Bernard Corbett in uniform c.1944

On Friday Britain celebrates VE Day, marking the defeat of Nazism and the victory of allied forces in Europe on May 8, 1945. 

Success was not always inevitable for the Allies. The tide did not begin to turn in the favour of British forces until the two Battles of El Alamein in North Africa. 

For one teenage soldier, he would fall at the very last, passing away on May 7, 1945, just 24 hours before Victory in Europe was declared by Prime Minister Winston Churchill from his London balcony. This is the story of my great uncle Bernard.

Bernard (Left), aged 11, pictured next to his younger brother Ralph (Right), aged 5, on Paignton Beach in Summer 1937.

Early Life

Born Bernard Joseph Corbett on April 21, 1926, he would share his birthday with none other than Queen Elizabeth II herself. It still feels quite strange to me that my uncle, someone I view as being of a totally different time period today, would be the same age as the still-reigning British monarch. 

Bernard was raised in the Devon town of Torquay where his father, my great grandfather and namesake William, was playing semi-professional football for Torquay United, who currently play in the fifth tier of English football.

Tragedy hits a young family

However, tragedy struck the family in March 1934, when William passed away from bowel cancer, leaving my great grandmother Amy to care for two sons by herself. My grandfather Ralph, Bernard’s younger brother by six years, was just shy of two years old at the time. 

Ralph was not one to talk about his childhood when I was growing up. It had clearly been an unorthodox and troubling time for him, not least for what was later to come.

In the early years of the war, the family moved back to Walsall, where William had formerly played football, in order for Bernard to pursue a career in the engineering heartlands of the Black Country. He was following in the footsteps of his father, who had served in the Royal Engineers during the First World War. It was here that my grandfather would put down roots, and my parents still live just the other side of Wolverhampton from where he grew up.

Bernard’s father, William (Left); his mother Amy (Right) with my father Tim on her lap at Wear Farm, Devon

Bernard sees combat

My great uncle turned 18 in 1944, as allied forces began to press on towards German national borders. Originally conscripted into the Devonshire Regiment, he was later transferred to the 1/5th Battalion of The Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey). Serving as a private, he was deployed to the Netherlands in December ‘44, shortly before Operation Blackcock would drive Nazi forces from the Roer Triangle in the south of the country. 

It was in February 1945 that things would take a turn for the worst for Bernard. In the aftermath of the operation, Bernard was disembarking a troop transport in combat when he was wounded in the legs, injuries which would see him sent back to England to recover. 

He was posted to a convalescent home in Trentham Gardens, Stoke-on-Trent, before later being moved to Walsall Manor Hospital to be closer to his family. It was here that Bernard would meet his tragic fate.

Death

Infections were rife in hospitals during the Second World War. While in the care of Walsall Manor, Bernard contracted bacterial meningitis, a life-threatening bug which often leaves those who survive it with horrific scarring and amputated extremities. 

Bernard passed away on May 7, 1945, just one day before the European theatre of World War Two came to a close. He was just 19 years old. 

He was laid to rest at Ryecroft Cemetery in Walsall, where he is commemorated with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) headstone.

Bernard’s grave at Ryecroft Cemetery in November 2017; from left to right – Ralph Corbett, Beryl Corbett, Tom Corbett

Victory in Europe

On one rare occasion, my grandfather told my father Tim of the experience of witnessing Victory in Europe at such a grief-stricken time. 

He spoke of the surreal nature of the day for him and his mother. While crowds in the streets were jubilant, screaming, shouting and singing, they were left to suffer the effects of one of the most traumatic things that can happen to anyone.

The impact on the family

His brother Ralph passed away on June 2, 2018, aged 86By the age of 13 he’d been left with just his mother, who bore the toll of losing a husband and son before their time. 

My great grandmother spent the rest of her years living at Wear Farm Caravan Park near Teignmouth in Devon, not far from Torquay where she had spent many happy times with her husband and two young children all those years ago. She passed away in 1978 having never remarried, 44 years after her husband and 33 since Bernard’s untimely death. 

Tomorrow, when you commemorate the defeat of fascist Germany, spare a thought for those brave young men who wouldn’t live to taste the sweet fruits of their labour.