Hero of the month – June 2022

  • 1 June, 2022
  • Bravery
  • Britain at War
  • Medals

Published in Britain at War in June 2022.

Major Frederick Henry Bradley VC, VD

Frederick Bradley was serving as a driver when he displayed outstanding bravery during a battle that has been likened to the defence of Rorke’s Drift. It was a wonderful example of what I call “spur-of-the-moment courage” in which a soldier, with his blood up during the heat of battle, risked his own life to save a wounded comrade.

Frederick Henry Bradley was born in Shoreditch, London, on September 27 1876. He was the son of Thomas Bradley, who served with the Royal Engineers, and his wife Caroline (née Smith). After leaving school, Frederick Bradley got a job as a blacksmith’s hammerman before, on March 12 1894, enlisting in the 2nd Depot Division of the Royal Field Artillery (RFA).

In May 1894, Bradley joined the 41st Battery of the regiment as a driver. He also served with the 44th Battery before transferring to the 69th Battery in April 1897. Soon afterwards, his unit embarked for South Africa as part of the 1st Brigade, RFA. After the start of the Second Boer War in October 1899, Bradley was present at several of the early battles.

In August 1900, Bradley was among a handful of gunners chosen to accompany the Fifth Division, Mounted Infantry Battalion, raised by Major A.J. Chapman. He was present on September 26 1901 – the day before his 25th birthday – at the Defence of Fort Itala, a two-day battle that some historians have compared to the defence of Rorke’s Drift. In both cases, Natal was saved from an invasion by a small detachment of British soldiers who made a gallant stand despite being vastly outnumbered.

The battle at Fort Itala took place because of Commandant General Louis Botha’s second expedition to Natal when he was keen to exploit his earlier success over the British at Blood River Poort [CORRECT]. The Commandant General ordered Assistant Commandant Chris Botha to attack a British position situated on the lower spur of the 2,800 feet summit of Itala. Known as Fort Itala, its defences were, in fact, limited to shallow trenches and low-lying stone walls. The two sides were far from evenly-matched: Botha had 1,400 men while the British force, under Major Chapman of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, stood at around 300 men.

The British initially had two 15-pounder guns and a Maxim gun at their disposal, but the latter jammed and the two 15-pounders were soon withdrawn from service because the gun crews suffered heavy casualties from Boer marksmen. The 17-hour engagement developed into a duel of rifles and bayonets, during which the British force eventually expended a staggering 70,000 rounds.

An article on the battle, entitled “Itala – Monument to Valour”, was written by M.C. Carter in the South African Military History Society Journal and this provides a wonderful insight into the ferocity of the action: “A tornado of lead enveloped the post. Bullets screamed and howled, the ground rapidly became covered with a shower of broken branches and chopped leaves, the screams and groans of stricken men and of the pathetic unprotected horses filled the air; dust and earth flew in all directions and the constant ear-shattering crash of hundreds of rifles made a sound to match all the thunderbolts of hell, as the Boers tried to batter the defences to pieces with rifle fire. No cover could withstand this inferno, and men fell thick and fast, yet each attack melted away under the galling return cross-fire of the defenders …

“By late afternoon after 17 hours of heavy, unrelenting attack, both sides were exhausted.

“Chapman’s force had taken a fearful toll of the attacking Commando, but they had suffered 81 killed and wounded and lost a further 40 as prisoners. This was nearly half his total strength. The troops, bleary-eyed, with hands burned, shoulders raw and faces scorched, their ammunition nearly exhausted, could hardly be expected to withstand another concerted attack. They were ready but hardly able. Chapman himself, shot through the right leg, waited and listened as the Boer fire slackened and died away. After an hour he sent out scouts who returned with the heartening news that Botha’s men were drawing off… “

In fact, 153 British horses had been killed, while the rest had been injured or had bolted. There were far more men defending Fort Itala than had been defending Rorke’s Drift in 1879, but the scale of the task facing the British force was still immense.

The diary of the 69th Battery also provides a vivid description of the battle:> “At about 12.15 a.m. a very heavy fire was opened on the camp from all sides. ..The guns opened fire at once, firing shrapnel at the flashes at a range of 1,100 yards. There was a full moon…

“About 11 a.m. Major Chapman called for volunteers to carry ammunition to a trench on the hill a distance of about 300 yards under a heavy fire. Six men volunteered. Gunner Boddy and Driver Lancashire started with the first box and got half way when Driver Lancashire was hit. Gunner Rabb and Driver Bradley ran out to carry him in and brought him back. Major Chapman then ordered no more men were to be sent but Gunner Ball and Driver Bradley ran out before they could be stopped and succeeded in getting one box to the top of the hill. Gunner Rabb and Driver Bradley were recommended for the V.C.”

