Friday 9 November 2018

Forgotten no longer: The Alan Adams story

Alan Adams (Luuk Buist)
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a supporter of non-league football and of Dulwich Hamlet FC in particular. I was honoured to be asked to write the history of the club's four players who feature on our Second World War Roll of Honour and in November 2017, we released For Freedom at the time of our annual Remembrance ceremony in the club's boardroom at our Champion Hill ground, little knowing that we were on the brink of an enforced and potentially permanent exile from our spiritual home.

As the author of the booklet, I was acutely aware that there were some gaps in the stories, particularly in the case of Eric Pierce, whose senior playing career for the club had ended almost as soon as it had begun. However, we made the best of the information that was available to us, starting with the Roll of Honour itself and had no reason to doubt the accuracy of this primary source of information.

Doubts began to arise shortly after publication, when I was contacted by one of our older supporters who had come across some old programmes on an internet auction site, one of which mentioned two players who had fallen during the Second World War, neither of whom featured on the club's War Memorial. Wartime football programmes, particularly for the non-league game can be rare beasts and many clubs, including Dulwich Hamlet, did not produce programmes for large periods of the war due to the lack of raw materials. As a result of this, information about wartime players and matches can often sneak 'under the radar' and such was the case with the two players mentioned in the programmes that came to light here.

The DHFC War Memorial at Champion Hill (Duncan Palmer Photography)

What was harder to explain was the absence of the two players from the Roll of Honour. One of them, Charles Ede, was a former player who had left the club for pastures new at Kingstonian in 1934 and so perhaps had been deliberately omitted for that reason; but the other player, Alan Adams, was by the admission of the club itself in the programme in question, very much a current player at the time of his death and this makes his omission from the Roll of Honour all the more inexplicable.

We shall probably never know the reasoning behind this oversight but we can at least put things right, albeit a little late in the day. Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to produce a revised and updated version of For Freedom and pay tribute not only to the original four men whose stories we had already told but also to the two hitherto forgotten players and perhaps to also recall the wider history of the club during the Second World War. In the meantime, at this time of remembrance, it is now appropriate to share the story of Dulwich Hamlet's youngest wartime casualty.

Alan Adams was a first generation Londoner, as his parents Richard James and Pyarea Victoria Adams (nee Rhind) had both originally hailed from West Derby on Merseyside. Alan had an elder sister, Patricia, who was born on 13 August 1923 at the former family home at 18 Oban Road in the Walton district of Liverpool but sometime after this event, the family had moved to London and were established at 22 Bushey Hill Road, Camberwell by the time of Alan’s birth on 22 May 1925. The reason for the move south is unknown but could possibly be connected with Richard’s job as an accountant with a steamship company or was perhaps indicative of a general lack of work on Merseyside at that time.

By the time of the 1939 Register being taken shortly after the outbreak of war, the family had moved to 58 Sunray Avenue in Herne Hill but the then 14 year old Alan does not appear in the census. He had become a pupil of Archbishop Tenison’s Grammar School at Kennington in 1936 and had been evacuated out of London with his school to the relative safety of Reading. Alan served with the school’s Officer Cadet Corps but later transferred to their Air Training Corps when this was established in 1940 and so appears to have taken a keen interest in the military from a young age, as well as perhaps having an eye on a future career as a flyer. Alan was also an accomplished sportsman who represented his school at athletics, cricket and football – the latter two at First Eleven level.

Alan Adams on the Roll of Honour at Archbishop Tenison's School (Laurence Weeks)

Alan left school in mid-1941 and returned to live at the family home in Herne Hill, from whence he took up a job as a junior insurance clerk for the Liverpool Victoria Insurance Company. Alan’s military life continued after leaving school, as he served in his local Home Guard Unit, the 18th County of London Battalion which was based at Lordship Lane, from 1942 pending his enlistment into the Army proper.

It was whilst serving with the Home Guard that the then 17 year old made his senior debut for the Hamlet on Saturday 7 November 1942 at Champion Hill in a 4-4 draw against the London Fire Force. Ironically, despite the match being played at Dulwich, this was in fact an away fixture for the Hamlet as the Fire Force also used the ground for their home matches – such oddities were not entirely uncommon in wartime football. Alan didn’t feature on the original team sheet but the following week’s programme explained that he had been a late call-up due to the regular left back Roger Bishop being detained at work and unable to reach Champion Hill in time for kick-off. Dulwich fielded a youthful team and in addition to Alan, there was another debutant on display, a young centre forward by the name of Charles Birdseye, himself a late replacement for Stan Smith who was suffering with influenza. Birdseye made an instant impression by scoring one of the goals during the Hamlet’s spirited fightback from 1-2 down at half time. Arthur Phebey with two and Gillespie were the other scorers in a match which the following week’s programme described as “…reminiscent of the peace time days when it was a bye-word that Dulwich Hamlet always played their hardest when up against it.” This same programme, which was for a match against the RAF on 14 November 1942, went on to say that “….the youngsters mentioned will be heard of again.” so we can only assume that Alan and his youthful team-mate performed well on their senior debut.

