b. 17/10/1918 Farnborough. d. 29/03/1942 St Nazaire, France.
Thomas Frank “Tommy” Durrant (1918-1942) was born on 17th October 1918 just before the end of World War I, in Green Street Green, near Farnborough, Kent. He came from a working class background, the son of Thomas Durrant and Harriet (nee Lee). As a schoolboy at Green Street Green Primary School, he helped out on a local smallholding and was a keen Boy Scout patrol leader. On leaving school, he worked as a butcher’s boy and later as a builder’s labourer, but in February 1937, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Royal Engineers.
After basic training he specialised in explosives and demolition at Shorncliffe Camp, Kent where his leadership qualities and professional attitude earned him regular promotions. He was therefore quite an experienced soldier when war broke out in September 1939. Anxious to play his part, he volunteered for the Special Service Independent Companies and went with No 2 Special Independent Company on the ill-fated excursion to Norway in the spring of 1940. It was during this time in Norway that he was promoted to Sergeant.
On the return from Norway, the Companies were reformed into Commando units, and Tommy Durrant found himself in No 1 Commando under Lieutenant Colonel William Glendinning but, when the raid on St Nazaire was mooted, he became attached to Lieutenant Colonel Newman’s No 2 Commando. With the other volunteers he underwent intensive training in Scotland and elsewhere before eventually boarding Motor Launch 306, bound for France in March 1942.
After an uneventful crossing, the motor launches began their journey up the River Loire towards St Nazaire and immediately came under heavy fire from German gun positions. Sergeant Durrant was completely exposed in his position abaft the bridge on ML306 but this did not deter him from returning the enemy fire with the aid of the Lewis Gun installed there. Devoid of any cover, he was soon hit, his arm being shattered, but refused to abandon the gun and continued firing.
A litte further down the river, the launch was attacked by a German destroyer, the Jaguar, at point blank range and Sergeant Durrant turned his attention to this new threat and fired continuously at the destroyer’s bridge, with great coolness and complete disregard for the enemy fire. With the launch illuminated by a searchlight, he drew the enemy guns onto himself and was again wounded in several places. Nevertheless, he continued to fire, despite hanging onto the gun mounting to support himself.
The captain of the destroyer, Kapitanleutnant Paul, called for the motor launch to surrender. Durrant’s response was to continue firing at the bridge. By now, he was growing weaker from loss of blood, but still directed fire the best he could. A renewed attack by the destroyer silenced the launch’s guns, but Durrant refused to give up until the destroyer came alongside and grappled the launch, taking prisoner all the other survivors, including the indomitable but seriously wounded Durrant. Indeed, such were his injuries that he died of his wounds the next day in a German military hospital. He was buried in La Baule-Escoublac Cemetery, France.
Kapitanleutnant Paul was so impressed by the outstanding bravery of Durrant that he personally spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Newman VC, the officer commanding No 2 Commando, who had been taken prisoner, and told him that Durrant should be recommended for the highest possible award in recognition of the way he had conducted himself during the raid. Due to the POW situation, the recommendation was not made (or processed) until after the war, and announcement of a posthumous VC to Durrant was made on 19th June 1945, at the same time as the award to Newman. Durrant’s mother received his medal from King George VI at Buckingham Palace in October 1946, and it is now held in the Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham, Kent alongside his 1939-45 Star and War Medal 1939-45.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: ROYAL ENGINEERS MUSEUM, GILLINGHAM, KENT.
BURIAL PLACE: LA BAULE-ESCOUBLAC CEMETERY, FRANCE.
Thomas Durrant's medals including VC on display at the Royal Engineers Museum, Chatham, Kent. (April 2014)
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
PLOT I, ROW D, GRAVE 11