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From the coalfields to the killing fields

In memory of Lt Col John Thomas Whetton (1894-1979) - DSO OBE MC TD MSc A set of war medals that reveal one man’s incredible life story have been discovered at Mary Ogilvie House, which is being de

The 17 gallantry and campaign miniature medals found inside the building's safe were bequeathed to the University in the 1990s.

They belonged to Lieutenant Colonel John Thomas Whetton (1894-1979), who began his life as a miner in West Yorkshire, served with tremendous courage in both world wars, and went on to become a respected professor of mining engineering and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds.

He has been described as "a man of many parts combining academic and solider. In each area he distinguished himself at the highest level..."

Professor Whetton was a leading light in fundraising activities for the construction of Charles Morris Hall from 1957-1965, which at the time was the first mixed accommodation for men and women on campus. As a result, one of Charles Morris Hall's three blocks was named after him when the building was officially opened in January 1966.

The discovery of the medals came to the attention of property manager Mike Leonard (Residential and Commercial Services), an ex-Royal Engineer with a keen interest in local and military history. "It was a bit like Time Team - we knew his name and could identify some of the most distinctive medals, but then we came to a dead end," explains Mike.

Through internet research, Mike came across a history of the 4th Durham Survey Regiment, which was co-written by Lieutenant Colonel JT Whetton and published in 1978 (read it online at http://tinyurl.com/4durhamsurvey) . A second edition was published by his nephew Jim Whetton, who describes his uncle as having "great personal charm, he was certainly a most remarkable man".

Jim was excited to hear about the medals and offered his help to piece together the missing details of John Whetton's life.

An officer and a gentleman
Born in 1894 as one of 13 children, John grew up in New Fryston, near Castleford, and left school at the age of 13 to become a miner at the local pit, working alongside his father and two older brothers. He was keen to make mining his career, but also knew the importance of an education and began studying part-time at Castleford Technical College.

However, his studies were interrupted when the First World War broke out in 1914. Like so many other young men of his generation, John joined up to fight as an infantryman with 8th Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers, where he had ample opportunity to show his gifts of leadership and organisation, rising rapidly from private to captain.

In 1915, his battalion lost a third of their men at the Battle of Loos in France, where chlorine gas was used for the first time. Lance Sergeant Whetton was then seriously wounded by shrapnel at the Somme in 1916 but survived his injuries and was sent back home, which gave him the opportunity to go to officer training school. He was then transferred to 6th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, whose soldiers fought in the horrific scenes at Passchendaele in the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. While his regiments were decimated twice in the trenches of France, amazingly he survived all of these conflicts.

In 1918, the battalion sailed with Allied forces to fight against the Bolsheviks in the arctic conditions of Murmansk, northern Russia. Here, the former miner became acting captain of a mobile ski unit carrying out survey and reconnaissance work. His unit was recognised for great heroism and he was decorated with the Imperial Russian Order of Saint Stanislaus and the Military Cross.

When the war ended, John returned to mining at Horden Colliery and met his first wife, Mary Thompson, a primary school teacher to whom he was married for 45 years. His wartime experiences provided the motivation to start a BSc in mining engineering at the University of Leeds in 1920, followed by a master's degree in 1923.

On graduating, Leeds' former chair of mining Professor Granville Poole was sufficiently impressed that he invited John to become his research assistant at Armstrong College in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he became a lecturer in mining, surveying, and applied geophysics. He moved steadily through the ranks of academic life to the appointment of reader, whilst maintaining close contact with the Army.

But as the clouds of the Second World War gathered with the rise of Hitler, in 1936 John (then aged 42) was asked to use his military and academic experience to set up a specialised new volunteer unit within the Territorial Army, the 4th Durham Survey Regiment Royal Artillery, based at Gateshead. The idea was to attract willing men who were also qualified engineers, miners, surveyors, and scientists.

