John McHugh was born on 16th May 1920 into a family of nine children. He left school at 14 years old in 1934 and became a bricklayer (designated Class 1 on his Army Pay Book as he enlisted). He married Kathleen on 5th October 1940, prior to being called up for conscription later that month, at the age of 20, into the Royal Engineers. His two older brothers were also in military service (Jim McHugh who joined John as a Normandy veteran on D-1 [5th June 1944] serving in a minesweeper) and the eldest brother, Joseph, who was wounded on campaign in North Africa, and forced out of active service as a result of the large amount of shrapnel remaining in his legs.
In 1943 John & Kathleen had their first son, Kevin. Their 2nd child was due the following year (in July 1944) and on 14th May 1944 Kathleen’s mother died. Because of her advanced pregnancy; the fact that she had a child under one year old and a 12 year old orphaned sister to care for, John was given compassionate leave to return home and assist with the burial, before returning to his unit.
The Normandy Campaign
John had Kathleen’s distress very much in mind as he was involved in preparations for the Channel crossing, sending a letter in May 1944 (which did not arrive until after Kathleen had been informed of his death because all mail sent by soldiers had been held back to ensure the secrecy of the operation) and nearer the scheduled embarkation sending a telegram (at 11 am on 5th June) reassuring her Together in thought this day set 5th Love John. John went to Normandy on June 6th with the 2nd Platoon, 84th Field Company, serving with HQ 18 Royal Engineers, and landed on SWORD beach, tasked with clearing mines.
The role John’s unit played is mentioned in R.P. Packenham-Walsh ‘History of the Corps of the Royal Engineers’ Vol. IX, (published in 1958).
As they pressed inland, and the tide receded, a more thorough clearance of obstacles and mines was undertaken, and efforts were redoubled to improve and multiply the exits from the beaches in an endeavour to relieve the terrible congestion. This congestion, and casualties in senior controlling officers, led to considerable disorganisation and delay. Somehow or other exits were increased and traffic got moving. A report says that it was difficult to establish by whom some of the exits were made. Some of the originally designated parties were delayed afloat, others suffered heavy casualties. But it is clear that the briefing of all R.E. parties in the essential requirements was so good that officers and N.C.Os. were able to organise parties from the nearest available men and get on with the job.
It is in the context of this disorganisation and urgency that John McHugh was mortally injured. His brother, Jim, was later given a first hand account of the circumstances of his brother’s death from an eye-witness. John had landed successfully at Sword beach in the early morning, supporting the Canadians alongside the Special Forces. He cleared a particular section of beach of mines, and explained that he had not completed areas beyond a certain point. However, the driver of John’s lorry, who it seems likely was suffering from shock, did not heed this warning and drove through the unsafe section. John was wounded by the explosion that occurred when the lorry struck a mine and died of his wounds at a field hospital the following day.
Official notification of John’s death was received by Kathleen at the end of June, with the letter (below), dated 1st July 1944, sent from the Royal Engineers Record Office:
No 2127355 Spr (Sapper) McHugh, J. RE
It is with profound regret that I have to inform you that a report has been received in this Office to the effect that your husband died of wounds in North West Europe on 7th June 1944.
Although nothing I can say can comfort you in your grief, may I express to you my deepest sympathy in the sad loss you have sustained.
Kathleen’s distress caused her to go into premature labour and her second son, named John in memory of his father, was born a week later. As Kathleen nursed her new born son, she received a personal, hand written letter, dated 9th July and sent by John’s commanding officer, Major D.A. Smith:
Dear Mrs McHugh
You will by now have had the official intimation of your husband’s death with my unit in France. I am writing to try and give you my deepest sympathy and that of all the fellows still here with us.
I feel that words are not adequate but we do assure you that we feel most deeply for you in your great loss.
Your husband survived all the initial assault and was severely wounded in a mine explosion. He was taken to the dressing station but he did not survive long. I don’t think he could have suffered as he was mercifully unconscious.
Like everyone else out here he got the very best of medical attention and everything possible was done for him.
If there is anything that we can do for you please don’t hesitate to ask and we will try and manage it for you.
John was eventually buried in Hermanville Cemetery. The village of Hermanville lay behind Sword beach and was occupied early on 6 June by men of the South Lancashire regiment. Many of those buried in Hermanville War Cemetery died on 6 June or during the first days of the drive towards Caen. The cemetery contains 1,003 Second World War burials, 103 of them unidentified. The process of constructing the cemetery itself and the compilation of the Roll of Honour (The names of all members of His Late Majesty’s Forces who fell in the 1939 – 1945 War printed in cemetery and memorial Registers) was a long process; the Roll of Honour was not completed until 1957.
For Kathleen, the widow with her sister and two very young children to care for, life then became extremely hard. She was granted a widow’s pension:
With reference to your letter dated 7th October 1944, I am to inform you that under the regulations of this Ministry, the rate of pension payable to the widow of a Sapper is as follows:-
To a widow over 40 years of age, or a widow under 40 with children of pensionable age in her care, 32/6d weekly, plus an allowance of 11/- weekly for each child.
This is the maximum amount of pension applicable in your case and it is regretted that the Minister has no power to sanction any increase.
Kathleen received the balance of John McHugh’s pay and allowances (£1 15s 7d) and £21.19s 6d Post War Credit in November 1944. The accompanying letter explained:
The Post War credit, which it has been decided to release specially for payment in the case of deceased soldiers, is assessed at 6d a day for the period 1st January 1942 (or date of enlistment if later) to date of death. Less days for which pay was not admissible.
However, receiving no allowance for the care of her sister (and to ensure she was not sent to an orphanage) Kathleen was forced to go back to work. Her husband’s family helped out; her sister-in-law picking one of the children up from the nursery whilst Kathleen picked the other baby up on her way home from work.
At the end of the War, Kathleen was sent John’s War Service Campaign medals with a note:
The Army Council share your sorrow that 2127354 Spr (Sapper) McHUGH. J. in respect of whose service these Awards are granted did not live to receive them
Written by the McHugh Family