Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1944, Corporal John William Harper VC, 4th Battalion, the York and Lancaster Regiment, was killed in action at Merksplas in Belgium.
The eldest of four children, he worked with his father as a peat-cutter after leaving school. He married young and he and his wife set up home in the market town of Thorne. He was called up in April of 1940, and joined the York and Lancaster Regiment, achieving promotion to the rank of corporal by 1944.
On the day of his death, he was commanding the leading section of his battalion in an attack on the Depot de Mendicite, which was held by the enemy. They had to cross three hundred yards of flat and exposed ground, disregarding the mortar bombs, grenades and small arms fire directed at them. The platoon commander was seriously wounded so Corporal Harper took control.
The story is best told by one of his own men: “At about 4am we left the copse and advanced a mile towards the depot. After climbing over a fence, we were told to fix bayonets and at the order, charge. We had to gallop over this open area, about three hundred yards or so to the moat bank where, unbeknown to us Germans were dug in. We flattened ourselves with Cpl Harper at the helm. He motioned to us to be quiet - you could see the Jerry helmets. But thinking it may be part of the Polish Armoured Division, he called across, heard the name Fritz and that’s where the main attack began. Under a hail of grenades and gunfire, Cpl Harper rampaged through the German troops, taking prisoners, shooting the enemy and seizing their dugouts in a violent and fearsome firefight. Then he went a second time with our section’s left-over grenades and took out a machine gun nest, allowing our supporting back-up to move through. But unfortunately he was killed while returning to us. He was kind, thoughtful and considered us 18-year-olds as if we were his siblings.”
Corporal Harper is buried in the Leopoldsburg War Cemetery near Limburg, Belgium, and his name is inscribed on the Hatfield Cemetery War Memorial. For his actions on the day of his death he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
John, from Hatfield, Doncaster, was 28 years old.