According to his nephew Jim Whetton, "He was a reluctant surveyor but he was also a man of his generation, to whom doing his duty was of primary importance. He accepted the invitation and from that point on, threw himself energetically into raising the new regiment, promoting artillery survey as a good career."

The regiment's ability to coordinate British artillery power against enemy targets - by using 'flash spotting' or 'sound ranging' techniques - undoubtedly played a crucial role in the Allies'success throughout the Second World War and their skills were in huge demand. Until then, it had not generally been believed that survey regiments could be used during fast-moving operations, but 4th Durham Survey Regiment proved their worth time and again, serving with great distinction.

Under Lt Col Whetton's command, the regiment departed for Egypt in 1940 and was in the thick of the action during the North African Campaign, serving in Egypt, Eritrea, Greece, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya. His men were at the epic Battle of El Alamein in 1942 and prepared the way for the invasion of Sicily in 1943, during which time he received the Africa Star and the Italy Star. The regiment then travelled to France for the D-Day Landings at Normandy in June 1944, before pushing on into Belgium and Holland for Operation Market Garden.

Members of the regiment knew Lt Col Whetton as a driven, energetic and ambitious man who demanded the utmost from his men, "my lads" as he called them, but he would support them vigorously if any doubts were raised about their work - particularly those recruited from the North-East, for whom he had a soft spot. According to his nephew Jim, "former colleagues may remember a mixture of personal uncertainty and arrogance, aloofness yet warmth and generosity."

On receiving his Distinguished Service Order in 1943, the citation said "Lt Colonel Whetton has shown great drive in the handling of his regiment ... All the officers and men of his regiment have proved themselves possessed of a cold-blooded courage that deserves the highest praise, and they have carried out their tasks under the noses of the enemy, and frequently under fire, without any failures, though they never had the opportunity to strike back themselves."

In the opinion of Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks, "every man who served in the 4th Survey has the right to hold his head high, knowing that he did more than his share in winning the last war."

General Sir Bernard Montgomery also singled out 4th Durham for their outstanding record of service when he wrote in 1943: "...you have an artillery group that is probably unequalled anywhere for knowledge and experience ... has taken part in every type of fighting ...and which could be a model for the whole army in England to study."

However, Lt Col Whetton's luck finally ran out in December 1944; he was accidentally shot in the leg when another British officer's revolver fell out of its holster. He was evacuated back to England and later invalided out of the Army. He left active service laden with honours, including the Order of the British Empire, the Croix de Guerre and the Belgian Order of the Crown, to name just a few.

At the end of the war, the return of the 4th Survey Regiment to Gateshead was celebrated with a welcome home banquet on 6 September, 1946. Later, a plaque was unveiled in Durham Cathedral in memory of the 85 men who gave their lives and 90 others who were wounded.

In an extraordinary tribute by Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks, he said: "The only unit I can think of which saw almost as much fighting was the famous 50 Division, with which they had "grown up in Northumberland and Durham before the war ... Every man who served in the 4th Survey has the right to hold his head high, knowing that he did more than his share in winning the last war."

But the story doesn't end there. Showing his characteristic energy and determination, John Whetton threw himself back into academia. In 1945 he was promoted to the chair in mining at the University of Leeds, where he applied his leadership and organisational skills to the benefit of so many students and held many international appointments.

He took an active part in the governance of the University of Leeds as Pro-Vice-Chancellor from 1955-57, was president of the University Mining Society from 1950-1960, president of the Old Students' Association from 1949-1956, and president of the Military and Education Airforce Committee from 1951-1960.

Following his retirement in 1960 he was elected president of the Midland Institute of Mining Engineers and continued to work as a consultant for the mining industry. He also became Honorary Colonel of Leeds University Officer Training Corps.

