First published in The Mail on Sunday on Sunday 10 November 2019 .
As we honour the fallen, Lord Ashcroft recounts their heroic stories.
The sleepy Norfolk village of Whissonsett, population 488, is mentioned in the Domesday Book commissioned in 1085. Yet it also has another claim to fame that is apparent from a village sign erected, by chance, exactly 900 years later.
For the sign, unveiled in the summer of 1985 just a stone’s throw from the village church, honours the memory of two remarkable brothers: Derek and Hugh Seagrim. They are the only siblings ever to be awarded, separately, their country’s foremost gallantry awards: the Victoria Cross (VC) and the George Cross (GC).
Tomorrow [Nov 11] I will visit Norwich School, an independent school where I was a pupil six decades ago, to deliver a short lecture to staff and pupils on two of the five sons of the former Rector of Whissonsett, an eccentric, one-time missionary.
On Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, as we pay our respects to our war dead, it is appropriate to recall the astonishing gallantry of two brothers who gave their lives for their King, their country, their comrades and for wider freedoms and who are thoroughly deserving of their accolades of “the bravest of the brave”.
Derek Anthony Seagrim was born on September 24, 1903, in Bournemouth, Hampshire. He was the son of the Rev Charles Seagrim and his wife Annabel (née Skipper), who were said to be “as poor as church mice” but who were loved by their communities.
The couple moved around the country with the Rev Seagrim’s postings and Hugh Paul Seagrim, their fifth son, was born on March 24 1909, in Ashmansworth, Hampshire. Later the family moved to Whissonsett, 23 miles north-west of Norwich, where the Rev Seagrim became the Rector, living in a rambling, eight-bedroom Victorian rectory.
Derek and Hugh attended King Edward VI School (now known as Norwich School) where they were sporty rather than academic: indeed Hugh played as goalkeeper for Norwich City Reserves. All five brothers were destined to serve as officers in the military.
After attending the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Derek Seagrim was commissioned into the Green Howards in 1923 and over the next 16 years served in several countries including Jamaica, Palestine and China.
Early in the Second World War, he served in 1939, in the rank of Captain, as Air Liaison Officer with the RAF in East Africa. The following year he was promoted to Major and from 1941-2 he served as Staff Officer in the Greek campaign.
In October 1942, he was promoted to Temporary Lieutenant Colonel serving as Commanding Officer of the 7th Battalion, The Green Howards, at El Alamein, the town on Egypt’s north coast famous as the location of a key Second World War battle.
However, it was for bravery elsewhere in Africa in March 1943 that Lt Col Seagrim was awarded the VC, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy.
After a series of indecisive battles over the previous three months, the Allies sought to regain the initiative and decided that the British Eighth Army would advance west from Libya into Southern Tunisia. By the end of February, it had reached the Mareth Line, a series of fortifications which stretched from the coast to the Matmata Hills.
On the night of March 20/21, the Allies attacked the Mareth Line and Lt Col Seagrim’s battalion was tasked with capturing an important objective on the left flank of the main force.
However, the enemy’s defences at this point were extremely strong and the area was protected by an anti-tank ditch twelve feet wide and eight feet deep, with minefields on both sides. Furthermore, the battalion came under a most intense fire from artillery, machine-guns and mortars.
Realising that this point was vital to the success of the main attack, Lt Col Seagrim placed himself at the very front of his battalion even though his men were dropping dead and injured all around him from the hail of fire.
The officer personally helped his team place the scaling ladder over the anti-tank ditch and was the first across. Then, he led the assault, firing his pistol and throwing grenades, including attacking two machine-gun posts that were holding up the advance of one of his companies.
It was estimated that he personally killed or captured 20 Germans during his rampage and soon the objective was won. The next morning, the enemy launched a huge and prolonged attempt to recapture the position but the battalion stood firm. Lt Col Seagrim moved from post to post until the attackers were all killed or seen off.
Just 15 days later, however, he was badly wounded at the Battle of Wadi Akarit, Tunisia. He died at a military hospital in Tunisia on April 6 1943. He was aged 39 and unmarried.
His posthumous VC was announced in The London Gazette on May 13 1943 when his citation concluded: “By his valour [,] disregard for personal safety and outstanding example he so inspired his men that the Battalion successfully took and held the objective thereby allowing the attack to proceed. Lieutenant Colonel Seagrim subsequently died of wounds received in action.” In February 1944, his VC was presented to his mother, Annabel, by King George VI at an investiture at Buckingham Palace.
At that time, his younger brother Hugh was also serving his country with great distinction. After also attending Sandhurst, he had been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on the unattached list of the Indian Army, later serving with both the Rajputana Rifles and the Kumaon Rifles.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he was serving as a Captain and from 1940-1 he was attached to the 3rd Battalion, Burma Rifles, during which time he was promoted to Temporary Major. After a spell at Quetta Staff College in India (now part of Pakistan), he returned to serve with the Burma Rifles during the retreat from Burma.
