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Ernest Hamlett

The tree planted at Arnhem in memory of Ernest Hamlett

The memorial plaque

Private Ernest Hamlett

 

Unit : Signals Platoon, HQ Company, 1st Battalion The Border Regiment

Army No. : 4462122

 

Ernie Hamlett was born at 37 Buxton Street, Manchester, on the 17th June 1914. He was schooled at St. Andrew's in Great Ancoats, and at the age of 11 joined the Boys Brigade of the 27th Manchester Division. It was here that his life long passion for music began, being particularly fond of military music, brass bands, and the pipes, he learned to play the cornet, euphonium, piano, and percussion. Hamlett would go camping with the Brigade and developed an interest in outdoor pursuits, such as hiking, cycling, and sports, especially cricket. Leaving St. Andrew's at 14, he furthered his education by taking several night school courses. Having become an officer in the Boys Brigade, he remained with them until his call up came at the age of 26. He was posted to the Durham Light Infantry and based at Palace Barracks in Belfast for 6 months before being transferred to the 1st Border, at Carlisle, where he became a member of HQ Company's Signal Platoon. Generous, polite, caring, and ever in high spirits with a determination to use his sense of humour to bring joy to those around him, Hamlett was described by fellow Signaller, Private Ron Graydon, as being as fine a fighting partner as a man could wish for, because he always did his best to find a cheerful perspective, no matter what the situation.

 

When the 1st Airborne Division was ordered to North Africa in 1943 in preparation for the assaults on Sicily and Italy, the Borderers had only been ashore in Algeria for a few days when an officer ordered his men, including Hamlett, on a run and march. They returned with cut and blistered feet, and for this unnecessary reduction in their battle readiness the officer was reprimanded. The same officer prescribed an extended shift on guard duty to Hamlett when he caught him drinking a cup of tea, whilst at his post, which he had been offered by the cook.

 

At Arnhem, Hamlett was one of several signallers attached to D Company's No.19 Platoon. On Tuesday 19th their commander, Lieutenant John Bainbridge, was ordered to move his men to a crossroads north of Heveadorp to observe and report upon any enemy movement heading eastwards towards lower Oosterbeek. They reached their objective in the evening, but due to the densely wooded terrain Hamlett was unable to contact Company HQ, based only a mile away, to confirm that they had arrived at their destination. On Wednesday afternoon a German armoured car supported by infantry was spotted making its way toward No.19 Platoon's position from a westerly direction along the Oosterbeekscheweg, unaware that British opposition was dug in ahead of them. Once within range a PIAT destroyed the armoured car with a single shot, while a Bren gun dispersed the infantry into the woods on either side of the main road. As this action had exposed the Platoon they could no longer observe enemy movements on the road, and so Lieutenant Bainbridge split his men into two groups and ordered a phased withdrawal back to D Company. Hamlett and Ron Graydon made a dash for it down the road together, eventually meeting up with C Company before returning to D Company later in the evening.

 

'Towards the end of the campaign we were pinned down in hastily dug trenches. I was in a forward trench and the radio battery was failing and I asked the Cpl {Larry Cowan} for a relieve. He himself changed places and an hour later he was hit with a mortar bomb and {Private Joe Maguire} and I dash forward, carried him to the first aid post, where he died within the hour.'

 

The death of Corporal Cowan was an incident that haunted Hamlett for the rest of his life. He had met the man's family only two weeks earlier and could not help but recall his two children.

 

'The next day was like the previous one, we were still bogged down with no communication - the radio was next to useless. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere I received a severe blow on my left ankle and there between {Maguire} and I was an unexploded Mortar bomb, we were very lucky, needless to say we left that trench very quickly. The next day we were captured. We had no ammo nowhere to run and we were surrounded. {Maguire} and I vowed we would stay together; it was not to be, when the Germans came they separated us. I had a fractured ankle and they put me with wounded and taken to a hospital.'

 

Hamlett was given the number 118075 and sent to Stalag XIB, at Fallingbostel, in a cattle truck, where men became so thirsty that they resorted to drinking their own urine. The ankle which had been struck by an unexploded mortar received no treatment, and despite the injury he was made to work down a lead mine for the next 7 and a half months. Hamlett lost his boot after he was hit, but had acquired a replacement from the feet of a dead man. The work was hard and food highly limited, but a few of the guards took pity on the men and slipped them crusts of black bread, and for their kindness the prisoners traded them the coffee from their Red Cross parcels. Even in these harsh circumstances, Hamlett would not allow his cheerful side to desert him and he did his best to raise smiles from those around him. After finishing his shift at the mine he would always put on the only record in the barrack, called "Hail Smiling Morn!", to awaken the next shift who in return pelted him with their boots. With the war almost at an end and American forces nearing the area, the Germans evacuated the prisoners from the mine and forced them to join a column of other workers who were marched eastwards for the next three days. The men were very weak and struggled to walk, and those who stopped or collapsed were shot by the guards, as were those who tried to help them. The Americans, furious at news of this atrocity, caught up with the column shortly after. Since being posted missing at Arnhem, Hamlett's family had received no definite word of his fate until he arrived on the front doorstep one day, carrying a Red Cross parcel, and looking very thin from his ordeal.

 

Upon being demobbed, Hamlett's military conduct was recorded as being exemplary and he was given the following testimony, "Much above the average in every way. Smart, clean. Has done very well in the unit. Is able to hold a position of responsibility without supervision. Thoroughly recommended for good employment. A pleasant personality.", signed by A. S. Richardson, No.67 Transit Camp, Dovercourt, 15th January 1946. Hamlett joined the Territorial Army in Manchester, Service No.22244845, and went on a parachuting course in Oxfordshire, where he earned his wings and became member of the Parachute Regiment (TA), receiving a further exemplary discharge on the 28th November 1950.

 

Hamlett took work as a warehouseman at Sutcliffe's, Manchester, before leaving to become a salesman at Langden's in Liverpool, who amongst other things supplied uniforms to the British military. A member of the Commercial Travellers Association, he specialized in blue jeans and was the first commercial traveller to introduce them into Britain after the war. He worked for Coopers, later Lee Coopers, before moving on to H. Varley, with whom he won the top salesman award several years running. Hamlett was always immaculately turned out, and achieved success as a salesman through politeness and honesty, as opposed to being intimidating and pushy. He moved to Heald Green, Cheshire, in 1958, and stayed there until the mid-1970's when, at the age of 62, he relocated to Canada to be near his family, where he was employed at Edward Chapman's, an exclusive menswear retailer. He served with the Commissionaire Corps in Victoria for 13 years, during which time he was awarded two medals by the Lieutenant Governor. Hamlett returned to Arnhem with his wife in 1994 for the 50th Anniversary where they resided with a family at Velp, and he was ever a great proponent of the Dutch people. Ernest Hamlett died on the 27th May 2002. He is survived by Anne, his wife of 62 years; son, Christopher; daughter, Jean; and grandson, Dane. The family wishes to take this opportunity to extend its sincere appreciation to the wonderful staff at The George Derby Centre, Burnaby, British Columbia. In September 2004, the 60th anniversary of the Battle, a tree was planted at Arnhem in memory of Ernest Hamlett.

 

My thanks to Jean James for all of her help in arranging this biography.

 

See also: Pte Ron Graydon

 

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