Research undertaken by Canon W.M. Lummis MC provides further information on Bradley’s bravery: “When Major Chapman called for volunteers to take ammunition up the hill to the infantry at Fort Itala on the Zululand border, Bradley was one of the volunteers. A tiny man, his services were declined; but Bradley insisted, and when others were wounded, he instantly rushed out to carry them out to shelter and then carried the ammunition uphill. Before doing so, however, he knelt down by a bush and prayed for God’s help.”

Bradley’s VC was announced on December 27 1901 when his citation stated: ‘During the action at Itala, Zululand, on 26 September 1901, Major Chapman called for volunteers to carry ammunition up hill; to do this a space of about 150 yards swept by a heavy cross fire had to be crossed. Driver Lancashire and Gunner Ball at once came forward and started, but half-way across Driver Lancashire fell wounded. Driver Bradley and Gunner Rabb without a moment’s hesitation ran out and caught Driver Lancashire up, and Gunner Rabb carried him under cover, the ground being swept by bullets the whole time. Driver Bradley then, with the aid of Gunner Boddy, succeeded in getting ammunition up the hill.’”

Bradley’s VC was presented to him by Lord Kitchener in an investiture at Pretoria on Peace Thanksgiving Day, June 8 1902, when he was also awarded the Queen’s Medal and five clasps and the King’s Medal and two clasps. Furthermore, he was promoted to bombardier. After initially being placed on the 1st Army Reserve in South Africa, Bradley was later discharged from the Army on March 11 1906. In that year too, for reasons best known to himself, Bradley changed his two first names from “Frank George” to “Frederick Henry”.

However, in late March 1906, Bradley enrolled as a corporal in the Central South African Railway Volunteers (CSARV). He was serving with the Transvaal Mounted Rifles during the Zulu Rebellion (also known as the Bambatha Uprising) a revolt against British rule and taxation in Natal. In 1907, he married Florence Hillary, who was from South Africa, and the couple went on to have two sons. After being discharged in February 1908, he rejoined the CSARV as a sergeant in January 1910. The following year he, at his own expense, accompanied the South African contingent to the coronation of George V in London.

Bradley transferred to the 10th Infantry, The Witwatersrand Rifles, in January 1913, in which regiment he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in July of that year, before being promoted to lieutenant in March 1914.

After the outbreak of the Great War, Bradley served in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) from August 1914 until September 1915. He initially served as Commanding Office of ‘C’ Company before switching to work as a Railway Transport Officer. Bradley was involved in the same train crash that claimed the life of Sir George Farrar DSO.

In early 1916, Bradley travelled to France as an adjutant of 5th Trench Mortar Battery, 5th Brigade, 2nd Division. Later still, in the acting rank of captain, he commanded six batteries of mortars on the Somme and was seriously wounded at Delville Wood. The Great War had presented him with two close brushes with death and, in July 1917, he returned to South Africa to recuperate from his injuries. Here, from July 1 1918, he served in the South African Defence Force, once again with the Witwatersrand Rifles. By the time the Great War ended in November 1918, Bradley was 42 years old but still his military career was not over.

In December 1919, he transferred to the 2nd Mounted Rifles (the Natal Carbineers) from the Supernumerary List of the Active Citizen Force. While serving with this regiment, he received promotion to the rank of captain in December 1923.

In 1924, Bradley was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces Long Service Medal and in 1919 he was awarded the Colonial Auxiliary Forces’ Decoration. Bradley also attended the coronation of George VI in 1937 as a member of the South African Contingent (Medal). Bradley remained on the Reserve of Officers until September 1938 and was granted the honorary rank of major.

During the later years of his career, Bradley worked as a publican and manager of a general store. A keen shot and angler, he was also wrote several books. As a publican, Bradley was not the first to drink too much while doing his job. Major Geoffrey Tylden, who knew him well, said: “He was a damn good chap and kept a pub in Zululand…He used to say “My nerve is gone, so I drink,” and he did, poor chap.”

Bradley’s bravery was matched by his generosity too. In 1935, the Cape Argus reported: ‘In the balance sheet of the Royal Chelsea Hospital there appears a brief entry reading: ‘From the Bradley V.C. Fund. £10.’ In an act of great generosity – since £10 was a vast sum at the time – Bradley had secretly started donating his VC pension paid by the British Government to his local hospital in Johannesburg.

Bradley finally settled in Gwelo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he worked as a telephone exchange operator. He died on March 10 1943, aged 66. Bradley is buried in Gwelo Cemetery and his name is listed on a memorial at the Royal Artillery Chapel in Woolwich, south-east London. I am proud to be the custodian of this brave man’s medal group having purchased it at auction in 2015.

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