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Pte George William Thurstance

By Bob Barltrop
W ThurstanceGeorge Thurstance was born on 16 January 1914 in Red Bank, Manchester, (very close to the city centre) the son of William (a labourer) and Edith. He was christened on 18 February at St Thomas’s Church, Red Bank. On 11 February 1932 he attested for seven years with the Regulars and 5 years with the Reserve. He was posted to The Manchester Regiment as a private and was given the number 3525495. He was 5’4” tall and gave his trade as “Labourer”. Initially he was posted to the regiment’s depot at Ashton-Under-Lyne but on 6 September 1932 he was posted to the 1st Battalion.

At this time the battalion was at Shorncliffe Camp, Kent but on 20 October it moved to Gosport. On 23 January 1934 Pte Thurstance and the battalion embarked for the West Indies on the HM Troopship Dorsetshire bound for the West Indies. On arrival in Bermuda on 3 February A & C Companies and the band disembarked while the remainder of the battalion sailed on to Kingston, Jamaica which was reached on 8 February. Garrison life in the West Indies was pleasant and carefree but could not last for ever and in the autumn of 1935 the battalion returned on HM Troopship Dorsetshire which dropped anchor in Southampton Water on 13 October. However, the political situation in the Middle East had deteriorated to such a degree that family reunions were held the next morning in two customs sheds on the dock side for families and friends who had arrived in Southampton from Manchester on specially chartered trains. All troops were back on board the Dorsetshire by 4pm when the battalion sailed for Egypt.

Alexandria was reached on 23 October where a small advance party disembarked while the rest of the battalion sailed to Port Said from where it entrained for Moascar and moved into Haigh Camp. On the first day the brigade commander addressed the whole battalion on the political situation in the area. Shortly before Christmas the battalion moved to Mersa Matruh in the Western Desert, where a British force was assembled to oppose any attempt by the Italian Army to cross into Egypt from Abyssinia. On arrival the battalion joined the Armoured Brigade in the role of lorried infantry, their vehicles being provided and driven by the RASC.

In March, 1936, the battalion returned to Moascar and resumed its role of normal infantry. In October the battalion was placed on 12 hours' notice to fly to Baghdad for internal security duties, but fortunately the trouble subsided and the battalion stood down. In April, 1937, the battalion supplied company detachments for Cyprus and Port Said. In 1936 The Manchester Regiment was selected for conversion to a fully mechanised machine gun regiment but in May 1937 orders were received for the battalion to be reorganised as a medium machine gun battalion. Earlier in the year the battalion had received orders to move to Malta, but this was cancelled in November 1937, when orders were received to move to Palestine to assist in putting down the Arab rebellion.

The 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine was a nationalist uprising by Palestinian Arabs against British colonial rule and Jewish immigration. The revolt consisted of two distinct phases. The first phase was focused mainly on strikes and other forms of political protest but, by October 1936, this phase had been defeated by the British civil administration using a combination of political concessions, international diplomacy and the threat of martial law. The second phase, which began late in 1937, was a violent and peasant-led resistance movement that increasingly targeted British forces. During this phase, the rebellion was suppressed by the British Army and the Palestine Police Force.

In January 1938 the battalion moved to Palestine arriving in Haifa on 15 January. The battalion remained in Palestine until September when on 25 September it embarked for Singapore but Pte Thurstance embarked for the UK the following day as he was nearing the end of his Regular service. On 7 February 1939 Pte Thurstance was transferred to the Army Reserve.

However, with the storm clouds of war gathering over Europe in 1939 George Thurstance decided that Civvy Street was not for him and so on 12 April he rejoined the Colours and was posted to 2nd Battalion the Cheshire Regiment but was transferred “voluntarily and permanently” to The Manchester Regiment on 27 June. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion and on 3 September, the day after war was declared, he was appointed unpaid lance corporal.

