April 1968 April 1, 2004

The last gallant steps of Hedley Verity

July 31, next Saturday, is the day on which twenty-five years ago Hedley Verity died of wounds, a prisoner of war in Italy

There are worse wars than those of the Roses - the last one, for example, when Hedley Verity died of wounds in Italy. John Bapty followed it up

Hedley Verity: his grave at one time had a stone with a white rose © Getty Images
July 31, next Saturday, is the day on which twenty-five years ago Hedley Verity died of wounds, a prisoner of war in Italy. He had been reported wounded and missing after the Eighth Army's first attack on the German positions at Catania in Sicily on July i9, 1943.

Not until September 1, 1943, did the news of his death reach his home in the Aire Valley, and then some of us recalled that the first day of September, 1939, was that on which he had spun the ball for Yorkshire for the last time in championship cricket.

The game was with Sussex at Hove. Verity had seven wickets for nine runs in the six overs he bowled in an innings which held only 33 runs. After Yorkshire had got, for the wicket of Hutton, the 3o runs required for ninewicket victory-Wilfred Barber made the boundary shot which gave Yorkshire their last pre-war runs-Brian Sellers and his men, champions for the third season in a row, turned to the grim journey home.

A hurriedly-chartered Southdown motor coach was there to take them across the tide of evacuation from London, along second-class roads on which the fantastically valuable white lines were being painted, and through the first blackout to Leicester, and on the following morning - the Saturday morning - to Leeds where under the old New Station clock they parted for the last time. In Verity's pocket on that coach was the military training manual that had been with him for more than a year, since, in fact, a talk with D. R. Jardine, one of his firmest friends, had convinced him of the need for preparation.

On that coach, too, was Norman Yardley, a century-maker at Hove, who had his first full season with the county behind him. Yardley, like Verity, was destined to be commissioned in the 1st Battalion, The Green Howards, and to be with them through the East into Italy. He last spoke to Verity on that baleful morning in Sicily.

A letter dated August 23, 1943, came to me from Yardley. He answered questions about Hedley . . .'We have great hopes that he has been evacuated by the Boche. He was most certainly wounded while leading his Company. A search has been made of the area and there is no trace of him-and no trace of any grave. Another thing that makes us think he was wounded and is prisoner is that his batman stayed with him, has never been seen since, and so he is presumed to be a prisoner. I saw Hedley about an hour before the attack and had a word with him as I went past. He was very fit and in good spirits.'

The batman was Private Tom Rennoldson, a Durham man, who had never seen a first-class game of cricket. Time-expired and returning as a reservist, he had, in November, 1940, become Verity's batman, to serve him through Northern Ireland, India, Persia, Irak, Egypt, Syria and, finally, Sicily, where, as he told me, `The captain put away his cricket gear for the last time and I took it to the P.M.'

Verity's company led the attack on the German strong point on July 19, 1943, and at his home at Bridlington after the war when he had been returned to England from a P.O.W. camp in Austria, Rennoldson told me of it: `We were up against it and we went right into it. They set the corn alight and gave us everything they had got. We were trapped.

`It would be, as near as I can tell, between half-past three and half-past four in the morning when the captain was wounded in the chest. Some of our fellows smothered the fire in the corn, and there we stayed until the morning and the Germans came.

`They made me leave the captain and go to their headquarters where I found a nice young fellow-an officer-who spoke English. I told him that I had been compelled to leave my captain behind on the field. He said, "I will go with you" - and he did, though for him there was the danger that our men might attack again over that ground.

`When the German saw the captain he said, "We must find something to carry him on." Near the farm we got hold of a broken, mortar carrier. The German officer packed it with sheaves of corn and we - the German and I - took the captain in on it.

In the afternoon they moved him to a field hospital where, as they prepared for the operation, a grenade fell out of the pocket of the captain's bush shirt. The Germans told me to "unprime it", and there, in the improvised operating theatre, I removed the detonator and made the grenade safe.

`After that I got a tin of soup from the Germans and made some for the captain. I stayed with him until late that afternoon and the captain said he would try to keep me with him; but that was the last time I saw him. I was ordered away with the others who were not wounded.'

From the field hospital at Catania, Verity was taken through Messina and Reggio to Naples where the Germans handed him to the Italians who moved him to Caserta where on July 31, after another operation, he died.

His grave at one time had a stone with a white rose. Frank Smailes, who was on the coach from Brighton on September 1, 1939, and Phil King, a Yorkshireman who had played with Worcestershire before the war, fixed that. They met in Italy-one a captain and one a sergeant-in April, 1944, and hitch-hiked to Caserta to stand by the grave. But now, of course, the grave is in the Military Cemetery at Caserta, and there it is occasionally visited by Yorkshire cricket folk. There was a white rose on it in 1954, for then, Hutton, M.C.C. captain, and a party in which there were cricketers from Surrey, Middlesex and Australia, as well as Yorkshiremen, left the Orsova when she called at Naples on the way to Australia.

Abe Waddington, who had bowled for Yorkshire in the decade before Verity's, was with them on the rush by car to Caserta, and it was his Yorkshire tie, with the white rose on blue, that was left on the stone so white under the Italian sun.

In 1946, the first season after the war, Hedley's name often turned up in the talk as we travelled about the country, mostly by train in times of petrol rationing. It was bound to do, for there was not a ground we visited which had not a link with him and his left-arm in one way or another.

I remember Sellers on a trip from Canterbury to London speculating on the part there might have been for Verity (38 a couple of months before he was fatally wounded) in Yorkshire's re-building, and it can be said here and now that Yorkshire's post-war story would have been a very different one had there been no early morning attack in Sicily by the 1st Battalion The Green Howards on the morning of July 19, 1943.