The bravery of a Boy Scout from Jarrow who was injured during an air raid is being used to help tell the story of a county’s communities at war.
Alan Wilkin was just 16 when he was presented with one of Scouting’s highest awards, the Gilt Cross, for his courage in tackling an incendiary bomb in 1941.
It exploded over his chest, leaving him scarred for life.
Now, more than 70 years later, his exploit is being featured at the Durham Light Infantry Museum at Aykley Heads where a workshop, Durham Lives, encourages visitors to see photographs, artefacts and memories as a way of exploring civilians’ experiences in the county - of which what is now South Tyneside was once part – during both world wars.
Sadly, Alan died suddenly 30 years ago, aged just 62.
He had gone on to serve with the Commandos during the war, seeing action in Italy, Burma and at D-Day.
Having his gallantry now come to light would probably make him blush. “He was a very modest man, who never really talked about the war much, not even about the medal. He didn’t even apply for his service medals after the war, though we have them now,” says his daughter, Liz Wilkin, who works as a gallery assistant at the DLI Museum.
It was through her work there that Alan’s bravery came to be highlighted.
“They were looking for various resources, especially somebody who had been a Scout or who had served in the Auxiliary Fire Service, and, of course, I knew that we had all these bits and pieces at home,” says Liz.
They included the medal, and also Alan’s Scout certificate, signed by Chief Scout, Baden Powell, with the jaunty message: “Sleeves up – and tackle your job!”
Alan Wilkin was one of more than 50,000 Scouts who trained for National War Service during the Second World War, serving as police messengers, firemen, stretcher bearers etc.
He was a member of the 4th Jarrow (St Paul’s) Troop at the time of the air raid, engaged as a messenger at an Auxiliary Fire Service station.
A contemporary report of the incident records that high explosive and incendiary bombs were falling and there was a need for a message to be delivered to a squad operating in another part of the town. Alan promptly volunteered to take the message, then, having accomplished his mission, he assisted in extinguishing incendiary bombs. It was while he was doing that, that an incendiary exploded on his chest.
He suffered serious injuries and was in hospital for several weeks.
“He had the scars all his life,” says Liz.
The award of the Scouts’ Gilt Cross was subsequently announced by Lord Barnard who, at the time, was County Commissioner.
After his recovery, Alan went on to be called up and served as a signaller with the Royal Navy in Combined Operations, alongside the Commandos. After the war he worked at Jarrow Metals and Armstrong Whitworth, as a clerk, and met his future wife Lucy (nee Hall).
They married in 1953, starting life in Jarrow and later moving to Hebburn.
Alan, a father-of-two, continued to work in the steel industry, eventually finishing up as personnel officer at Davy Roll.
n One other artefact has been added to the visual story of Alan Wilkin’s courageous career as a Scout.
The museum contacted the Scout Association in the hope of obtaining a 4th Scout Troop ‘necker’ (short for neckerchief), of the kind that Alan would have worn, and at a meeting recently, Liz and her mum, Lucy, were present when former Scout leader Ken Smith gave one to the collection.