Brothers in arms

2:45pm Monday 11th November 2013

By Chris Lloyd

The “Fighting Bradfords” were truly extraordinary: four brothers who between them during the First World War won two Victoria Crosses, a Distinguished Service Order and two Military Crosses. Three of them paid with their lives

The Northern Echo:
The Bradford brothers, Roland, Thomas, George and James at Milbanke in Milbank Road, Darlington, in 1914

SO regular was their mother in attending bravery award ceremonies at B u c k i n g h a m Palace, that on the second occasion that she marched up to the king to receive a VC on behalf of her dead boys, he said: “What, you again!”

The Bradford brothers’ story begins with their father, George, a mining engineer.

He was an authoritarian figure, who never spared them the rod – perhaps that is what encouraged them to seek sanctuary in the Armed Forces; perhaps that is what instilled in them such courage and outstanding determination.

In 1885, George, 40, married Amy, 26. He had just been appointed the manager of Messrs H Stobarts’ Bishop Auckland Collieries; she was from Kent and seems to have had no prior knowledge of the County Durham coalfield.

They lived in Witton Park, a mining village near Bishop Auckland, which must have felt like both a boom town and a frontier settlement.

It was rapidly expanding due to the growth of the mines, sucking in harddigging, hard-drinking men to work in those mines and ironworks.

In six years in Carrwood House, Witton Park, Amy gave birth to her four remarkable sons, who were christened in St Paul’s Church opposite.

When the youngest boy, Roland, was two, the family moved to Morton Palms Farm, on the eastern edge of Darlington. Their father insisted on his sons walking the four miles into school and back because it was good for their character.

In 1898, the family moved to Milbanke, a large house in Milbank Road, in Darlington’s West End. The athletic boys each attended the nearby grammar school for a couple of years, although their father kept finding them new educational establishments with ever tougher disciplinary arrangements.

When he died in 1911, aged 66, it feels like a weight was lifted from their lives – although by now the die was cast, their characters had been forged.

War was looming. If ever there were boys who were born to fight, it was the Fighting Bradfords:

Colonel Sir Thomas Andrews Bradford
Distinguished Service Order

The Northern Echo:

THE eldest brother was the only survivor of the appalling carnage of the First World War. He was the best sportsman of the four, captaining Durham County Cricket Club and once knocking up 207 not out in 90 minutes in a Durham Senior League match.

As a member of the Territorial branch of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) from 1906, he was called up as soon as the war began. On April 19, 1915, he was part of the 8th Battalion of the DLI which was seen off by enthusiastic, cheering crowds as they marched through the streets of Newcastle to the station.

They kept on marching, straight into the Second Battle of Ypres. What must these young North-Easterners, who had never fired a shot in anger, have thought as they neared the terrific noise of the frontline, with terrified refugees fleeing in the opposite direction followed by stretcherparties bearing the broken remains of the soldiers they were replacing.

Within 24 hours, of the 200 in Thomas’ company, 180 had been killed, wounded or were missing, and for his gallantry, he was awarded the DSO.

He lasted another year on the Somme before being pensioned off to Ireland, probably due to injury, to take charge of a training battalion. His new wife, Honore Rebe Blackett, of Sacriston, went with him.

In later life, he became chairman of Durham County Conservative Association and twice stood for Parliament. He was knighted in 1939 for public service and died in Whitesmocks, near Durham.

Lieutenant Commander George Nicholson Bradford
Victoria Cross

The Northern Echo:

AFTER attending nautical college, George joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1904.

On March 3, 1909, there was an indication of the bravery to come when he single-handedly rescued an unconscious boy from a sinking boat in the middle of the English Channel.

But, a part from a brief involvement in the Battle of Jutland in 1916, George had a quiet war at sea until April 23, 1918 – his 31st birthday and also St George’s Day. U-boats sneaking out of Zeebrugge were creating havoc among English shipping, so the Navy asked for single men to volunteer for an operation to scuttle concrete-filled warships in the mouth of the harbour to stop the submarine activity.

Single men were wanted because they probably wouldn’t be coming back.

George volunteered. In fact, he volunteered to lead the party that would land on the harbour wall and take out the German defenders so that the warships could be manoeuvred into place.

The operation didn’t go smoothly. With enemy fire raining down on George’s assault ship, Iris II, huge waves smashed against the harbour wall making landing impossible.

George sized up the moment: he climbed to the top of an on-board crane and when Iris rose to the top of the swell, he jumped.

He landed on top of the harbour wall, and he managed to secure an anchor-hold so his men could follow him ashore.

But as he landed, every German machine gunner turned his fire on him. He was riddled with bullets, and fell into the sea.

He was awarded a posthumous VC. His citation said: “His action was one of absolute self-sacrifice; without a moment’s hesitation he went to certain death, recognising that in such action lay the only possible chance of securing Iris II and enabling her storming parties to land.”

Two of the three warships were scuttled, temporarily inconveniencing German operations.

2nd Lieutenant James Barker Bradford
Military Cross

The Northern Echo:

JAMES was the quietest of the four brothers. He left the grammar school aged 13, and stayed with his mother in Milbank Road. A keen horseman, he was the last of the brothers to join up, but still found himself on the Somme in 1914. He reluctantly won promotion and on July 1, 1916 – that dreadful day of carnage on which there were 60,000 British casualties – he was out leading DLI bombing parties.

He suffered gunshot wounds to the arm on August 1, 1916, and was sent home to Milbanke to recuperate. He married a local girl, Annie “Nancy” Wall, and by early 1917 was back in the thick of the action.

On March 3 on the Somme, he was awarded the MC for gallantly leading his men into an enemy trench, personally killing three Germans, capturing many prisoners and taking out two machine guns.

On May 11, just as he was being relieved after a weeklong battle, he was hit in the left shoulder and thigh. He died in hospital three days later, his wife – a widow after barely six months of marriage – complaining that medical staff had “simply thrown his life away” by the poor treatment.

Brigadier-General Roland Boys Bradford
Victoria Cross, Military Cross

The Northern Echo:

ABORN leader and a natural soldier, he was Mentioned in Despatches for his bravery in France before 1914 was even out. He rose rapidly through the ranks, exhibiting tactical brilliance and a deep concern for his men.

He helped lead the 9th Battalion of the DLI through the terrible summer offensive of 1916 on the Somme, and was awarded the VC at Eaucourt L’Abbay for his “conspicuous bravery and good leadership”.

His citation read: “By his fearless conduct under fire of all description and his skilful leadership of the two battalions, regardless of all danger, he succeeded in rallying the attack, captured and defended the objective and so secured the flank.”

Always immaculately turned out and dedicated to personal fitness, he was very popular with his men – they chaired him around the trenches when his VC award was announced. He formed a battalion band, with instruments sent out from County Durham, a concert party, a football league and even a Shakespeare Reading Society to keep up morale.

He led his men over the top, and the day after his face had been lacerated by splinters from an exploding steel helmet, he was promoted to Brigadier-General – aged 25, he was the youngest in British Army history.

But, within ten days, he had to lead 186 Brigade into the Battle of Cambrai – the first major tank battle.

With 500 tanks leading the way, he urged his men forward with great skill for nine days.

The tenth day was November 30, 1917. He fell back for a rest – and was struck by shrapnel from a stray shell which pierced his spine.

Previously wounded on at least three occasions, he’d had a good run in the bloodsoaked mud of the Somme.

But if he had survived, who knows what the youngest Bradford brother could have achieved.

The Northern Echo:
The brothers’ names on war memorial at Darlington Memorial Hospital


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