Alan Adams' first mention in a Hamlet programme - 14 November 1942 (author's photo)

Alan was attested into the Army and duly swore allegiance to the Crown on 19 March 1943 but his actual enlistment date did not come until the following 6 May. It would appear that previous experience with the school Air Training Corps had hardened Alan’s ambition to become an airman, as after completing his basic training with the Gordon Highlanders, he transferred to the Army Air Corps on 14 January 1944 having volunteered to train as a Pilot with the Glider Pilot Regiment. At this point, Alan was promoted to the rank of Corporal, with a further promotion to Serjeant following on 15 June 1944.  He was awarded his Army Flying Badge to signify qualification as a glider pilot on 27 July 1944 and was then posted to E Squadron, No. 2 Wing, Army Air Corps, where he would fly the Airspeed Horsa glider. These large wooden aircraft could either carry 30 fully equipped soldiers, or a freight load of three tons on airborne operations.

The role of a glider pilot was an extremely hazardous one, for not only were they expected to fly the heavily laden gliders into their landing zones through invariably hostile skies but upon landing, they were then expected to fight as infantrymen alongside the airborne troops they had just transported, until such time as they could be evacuated out of the landing zone back to friendly territory. The photograph that illustrates this article shows a young pilot wearing civilian clothes rather than Army uniform – this type of photograph was taken in case a false identity was required to smuggle the glider pilots from behind enemy lines following airborne operations and further demonstrates the precarious nature of the glider pilot’s life. Whilst we are not absolutely certain that the photograph (which was kindly supplied by Dutch military historian Luuk Buist) definitely depicts Alan, we see a hitherto unidentified pilot of E Squadron who is simply described as “Boy”. Given Alan’s extreme youth, coupled with his position as the youngest pilot in his squadron, it must be a fair assumption that this is him, especially as the physical description given on his Army service record “fair complexion, grey eyes and brown hair” matches that of the person in the photograph.

Airspeed Horsa glider as flown by Alan Adams (IWM)

In September 1944, Alan’s Squadron was required to take part in Operation Market Garden, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s bold plan to seize the bridges over the River Rhine and thrust directly into Germany. Had everything gone according to plan, the war could perhaps have been considerably shortened but for a variety of reasons too complex to go into in an article of this nature – a mixture of over-optimistic planning, poor weather, missed opportunities and intelligence failures – the operation went down in history as one of the “glorious failures” of the war which is still hotly debated amongst military historians to this day.

On 18 September 1944, as part of the Second Wave of landings, the Horsa glider piloted by Alan, which was chalked “837” left from RAF Down Ampney in Gloucestershire, towed by a Douglas Dakota transport aircraft of 271 Squadron RAF. Alan’s glider carried a heavy load of a Jeep plus two trailers full of ammunition as well as two passengers from Headquarters, 1 Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery. The Second Pilot on board was Serjeant Richard Ennis from Wallasey on Merseyside who thus had something in common with Alan, whose parents were both originally from that part of England.

"Handlebar Hank" aka Jimmy Edwards (with trombone) at a concert at RAF Down Ampney (author's collection)

Incidentally, one of the Dakota pilots of 271 Squadron was Flight Lieutenant JK Edwards, who became better known post-war as the handlebar-moustached trombonist and comedian “Professor” Jimmy Edwards of radio and television fame but who in wartime, appeared in RAF and service concerts under the stage name of "Handlebar Hank" in addition to his regular flying duties. Edwards was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery, when on 21 September 1944, the Dakota serial KG444 that he was piloting was shot down by FW190s over the Arnhem area. The aircraft caught fire and Edwards ordered his crew to bale out, an order which his Second Pilot and Navigator promptly obeyed. Edwards went aft to also bale out but discovered that three of his four Army Despatchers were injured and unable to jump. He promptly returned to the cockpit and despite having to stand with his head protruding from an escape hatch due to the smoke in the cockpit, he managed to crash land the Dakota in a lightly wooded area, at which point the aircraft went up in flames. Edwards had suffered severe burns to his face but was thrown clear by the impact. The unwounded Despatcher and his Wireless Operator, who had also remained on board to help, managed to escape the burning aircraft but the three wounded Despatchers were killed in the crash. In spite of his wounds and with some help from a Dutch civilian, Edwards was able to guide the other two men back to British lines.

