Thursday, 28 February 2013

James Stokes VC: Celtic Fan and Hero

The Gorbals district on the south side of the river Clyde has been home to successive waves of immigrants over the years. The Jewish community settled there or used it as a stopping point on the way to America. Highlanders poured in as Glasgow industrialised and the hills of the north were cleared for sheep. The post famine Irish arrived in huge numbers in the second half of the nineteenth century and all these groups left their mark on the area. Conditions were often grim and the area produced a few tough characters. Jimmy Stokes was born to Irish parents in a tenement on Commercial Road in February 1915. When he lost both parents at an early age and the family of four was split up, Stokes spent some time in a Catholic children’s home before becoming a labourer on his uncle’s farm at the age of 14. He later travelled into England and worked for a time as a waiter in London before returning to Glasgow to work in the building trade. Life was hard and Jimmy was a tough young man who could look after himself in the Glasgow made infamous by the book ‘No Mean City.’ Stokes, like most of the Glasgow Irish, was also a great Celtic man and would have known the greats of Willie Maley’s Celtic teams well. Matt Lynch, John Thompson, McGrory, McStay, Scarf and Nappier would have been among his heroes. In 1939, he married a local girl, Janet Kennedy, and they set up home in a single-room apartment at 20, Clyde Street. He joined the Artillery as his brother George had already done when war broke out. 

Jimmy had his scrapes with the law and was no stranger to the court system. In 1944  he found himself before a judge again. Home on leave from the Royal Artillery, Stokes took offence at an insult to his wife and the ensuing fight left another man seriously injured. The judge noted that Stokes was a character who seemed to like a scrap and as there was a war on decided that he would let him choose between prison or joining the infantry which was short of men for the fighting in Europe.  Stokes, the judge commented, would be better taking his aggression out on the Nazis. Stokes was transferred from the Artillery to the infantry and soon found himself involved in heavy fighting with the Wehrmacht in Holland.  By early 1945 the allies had smashed their way into Germany proper and the war seemed set to end soon. Despite imminent defeat some Germans fought on with a ferocity born of desperation. Jimmy found himself with his comrades in the small town of Kervernheim on the Dutch German border. Without warning withering machine gun and rifle fire poured from a fortified farmhouse and raked the Platoon. What happened next is the stuff of legend. The British Victoria Cross Society recorded Stokes actions as follows…

In Germany, on 1st March, 1945, during an attack on Kervenheim, Private Stokes was a member of the leading section of a platoon pinned down by heavy fire from a farm building. Without waiting for orders Private Stokes dashed through the enemy fire, to disappear inside this building. The fire stopped, and he reappeared, wounded in the neck. This valiant action enabled the platoon to advance to the next objective. Private Stokes was ordered back to a Regimental Aid Post, but refused to go. The platoon then encountered heavy fire from a house on the left. Again without waiting for orders, Private Stokes rushed the house by himself and all firing from it ceased. His gallantry enabled his platoon, which he subsequently rejoined bringing five prisoners, to continue the advance. In the final assault Private Stokes, now severely wounded, once more dashed to the objective through intense fire. He finally fell, firing his rifle to the last. It was found that he had been wounded eight times in the upper part of the body. Private Stokes's one object throughout this action was to kill the enemy, at whatever personal risk. His magnificent courage, devotion to duty, and splendid example inspired all around him, and ensured the success of the attack at a critical moment; moreover, his self-sacrifice saved his Platoon and Company heavy casualties.’

It was noted that his courage and willingness to make the supreme sacrifice saved the lives of many of his friends. He knew he was dying and in his last moments said his farewells to his comrades. He was awarded the country’s highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross. Jimmy is remembered today in a variety of ways. The Celtic Supporters bus which runs from the Brazen Head Bar in the Gorbals is named in his honour. Glasgow City council erected the ‘Gorbals Rose War Memorial’ in his honour. The children of St Bridget’s Primary School made a video to celebrate the courage of Jimmy Stokes, their local hero. The Victor War Comic featured his story three times calling him, ‘The Soldier Who Would Not Give Up!’

Jimmy Stokes, Gorbals boy, Celtic fan and hero died on 1st March 1945.

We remember with pride.


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