b. 19/08/1904 Chigwell, Essex. d. 26/04/1972 Sandwich, Kent.
Augustus Charles Newman (1904-1972) was born on 19th August 1904 in Chigwell, Essex, the son of Bertram and Margaret Newman, and attended Bancroft’s School, an independent boarding school, until he was 18. On leaving school, he joined a small civil engineering firm, WC French, for whom he worked the whole of his civilian life.
He married Audrey Hickman in 1928 and they went on to have five daughters and a son. He had a wide range of interests including rugby, boxing, shooting, music, freemasonry and, especially, golf. He joined the Territorial Army when he was around 20 and never failed to take his clubs with him whenever he went to camp. He first joined the Engineer and Railway Staff Corps but later moved to the 4th Battalion, The Essex Regiment. Although he started as a private soldier, he was soon commissioned, and by the time of World War II, he was a Major with 16 years’ experience. The Territorials were soon mobilized and following training Major Newman was asked by his commanding officer if he was prepared to volunteer for a dangerous job. Although given no further information, he agreed willingly.
He then found himself in command of a band of 20 volunteers which, with specialists from the Signals, Engineers and Service Corps, ultimately consisted of 150 men, forming No 3 Special Independent Company. These companies were the forerunners of the Commandos. They briefly saw service in Norway, but were soon evacuated. Back in England, they reformed and retrained for “raids on the French coast”, although Newman’s company was frrustrated by being posted to Dungeness on purely defensive anti-invasion duties. For a time, he thought about asking to rejoin the Essex Regiment who were now in West Africa. He was called to a meeting where he was told they were combined into Special Service Battalions and the raids would take place on a larger scale. He accepted an offer to be 2nd in command of the first battalion to be formed.
In April 1941, it was decided that the Special Service Battalions were too large, and reformed into smaller units, called “Commandos”. The 1st Special Service Battalion was split into two Commandos, with Newman’s old CO in charge of the first and Newman, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, the second. Early in 1942, he was called to the War Office, where the new Director of Combined Operations, Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, told him that No 2 Commando was to provide troops for a raid on St Nazaire, the naval part of the operation being commanded by Commander RED Ryder. The object of the raid – codenamed “Operation Chariot” – was to render the large dry dock at St Nazaire unusable by Germany’s last remaining battleship, the Tirpitz. On 13th March 1942, Newman was told by Mountbatten that he was “not expecting anyone to return from the operation. If we lose you all, you will be the equivalent of the loss of one merchant ship, but your success will save many merchant ships. We have to look at the thing in those terms.”
The explosives-laden destroyer chosen for the raid, was an old US vessel, renamed HMS Campbeltown, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie, and the troops would be carried by a fleet of 16 motor launches. The total complement of the raid was 611 men, of whom 257 were commandos. They were divided into three groups, two on the motor launches, one on Campbeltown. The flotilla set sail from Falmouth on 26th March 1942, and were escorted by two destroyers, and Newman was aboard HMS Atherstone.
The Campbeltown was heavily fired upon as it entered the Loire estuary. She was giving covering fire for the commandos who disembarked and made for their respective targets. Newman and his HQ staff were put ashore from the MGB. Soon afterwards their launches were destroyed by enemy fire, and Newman realised that they were stranded. He told his men “Well chaps, we’ve missed the boat home. We’ll just have to walk.” Still under fire, they made their way to the girder bridge, which they charged across without stopping. To avoid enemy troops they scrambled through gardens, over walls, through hen houses and even through houses to try and evade capture.
At dawn, Newman took shelter with 15 men in a cellar, and in order to stop all of them being killed, he dashed upstairs and surrendered. They were taken to German HQ and were worried that the time for the detonation of the explosives on the Campbeltown had gone. The Germans were puzzled as to the purpose of the raid, until 10.35am, when the Campbeltown erupted, causing huge damage. The prisoners, which now also included Beattie and other naval personnel, were taken to a prison camp at Rennes, where a German officer told Newman of the outstanding bravery he had witnessed of Sergeant Tom Durrant, who had continued to fire his Lewis Gun, even though mortally wounded.
A move to Germany followed, where the commandant ordered a special parade. He then asked Newman to bring Beattie before him, where he announced Beattie had been awarded the VC. In fact, similar awards to Ryder and Able Seaman Bill Savage were gazetted the same day, but there was no announcement of any award to Newman. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp before being liberated in 1945. On his return to England he put Tom Durrant’s name forward for an award and both Durrant and he were awarded the VC, gazetted on 19th June 1945.
Demobbed, he returned to work for WC French in Essex, retiring as Chairman in 1969. His love of golf led him to choose Sandwich for his and Audrey’s retirement home and he moved to Fishergate House, close to the St George’s Golf Club. Sadly, his retirement was short, and he passed away on 26th April 1972, aged 67. He was cremated and his ashes scattered at Barham Crematorium. His medal group including his VC and OBE were purchased privately in 1990 by Michael Ashcroft and are displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: BARHAM CREMATORIUM, KENT.
Augustus Newman's medals including his VC and OBE on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (Aug 2014)
National Memorial Arboretum
Memorial plaque in Sandwich courtesy of Stewart A May