Ronald H Saull
One of the Quiet Heroes of the Second World War
By Jenny Daniel
This article was originally published in the April 2005 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Ronald Saull was born on 7 January 1913 in Kilburn, the last child of Annie and John Clare Saull.
His father was a motorcycle mechanic – all the Saull men seem to have been, and still are, very mechanically gifted – and ran a business “behind Selfridges”. He is said to have invented a new type of drive mechanism for motorcycles and the business which he ran with his partner, a man called Crockford, was successful. Then he had a motorcycle accident and seriously damaged his back. He only lived a few years after the accident, bad-tempered from the pain. His partner, Crockford, was apparently such a close friend that John Clare Saull’s firstborn son was named after him: John Crockford Saull, born in 1900. Nonetheless, after the accident, Crockford is reputed to have somehow got hold of, or absconded with, all the money from the business, leaving the widow, with her seven living children, essentially penniless. The family broke up; Ronald and his sister Alice went to live in Ashford with their maternal grandmother. Ronald went to school at Ashford Council School.
In 1928-30 Ronald was studying at the Richmond Technical Institute: Calculations and Science, and Workshop Drawing. He took courses in Arithmetic, Principles of Alternating Current, Principles of Mechanics, Mensuration and Formulae for the International Correspondence School. By 1937 he had been employed for five years by a firm of Electrical Engineers based in St Annes-on-the-Sea, working on wiring contracts. One of these contracts was to oversee the installation of the electrical systems in some one hundred houses being built by Taylor Woodrow in Melksham, Wiltshire, and it was there that he met Gladys Marion Petty (known as Jonnie), the daughter of a local blacksmith.
They met at a dance; he was 23, she was eighteen and employed at the local Electricity Board. She describes what happened: “he asked me to dance, very correctly. He was a very good dancer, and very correct in conversation and a nice quiet voice. He stayed with me when the dance was over and lit up a pipe (with my permission!) and told me how he had come to Melksham to work. He offered to escort me home, which he did very correctly and left me at King Street. So I got a very good impression and was pleased when he arranged to meet me again. In the weeks that followed I got to know him better, liked the way he dressed (plus fours! and nice country style clothes). When I began taking him home to King Street he didn’t seem overwhelmed with the number of sisters & brothers I had, and got on quietly and well with my mum and dad and used to take great interest in the blacksmith’s shop and the horses. He was a great book reader, of all kinds of books…”.
They were married in Melksham Parish Church on 4 September 1940. Soon afterwards, on 30 October 1940, he was called up and joined the RNVR as an ordinary seaman. He served at HMS Raleigh and HMS Drake and was sent on an Officers Course. By 11 September 1941 he was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, Sub-Division General Fleet Duties. From Jonnie’s account: “he volunteered for the ‘Bomb Disposal’ and ‘Rendering Mines’ Branch of the Navy. It was very frightening for me, as at that time the war had taken its toll of this branch of the services and 80% of the men had been killed … but … he knew the risks he would have to take.”
At this time he was sent to the training establishment HMS Volcano, on the west coast of Cumbria. This seems a splendidly appropriate name to give an establishment whose purpose was to teach the art of rendering safe all types of bombs and mines, both on land and underwater. According to Noel Cashford, the training at HMS Volcano was rigorous and ingenious: “The drill was that one party laid booby traps and another party had to locate them and render them safe. We all got extremely cunning at this and even when the day’s work was over you could not relax. Pick up a shoe – BANG! Flush the toilet – BANG! Lie on the bed – BANG! … One way they made us very cautious was that your name would be put on the ‘Deceased’ board if you exploded a booby trap. That concentrated the mind wonderfully”.
After his training, Ronald served in Rosyth, Oban and in the Orkneys – all secret work. In the London Gazette of 3 October 1944 he was awarded a commendation for “bravery and devotion to duty in helping salvage a cargo of bombs” from SS Malakand during a major air attack on Liverpool docks.
After this there is some confusion which I have not yet really been able to clear up. An undated but genuine-looking copy letter which I have, addressed to Ronald Saull and signed illegibly by someone whose name looks like “Droop”, reads as follows: I am commanded … to inform you … that, on the advice of the First Lord, the King has been graciously pleased to award you with the George Medal for gallantry, skill and devotion to duty in the hazardous work of mine-clearance, under very dangerous conditions, in the liberated ports of Normandy and the Low Countries ... published in the London Gazette Supplement of 15 May 1945.” I also have another copy letter – very genuine looking -- clearly signed by H V Markham and addressed to Mrs G M Saull on 21st July 1945, notifying her that “the King has been graciously pleased to approve the grant of a Bar to the George Medal to your husband … for courage, coolness and skill in hazardous mine-clearing operations at Ouistreham”.
However, the following letter from the Office of the Naval Secretary says: “Lieutenant Saull was awarded the GM for his work in saving the lock gates at Ouistreham in August 1944 whilst serving in Naval Party 1502C. … he was killed on 12 May 1945 and the George Medal was presented to his widow at Buckingham Palace on 18 December 1945. … there is no evidence to suggest that Lieutenant Saull was awarded a bar to his Medal. In addition … the original warrant for the George Medal did not permit it to be awarded posthumously. Although Lieutenant Saull did not live to be presented with medal it was not a posthumous award because he was not killed whilst carrying out the act for which it was awarded.”
Whether I shall ever be able satisfactorily know whether or not he won the GM and bar (i.e. he won it twice), I don’t know. In the meantime, here is an extract from the record of clearing mines0:
“Lt Saull worked … during the port clearance operations. He landed in France near Ouistreham on D-Day+1 and soon found demolition charges, mines and booby-traps in various locations in the area, including on lock gates and in boats moored in the canal. He rendered these safe…while searching buildings and bunkers, he had to have a torch in one hand and a pistol in the other as there were still Germans in the area. To use his words ‘Blockhouses proved pretty tricky – completely dark and a complete shambles’. Every day Lt Saull was finding and rendering sage mines and bombs, including booby-trapped demolition charges under a wooden bridge over some tank traps. For his exceptional gallantry, skill and great devotion to duty, often in close proximity to the enemy during mine searching and clearance operation in the ports of Normandy and of the Low Countries, he was awarded a George Medal and bar. … On 12th May 1945 Lt Saull and S/Lt Kirkland (supported by eight Navel Ratings) were working on a mine in the sea off Rotterdam. The mine was apparently of a ‘new’ type. During the attempt to render it safe, the mine exploded killing Lt Saull and Kirkland and possibly some of the other members of the working party. Ronald Saull and Donald Kirkland are now buried at Rotterdam (Crooswijk) General Cemetery.”
Chris Ransted, an expert in the area, seems to accept that Ronald was awarded a bar to the GM. But it’s really immaterial; Ronald Saull, newly married and with a small child, volunteered for this particularly dangerous service and eventually, aged only 32, was killed. The work of bomb disposal has none of the apparent glamour and excitement of battle; it needed skill and total self-control. These men did not kill anyone; they saved thousands of lives.
A group of trainees at HMS Volcano. Ronald Saull is second from the right, wearing braces
1Cashford, N: All Mine! Memoirs of a Naval Bomb and Mine Disposal Officer. Published by ALD Design & Print in July 2002
2 Ransted, Chris: Bomb Disposal and the British Casualties of WW2. pages 90-92 – from information supplied by JRD
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