b. 14/08/1916 London. d. 04/12/1943 Burma.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 04/12/1943 Burma.
Joseph Henry “Harry” Silk (1916-1943) was born in London on the 14th August 1916. He was the eldest of 7 children born to Albert and Nellie Kibble (nee Silk). He changed his name to Silk when he was taken in by his maternal grandparents Bill and Julie Silk and adopted their surname. He grew up at their home in Lever Street in Islington. His grandfather had served in the Boer War as a Sergeant Major, and when he passed away, Harry moved to live with his Aunt Maggie and Uncle Henry Sindrey. Silk was a member of the Territorial Army and originally joined the Devonshire Regiment at an unknown date. Sometime after the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, Silk joined the Somerset Light Infantry.
The conflict in Burma during WWII was sometimes known as the “forgotten war”. An incident in the jungle three weeks prior to Christmas 1943 might have been forgotten too if not for the incredible bravery of Private Silk. On 4th December 1943, Silk, then aged 27, was with other members of his platoon, apparently cleaning weapons in a jungle clearing. For some unknown reason, one of the primed grenades belonging to Silk ignited and the fuse reportedly began to hiss. He shouted a warning and then rolled over, clutching the grenade to his stomach, with his body between the weapon and most of the men.
When the grenade exploded, Silk was killed instantly but, contrary to initial reports that two comrades were slightly wounded, no one else was hurt. Silk’s self-sacrifice had saved many lives. Silk was buried at the Taukkyan War Cemetery, Rangoon, Burma. His citation announced on 13th June 1944 simply said it was in “recognition of most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner.” The medal was presented to his father Albert and his brother Victor who was serving in the RAF at the time.
His medal was sent to the Regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry for a special display in the early 1970s. On the return to the family, it was “lost” in the post. After requests by the Regiment, a replacement was issued. However, some years later a postman was spotted wearing the medal in London and reported to the Police. They searched his house and found Silk’s medal in his bedroom. It was returned to Harry’s parents and the replacement returned to the Chancery to be destroyed. A replica of his medal is currently displayed at the Somerset Light Infantry Museum, Taunton Castle, Somerset.
To summarise Harry’s gallantry, a more vivid and personal account of Silk’s bravery is given in the words of one of his comrades, Bill Witchell. “There is no doubt in my mind that Private Silk either saved my life or at least saved me from a peppering of shrapnel by the supreme act he took in sacrificing his own life. He was a member of my company. I was some half dozen paces from him when the tragic accident happened. No one else was even scratched….it was an act of supreme heroism….”
LOCATION OF MEDAL: SOMERSET MILITARY MUSEUM, TAUNTON, SOMERSET. (REPLICA)
BURIAL PLACE: TAUKKYAN WAR CEMETERY, RANGOON, BURMA.
PLOT 10, ROW K, GRAVE 22.
British War Graves