On 22 September Pte Thurstance and the battalion left Aldershot and travelled to Southampton by train where they embarked on the SS Biarritz arriving in Cherbourg on the following day. Here Lance Cpl Thurstance and the battalion remained until 4 October when it moved to an area just south west of the village of Orchies on the France/Belgium border. The area was flat and featureless with a high water table so there was little the troops could do to prepare defences except for the building of pill-boxes by specialist troops. On 23 January Lance Cpl Thurstance returned to the UK for ten days leave but due to ill health he was granted an extra seven days’ leave but was admitted to Davyhulme Military Hospital on 12 February being discharged on 16 March and returning to France on 22 March.

On 8 May he reverted to private at his own request.
 In the early hours of 10 May the Germans took the Allies completely by surprise and invade Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg and so at 7pm Pte Thurstance and the 2nd Battalion advanced into Belgium at the little hamlet of Point Caillou and, over the next 36 hours, advance to the River Dyle on a line between Wavre and Louvain. The whole forward movement of the BEF was completed by 15 May, on which day the battalion came under fire from the German guns. However, it soon became apparent that, with the Germans pushing forward to the North and making rapid progress through the Ardennes to the South, everything was not going to plan and an orderly withdrawal was ordered and over the next few days the battalion withdrew via the Foret de Soignes, south of Brussels, Zarlardinge to the line of the Schelde and from here the retreat continued, mostly at night, to Hertain, just south of Tournai (19 May).

The Germans attacked the whole front on 21 May and with Calais surrounded and Boulogne captured on 24 May it was now really a rush to the sea and to hope that the Navy would come to the rescue. The battalion reached Saint Venant on the night of the 25th and moved back, through Bergues, to Dunkirk with most of the remnants of the battalion arriving on the beaches between 29 and 31 May. However, Pte Thurstance failed to make it back to the beaches and he was taken prisoner of war by the Germans on 26 May. Initially posted as “Missing” he was noted as being taken prisoner on 13 July 1940 having been captured at “La Bassée”.  

What happened to Pte Thurstance immediately after his capture is not known but in due course he was transported to Stalag XX-A which was located in Thorn/Toruń, Poland. It was not a single camp and contained as many as 20,000 men at its peak. The main camp was located in a complex of fifteen forts that surrounded the whole of the city. The forts had been built at the end of 19th Century to defend the western border of Kingdom of Prussia. In September 1939 some of the forts were used as PoW camps for Polish prisoners but in June 1940 additional forts were added to the camp to accommodate British soldiers. The first to arrive were 403 men from the Allied campaign in Norway but later about 4,500 arrived from Dunkirk and subsequently from the British 51st (Highland) Infantry Division captured at Saint-Valery-en-Caux. In 1941 and 1942 Soviet prisoners arrived. Although the camp was liberated on 1 February 1945 by the Soviet Army many of the PoWs had already been marched out of the camp towards the West.

It was not until 17 May 1945 that Pte Thurstance was noted as being in Allied hands and he was returned to the UK the same day, no doubt going on leave almost immediately. As Pte Thurstance was awarded the France and Germany Star he must have been engaged with the Allied forces in Europe after his liberation and prior to his return to the UK. Having been posted to the ‘Y’ list on 21 May 1945, Pte Thurstance extended his service to complete 21 years with the Colours and was then attached successively to 2/6th Lancashire Fusiliers, 9th Kings and 24 Machine Gun Transport Corps, returning to Germany with 7th Manchesters before being posted to 1st Manchesters in January 1946. Pte Thurstance remained in Germany until February 1947, before returning to the UK for just seven months before joining the BAOR in July 1948. He returned to the UK briefly in April 1951, being awarded his Army Long Service and Good Conduct Medal in August, before departing for the Far East where he remained until October 1954, taking part in the “Malaya” campaign with the rest of the battalion. Pte Thurstance returned to the BAOR in October 1954 before being finally discharged on 21 April 1955.