b. 20/07/1914 Beckenham, Kent. d. 09/04/1944 Kohima, India.
John Pennington Harman (1914-1944) was born on 20th July 1914 at 9 Shrewsbury Road, Beckenham, Kent, the eldest child of millionaire Martin Coles Harman, and his wife, Amy Ruth (nee Bodger). He was originally educated at Clifton Preparatory School in Bristol but did not settle to school life and discipline there. An ardent nature and animal lover like his father, the sounds of the caged animals at Bristol Zoo upset him, so he was delighted when his father moved him to Bedales School near Petersfield in rural Hampshire, which was a haven for non-conformists and allowed him to indulge his love of nature. In 1925, his father had purchased Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel for £15,000 to indulge his passion for the countryside and nature.
Just as John was about to leave school at 17, his mother died from kidney failure, a catastrophe for him, and his father then went bankrupt in the Great Depression. Forrtunately, he had taken the prudent step of putting Lundy in trust, giving his children a secure base. These shocking events turned his life upside down, and for the next 3 or 4 years he embarked on his travels which took him to Spain, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and he got involved in spiritualism.
On his return to England in 1935 he applied for the Air Ministry for a short service commission but was turned down for lack of any qualifications in mathematics. Nevertheless, he gained a Private Pilot’s Licence from the Barnstaple and North Devon Aero Club, flying a De Havilland 60 Gypsy I, before settling on Lundy again.
He was 25 when war broke out and so was not immediately called up but in November 1941, perhaps surprisingly due to his pilot’s licence, he volunteered for the Household Cavalry rather than the RAF, mistakenly assuming he would be working with animals. What was not surprising, given his background, is that he was more than once offered a commission but steadfastly refused. In fact he heartily disliked army life and its regimentation.
By the end of 1942 John Harman was still a private soldier, now in the Worcestershire Regiment, but early the next year he was with the 20th Royal Fusiliers and on his way to India. Answering a call for volunteers to transfer to depleted units, John Harman soon found himself in D Company of the 4th Battalion of the Queen’s Own West Kent Regiment. In October 1943 the battalion, under Lt Colonel John Laverty, was ordered to move from India to Burma to take part in General Slim’s planned offensive. At the end of March 1944, after spending some time in the coastal Arakan region of Burma, the 4th Royal West Kents, comprising 18 officers and 426 men, found themselves settling into billets in the little town of Kohima, 5,000 feet up in the hills.
On 8th/9th April 1944 at the Battle of Kohima, British India, Lance-Corporal Harman was commanding a section of a forward platoon where soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army had established a machine-gun post within 50 yards of his company and were becoming a menace. Since it was not possible to bring fire on to the enemy post the lance-corporal went forward by himself and threw a grenade into the position, destroying it. He returned carrying the enemy machinegun as a trophy. Early next morning, having ordered covering fire from his Bren gun team, he went out alone, with Lee Enfield and fixed bayonet and charged a party of Japanese soldiers who were digging in. He shot four and bayoneted one. On his way back, Lance Corporal Harman was severely wounded by a burst of enemy machine-gun fire and died soon after reaching British lines.
His company commander, Major Easten, risked his own life to crawl out of the trench and bring Harman in, calling for stretcher bearers but Harman, still conscious, said, “Don’t bother Sir….I got the lot. It was worth it,” and died in Easten’s arms. He was buried in Kohima War Cemetery, Kohima, India. John’s father, Martin, had a stone memorial built in his son’s memory on Lundy Island unveiled in a ceremony in the presence of John Laverty. His father never spoke of his son to his other children and carried his VC with him for many years and would proudly show it to complete strangers. The Cross is now held in the Royal West Kent Regiment Museum in Maidstone. Lundy Island is now in the hands of the National Trust.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: QUEEN'S OWN ROYAL WEST KENT RGT, MAIDSTONE.
BURIAL PLACE: KOHIMA WAR CEMETERY, KOHIMA, INDIA.
John Harman's medlas including VC on display at the Queens Own West Kent Regimental Museum, Maidstone, Kent.
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
PLOT VIII, ROW E, GRAVE 3
9 Shrewsbury Road, Beckenham
Clifton College, Bristol