed in the sports department of a drapery.
When the First World War began Sidney didn’t wait for the 1916 call-up and instead volunteered for the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, initially attached to the 6th Battalion and later the 1st. The 6th were a service battalion, in other words raised purely in response to the needs of the war. Sidney travelled with the 6th and crossed the Channel, arriving at Boulogne on 22 May.
A section of the 1st DCLI celebrating the storming of a German position by the donning of captured headgear.
Within a short period, Sidney, Pte 21302, was sent to the 1st Battalion, the regulars. The 1st DCLI were in the thick of the action for all but a few months throughout the conflict. It was partly due to battlefield losses and partly Sidney’s soldierly bearing and qualities that enabled him to rise rapidly to Lance Corporal and Acting Sergeant.
During this period, for reasons so far undiscovered, Sidney was awarded the Military Medal, for which the awarding criteria for other ranks reads – For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in action. This may, or may not, be connected to an incident in 1918 in which Sidney was badly wounded during his battalion’s attack on German positions near L’Epinette. His left arm was severely injured. Those who knew Sidney recalled that from the time he returned from the war he kept his left hand concealed in a leather glove and would use his right hand to move the left if necessary. Some estimated that the left arm may have been a prosthetic, but none knew for sure.
After the war, for reasons unknown, Sidney relocated to Cowes where he instantly became a prominent member of the local branch of the British Legion, eventually as its chairman. In cahoots with his brother Sidney established Burchell Bros. sports goods and outfitters, a business he maintained successfully for around 40 years. He married later in life, in 1938, to Isabella Elizabeth Cole, who was 16 years his junior. Isabella was the Island born daughter of company director George Henry Cole and his wife Elizabeth, of Crathie, Baring Road, Cowes.
The new Mr and Mrs Burchell settled into a home named Comrie in Ward Avenue, very close to Isabella’s parents’ address. Throughout his extended bachelor years and beyond the local press is littered with references to Sidney’s tireless efforts on behalf of the Legion and its veterans in need. Despite the nuisance of his left arm, Sidney maintained an active interest and participation in several sports.
A contingent of Cowes ARP photographed outside of the District Report Centre at Northwood House, Sidney is sat front and centre.
Within days of the appeal being made, Sidney signed up to volunteer as a member of the ARP. Initially tasked as a street warden, he was soon reappointed to the role of Senior Controller of District 3 – Cowes and surrounding locality.
Sidney soon got to work, exuding, and expecting the highest of standards from his post at Northwood House, the location of ARP District 3 Control. It was from there that he commanded the districts ARP contingent as reports reached the Control room late in the evening of 4 May 1942 that enemy aircraft were overhead, and strings of flares had been dropped across both sides of the Medina. Within minutes the bombing began.
No plan survives first contact with the enemy – goes the phrase often quoted in military circles, and the same can be said of the early stages of the raid that became colloquially known as the Cowes Blitz. Rest centres, first aid posts and other facilities requisitioned and equipped for the purpose of dealing with the effect of air raids, were by misfortune among some of the earliest locations affected by bomb strike. Sidney was faced with making urgent and life-critical alterations to his perceived strategy for such an occurrence. This included squeezing his own working space into the minimum required in order to allow rooms, and even the corridors of Northwood to accommodate the displaced and the wounded.
Lines of telephonic communication were soon shattered, and motorcycle messengers were deployed, slowing the passage of information to and from the Control room. Amid the cries of the injured, the wide-eyed shock of the homeless and lost, Sidney kept his team focussed while he moved his pieces about a rapidly disintegrating chess board, trying to make sense, and provide rescue and succour to as many as possible. It was amid this bedlam that Sidney received a report more shocking than all others – his wife, their young son, and his in-laws were buried beneath debris caused by an explosion and believed dead at what remained of the Cole home.
Despite the receipt of such devastating news, Sidney remained at his post. According to Case No.1958 of the submission to the Treasury Committee on Civil Defence Honours – Mr Burchell did not leave his post but continued on duty throughout the night, the following day and the night after. Only then, having gone above and beyond to fulfil his duties, did Sidney walk away from Northwood House and discover that his son had been recovered injured but alive and stable.
One of Sidney’s ARP assistants at the Report Centre was Ethel Maude Batty, who wrote later – He has set us a standard of duty it will be difficult to follow, for during the whole time I was able to turn to him for direction and he was always there. Isle of Wight county ARP Controller Percival Edgar White added – This is an example of high stoicism and tenacious and effectual devotion to duty. I recommend a very high commendation. Even Isle of Wight MP Captain (later Sir) Peter MacDonald added his thoughts – Everyone I met in Cowes on my visit there shortly after the raid expressed their admiration for Mr Burchell’s conduct and suggested that he deserved recognition for his services to the town.
The Treasury committee decided that Sidney wasn’t to be made an award on the basis that it would suggest gallantry – as such an award would connote a special risk of injury which was absent in this case. Captain MacDonald’s specific appeal for the award of the George Cross was refused, but Sidney was appointed as Member of the British Empire in the following New Year Honours.
Sidney’s leadership quality was indisputable. In the post-war rebuild he served as chairman of IW Council from 1946 to 1959, in addition to chairmanship of the Cowes Professional and Business Association. In 1948 he remarried in Croydon to Dora Cook.
Sidney Frank Burchell, M.B.E., M.M, passed away at the Royal County Hospital, Ryde, on 1 November 1963 aged 69.
Sidney's medals, purchased recently by a collector at auction for £1,200.