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The Tutbury farm labourer’s lad who died defending a bridge in war-torn Belgium

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: July 21, 2012

Sgt Charles Bull

Sgt Charles Bull

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With millions of people losing their lives during the Second World War, it is easy to forget that each man, woman and child had their own story.

 

Every single tale is filled with sadness and bravery — none more so than that of one East Staffordshire war hero.

Reporter ROB SMYTH looks at the life of Charles William Bull and a series of letters written by fellow servicemen and his commanding officer about his heroics.

'ONLY the good die young. He was a good man and a good soldier’ were the words of Lieutenant Eric Stevenson describing Charles William Bull, of Tutbury.

He made the statement in a letter to Sgt Bull’s family after he was killed defending Scheldt Bridge in Gavere, Belgium in 1944 in his role as part of the Royal Tank Corps as the allied forces attempted to liberate Ghent from the Germans.

His efforts were so revered that he was buried in the town and the bridge he died defending was subsequently named after him in tribute to his efforts.

People from Gavere have an annual commemoration for him and a delegation from the town visits Tutbury every other year, while people from Tutbury go to Gavere on the alternate years to honour his memory.

Charles Bull was born on February 28, 1914, at 40 Bridge Street, Tutbury. His parents were farm labourer Alfred Bull and Harriett Corden.

He joined the army at the age of 18 in 1932 and died on September 7, 1944, aged 30. He was married to a Burton woman, Peggy Fessey.

Lt Stevenson continued: “Fifty years after his death, I learned that the villagers had erected a plaque on the bridge in memory of Sgt Bull, ‘the man who gave his life to save their village’.

“So I went to see it and pay my respects. The bridge was no longer there, but had been replaced by a modern wide bridge in line with the road.

“They had named the new bridge after Charlie and the plaque had been transferred from the old bridge to the centre of the new one; and the villagers put fresh flowers at the foot of the plaque every morning. I was deeply moved.

“He was the only man killed in action under my command during the campaign.

“He had seen service in the desert and across Europe and it was tragic that he should die so near the end of the war.”

It is still not know whether Sgt Bull died after being hit by shrapnel from a panzerfaust (a form of anti-tank weapon) shell or if he was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

Joe Cannon, Sgt Bull’s gunner, added: “Charlie’s death came about during a night attack by German infantry.

“Charlie was buried at Gavere. The crew were very upset, we all thought a lot of Charlie and to come all that way and die near the end of the war was a bitter blow.”

His commanding officer, Major Denis Cockbaine, penned a heartfelt letter to his wife Peggy explaining the circumstances surrounding his death.

It stated: “It is with very deep regret that I have to inform you of the death of your husband Charles whilst serving with this squadron.

“It is very hard to write about the loss of so true a friend and I fully appreciate the added grief which the receipt of this letter will bring you.

“He knew no pain at all.

“Charles was one of the good old-timers of the squadron, He was loved by all, and never tried to exert his authority over anyone. He was always cheerful and his courage was of the highest order. His passing has, indeed, left a gap which will never be filled.

“He has for some time commanded a troop in action, a job normally done by an officer, and I would like to say that he performed his duties better than the majority of young officers.

“We were proud of him and the entire squadron wish me to tell you that their sympathies are with you in your tragic loss, though we appreciate that mere words are useless.”

When Charlie Bull joined the regular army he served with the 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment until July 4, 1938, when he was placed on the Army Reserve.

For a time, he drove a bus for the East Kent Motor Traction Company and eventually returned to Tutbury.

He was recalled to the army on September 1, 1939, and reported to the Royal Armoured Corps camp at Bovington, in Dorset, where he was posted to the 5th Battalion Royal Tank Corps near St Albans and then to Farnham in Surrey.

On May 23, 1940, the 1st Armoured Division arrived in Cherbourg, France, as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

It was composed of two brigades: the ‘Light’ 2nd Brigade and the ‘Heavy’ 3rd Brigade made up of the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Royal Tank Regiments.

He was based in France until his regiment embarked from Liverpool for North Africa, arriving on October 30, 1940.

On February 25, 1942 he was seconded to the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, a cavalry regiment, which was changing over to tanks. He was brought in as a senior instructor.

He later rejoined his previous unit and landed in Normandy on June 7, 1944.

He was sent straight into the notorious battle of Villers-Bocage where some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place.

It was only a few months later that he met his end in Gavere, Belgium.

Donald Egremont, whose father knew Charlie in the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, said: “I have just spoken to my father who remembered Charlie Bull vividly, he said: ‘jolly nice chap, one of the best and we always joked he was ideal for tanks, because he was built like one’.

Sgt Bull’s nephew David Charles Bull, who wrote a book and created a website dedicated to his uncle, spoke about his relative with great reverence.

He said: “I never knew my uncle Charlie (he was always referred to as ‘Charlie’ by his family).

“I was born about two years after he was killed fighting with the Royal Tank Corps in the Second World War, but I remember that when he was mentioned in the family it was with a kind of awe.

“It was always intimated that he was a ‘hero’ and as a child I felt there was something special about him.”

From looking into Sgt Bull’s life and reading the glowing tributes of colleagues and superiors, it is clear that through the annals of time, his heroic effort, culminating in him losing his life, has created a never-ending bond between his memory, his family, friends, colleagues and a small Belgian town.

War is often a horrible necessity, laced with tragedy and hurt, but the story of Sgt Bull shows that even from the dark reaches of despair, there can often spring hope and an everlasting legacy which will outlive us all.

More information is available by visiting www.sgtcwbull.tutbury-book-ofremembrance.org.uk/

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