Together with Lt Col Robert Ogden (the regiment's second commanding officer), Lt Col Whetton helped write an account of his WWII experiences in the book Z Location or Survey in War - The story of the 4th Durham Survey Regiment Royal Artillery. It was published shortly before his death on 23 September 1978, at the age of 84. Read it online at http://tinyurl.com/4durhamsurvey

In the words of Colonel Alan Roberts, "His life's work and service has brought distinction to the University of Leeds".

For his large Yorkshire family, John Whetton was simply known as "our Jack". They were justifiably proud of his extraordinary range of achievements, "though affection was by no means the only emotion generated by a very complex man," says his nephew Jim.

Lieutenant Colonel John Whetton has not been forgotten by the University of Leeds. It is hoped that his medal miniatures can be put on display inside the new student halls of residence replacing Mary Ogilvie House when the building is completed in summer 2010. They were bequeathed to the University in the 1990s, while his family has kept the original full-scale medals.

(Sources: Jim Whetton; The Ranger; Journal of the Defence Surveyors' Association, summer 2008; Notes by Colonel John Thomas Whetton; University of Leeds Archive).

The extraordinary life of John Thomas Whetton
1894 - John Thomas Whetton was born into a family of 13 children in New Fryston (near Castleford).

1907 - Left school to work in the local mine.

1914 - First World War, John joins 8th Battallion King's Own Scottish Borderers.

1915 - Battle of Loos

1916 - Seriously wounded at Battle of the Somme and sent back to England

1917 - Commissioned as an officer, transferred to 6th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment, fought at Passchendaele in Third Battle of Ypres.

1918 - Sailed with Allied forces to fight Bolsheviks in Murmansk, northern Russia. Promoted to acting captain of a mobile ski unit. Awarded the Imperial Russian Order of Saint Stanislaus and the Military Cross for distinguished service in battle.
               
1919 - At end of the war, he returned to mining while completing his colliery manager's certificate at Sunderland Technical College.

1920 - Began a BSc in mining engineering at University of Leeds. Married Mary Thompson, a primary school teacher from Hartlepool (they were married for 45 years until she died in 1965).

1923 - Began a master's at University of Leeds.

1925 - Invited to become a research assistant to Leeds' former chair of mining, Professor Granville Poole, at Armstrong College in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

1926 - Became a lecturer in mining, surveying, and applied geophysics at Armstrong College

1937 - Appointed commanding officer of a specialised new volunteer unit, the 4th Durham Survey Regiment Royal Artillery.

1940 -Sailed for Egypt. 4th Durham was the only artillery survey regiment that took part in all the major battles of the North Africa campaign, including Eritrea, Greece, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya.

1942 - Battle of El Alamein.

1943 - Invasion of Sicily and Italy. Received the Africa Star, the Italy Star and the Distinguished Service Order.

1944 - Took part in D-Day Landings at Normandy, then pushed on through Belgium into Holland. 

1944 - Operation Market Garden. Accidentally shot in leg by another British officer and evacuated from Holland, then invalided out of the Army. Awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

1945 - Promoted to chair in mining at the University of Leeds, which he held until his retirement in 1960.

1949 - Became president of the Old Students' Association until 1956.

1950 - Became president of the University of Leeds Mining Society, until 1960.

1951 - Became president of the Military and Education Airforce Committee until 1960.

1955-57 - Served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds.

1957 - Initiated planning and fundraising activities for the construction of Charles Morris Hall

1960 - Retired from academic life at the University of Leeds, elected president of the Midland Institute of Mining Engineers, became Honorary Colonel of Leeds University Officer Training Corps.

1966 - Opening of Charles Morris Hall. One of the three blocks was named after him.

1978 - Publication of Z Location or Survey in War - The story of the 4th Durham Survey Regiment Royal Artillery, which he co-wrote withLt Col Robert Ogden. Read it online at http://tinyurl.com/4durhamsurvey

1979 - Died aged 85 years old.

1999 - Field Marshal Lord Inge, former Chief of the Defence Staff, delivered a public lecture at Leeds in memory of Colonel Professor John Whetton on 19 April.