From early 1943 onwards, Major Seagrim was chosen, because he knew Burma so well, to serve in an elite special force – Force 136 of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Major Seagrim’s group operated in the Karen Hills, with the gallant support of the local ethnic and religious people. From February 1943, he led a number of successful ambushes and the Japanese intensified their attempts to track him and his followers down.
In their efforts to capture Major Seagrim and his followers, the Japanese coerced and tortured local villagers. In February 1944, after a year of effective operations behind enemy lines, Major Seagrim’s force was itself ambushed. He escaped with a Karen officer but two fellow British officers were killed.
Incensed that Major Seagrim had evaded capture, the Japanese arrested 270 Karens, including village elders. Many were killed, others brutally tortured but still those sheltering Major Seagrim refused to give him up.
However, in March the Japanese got a message to Major Seagrim that the campaign of reprisals and fear would end if he gave himself up: if not they would kill the villagers at the rate of one a day. On learning of this assurance, Major Seagrim walked out of the village where he was hiding and surrendered to the enemy on March 15 1944. He was, of course, fully aware of the horrors that awaited him in Japanese hands.
The Japanese moved him to Rangoon where he was court-martialled, along with eight other men from his patrol who had been captured earlier and on September 2 1944 they were condemned to death.
As soon as the sentences were read out, Major Seagrim stepped forward and addressed the president of the court. He said that the other men were simply following orders – and that therefore only he should die and the others should be spared. His pleas were ignored and the group was returned to prison where Major Seagrim comforted the men and prepared them for their fate.
Indeed, his men were so inspired by his bravery and loyalty that they all concluded that they did not want any other attempts to be made for their lives to be spared: if their commander was going to die, they wanted to die with him.
Every evening before being captured, Major Seagrim had conducted prayers around a campsite and read passages from the Bible to his men in Burmese. He confided to one man that during his 13 months in the Karen Hills he had read the Bible cover to cover 12 times. While in prison, he encouraged his men to take strength from prayer.
One the night before his execution, Major Seagrim told one of those Karens due to die with him: “Don’t worry, Ta Roe, we are Christians and we must have faith in God. Pray to God, Ta Roe, and trust Him.”
Major Seagrim went bravely to his death on September 14 1944, aged 35. Like his highly-decorated elder brother, he was not married.
His GC, Britain and the Commonwealths most prestigious gallantry aware for courage not in the face of the enemy, was awarded on September 12 1946, when his short citation gave no details of his heroic work behind enemy lines. It simply said his GC was “in recognition of most conspicuous gallantry in carrying out hazardous work in a very brave manner.”
However, Lt Col J.R. Gardiner, who had made the recommendation, concluded: “There can hardly be a finer example of self-sacrifice and bravery than exhibited by this officer who in cold blood deliberately gave himself up to save others, knowing well what his fate was likely to be at the hands of the enemy…I count it as a privilege to recommend this very gallant officer for the George Cross.”
Major Seagrim, who had been awarded a military MBE in 1942, was also awarded Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1944. The recommendation for Major Seagrim’s DSO, prepared while he was still alive and at the time highly confidential, stated: “This officer has remained 380 miles within enemy-held territory ever since its occupation by the Japanese forces in April 1942. During this period he has sustained the loyalty of local inhabitants for a very wide area and thereby has provided the foundation of a pro-British force whenever occupying forces arrive in that area. This officer has now been contacted by Major Nimmo, ABRO [Army in Burma Reserve of Officers], and is passing valuable military intelligence by wireless. The fact that he has remained alone in constant danger and has maintained pro-British sympathies in such adverse circumstances, has proved his determination, courage and devotion to be of the highest order.”
As a young boy, Major Seagrim had been known as “Bumps” because he was always getting into scrapes, falling out of trees and the like. While in fighting in Burma, he was known affectionately as “Grandfather Longlegs” because he was older than most comrades and he was 6 ft 4 ins tall.
His posthumous GC was also presented to his mother, Annabel, by George VI at Buckingham Palace, this second family investiture taking place on December 2 1947.
Long after the war ended, Annabel Seagrim briefly wore her son Derek’s VC and her son Hugh’s GC at a War Memorial Parade in Eastbourne, East Sussex. It is believed to be the only time that anyone has worn both prestigious gallantry awards in public. Both medal groups are on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, although neither is part of my personal medal collection.
Today, Derek and Hugh Seagrim are buried thousands of miles from their former Norfolk home: the former in the Sfax war Cemetery in Tusinia, the latter in Rangoon War Cemetery, Burma.
However, the village of Whissonsett could hardly have done more to honour them: apart from the village sign, their names are on a family grave in the village churchyard, on the village war memorial and a cabinet in the church contains memorabilia relevant to both brothers. Furthermore, Norwich School, which I will address tomorrow, has named one of its eight houses “Seagrim” in the brothers’ memory.
Over the next two days of remembrance and commemoration, I would ask you to spare a thought for these two brothers who both showed supreme self-sacrifice.
There is an inscription on the Kohima War Cemetery in India that perfectly sums up the courage of the Derek and Hugh Seagrim on foreign soil during the Second World War. The words of John Maxwell Edmonds, the British poet, read: “When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
Read this article in the MailOnline.co.uk.