Returning to our story, the operation initially went according to plan but shortly before 20:00 when approaching the Landing Zone at Wolfheze, Alan’s glider was taken under fire by German anti-aircraft guns and a flak shell burst close to the glider’s starboard wing. Alan was hit by shrapnel and slumped in his seat over the controls, at which point, the Second Pilot Serjeant Ennis took over. Unfortunately, he could not recover full control in time and as a result, the glider overshot the Landing Zone and ploughed into trees at over 100 mph. Ennis was catapulted through the Perspex windscreen whilst still strapped into his seat but amazingly survived more or less unscathed, as did the two Army passengers in the rear. Sadly, Alan was crushed by the load behind him which shifted forward with the impact of the crash. At first, he was given a field burial in a garden behind the Psychiatric Home at Wolfheze but on 24 August 1945, as part of the general peacetime consolidation of British and Allied war graves in the area, he was re-interred at Oosterbeek War Cemetery, which contains the graves of 1,691 British and Commonwealth servicemen as well as a further 79 Polish and three Dutch servicemen.

Alan’s death was reported in the match programme for the fixture against Pinner on 2 December 1944, which went on to describe him as “a promising left back for the Reserves, who had one or two games for the senior side before joining the Forces.”  The same article also hints at a wider family connection with the club as it mentions that “his father used to referee some of our games on the top pitch.” The report goes on to mention that Alan’s father had “some time ago suffered another great bereavement when his wife was killed by enemy action.”

Richard Ennis' story in the Liverpool Echo of 4 October 1944 (British Newspaper Archive)

Whilst the death of Pyarea Adams was undoubtedly a great tragedy for the family, the circumstances of her death as described in the Hamlet programme do not stand up to scrutiny. The 1939 Register recorded that Alan’s parents both served as Air Raid Wardens within the Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell, which could lend credence to the “enemy action” theory but inspection of Pyarea’s Death Certificate reveals that she died at the age of 43 on 19 February 1944 from “Cardiac Asthma” at home in Sunray Avenue. Although there was indeed an air raid on the day of her death, the family home was not bombed and neither were any fatalities or injuries recorded elsewhere in the immediate area. The mystery is further compounded because she is not recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as a Civilian War Death, which would have been the case had she been killed as a direct result of an air raid. Whilst the stress of working as an Air Raid Warden during the London Blitz would undoubtedly put a great strain on a weak heart, it would appear that Pyarea did, in fact, die of natural causes.

Alan Adams' grave at Oosterbeek War Cemetery (

There is also some confusion regarding Alan’s Christian names; his Birth Certificate records him as Richard Alexander Adams, whilst his Army service record and that of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission show him as Richard Allen Adams, although Archbishop Tenison’s Grammar School’s obituary in December 1944 gives his name as Ronald Alan Adams. To compound matters further, Dulwich Hamlet programmes and the “Tenisonian” yearbooks refer to him simply as Alan Adams.  However, the details concerning his Army records, parents, schooling and home address leave us in no doubt that despite the various permutations of his name, these all refer to 'our' man.

Towards the end of October 2018, came the momentous news that a deal had been reached that would enable Dulwich Hamlet to return home sometime in December, thus ending a near ten month exile. A bonus to this emotional homecoming will be the fact that we will once again be able to hold our traditional Remembrance Ceremony in the Boardroom and pay tribute to all of the club's fallen of two World Wars and this time, we will be able to belatedly remember these two hitherto forgotten men. Before too long, we shall hopefully add their names to the Roll of Honour, thus ensuring that they are forgotten no longer.

Published Sources:

Dulwich Hamlet FC - programmes for various matches referred to in text - courtesy of Ian Colley
Glider Pilots at Arnhem - Mike Peters & Luuk Buist - Pen & Sword, 2014

Unpublished Sources:

Record of Service for RA Adams - Army Personnel Centre Historical Disclosures
Airborne Operations, NW Europe Arnhem: 2 Wing Glider Pilot Regiment, Army Air Corps - Enquiries into Missing Personnel - National Archives WO 361/505 & 636
Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell, Civil Defence Incident Log - London Borough of Southwark Archives
271 Squadron RAF, Operations Record Book - National Archives AIR 27/1574-9
RAF Down Ampney, Operations Record Book - National Archives AIR 28/211
The 'Tenisonian' Yearbook (various) - Archbishop Tenison School Archives, courtesy of Laurence Weeks