Lest we Forget: Paying tribute to three fallen cricket war heroes for Armistice Day


If you ever happened to find yourself in Gaffargaon in the Mymensingh district of southern Bangladesh, you might for a moment gaze at the rushing Brahmaputra River, but it is unlikely that your thoughts would turn to a long-dead Australian cricketer.

It was here in June 1942 that Pilot Officer Ross Gregory of the RAAF and five crewmen plummeted to their deaths whilst taking part in bombing operations against the Japanese in Burma.

Their Wellington B514 hit the unforgiving ground that then resided in British India and amid a cacophony of twisted steel and smoke six young lives were violently extinguished.

The men’s bodies were solemnly buried by the local Police force close to where they fell. But if you were to come looking for Gregory and his companions now, some eighty years later, you will find no sign of them.

Encroaching flood water from the nearby Brahmaputra River has long since washed away any permanent marker, and efforts to locate the graves in the years since the war ended have proved futile.

Instead, you will find the name of Gregory and his men inscribed on the Commonwealth War Grave Commissions Singapore Memorial, some 4,000 kilometres away.

There, Gregory is remembered among some 24,000 others and in this solemn place, his future lurks forever out of reach; perpetually he remains 26 years old.

If you have sufficient imagination, you could probably envisage him there wearing his RAAF cap. It sits aslant, partially hiding his kind face flushed with an innocent smile. Back then he was an only child to doting parents and a fiancé to a sweetheart waiting expectantly for him to return.

He was just one of the many that never came home. For him, the clock never moves forward, and he is left there in the unreachable past.

From this distance of eight decades, if we fail to try hard enough, it would be easy to forget that he ever existed at all. To do so would be to leave him as nothing more than a name carefully chiselled into a distant wall. One whose cold stone is unable to elaborate on and bring forth the full story of the man and his short life.

The story of the pre-war Gregory, who as a slightly built right-handed batsman sweetly struck 1,874 runs at an average of 38.24 in 24 first-class matches and took 50 wickets at a little over 35. The numbers are impressive without being outstanding, but they conceal the truth that Gregory was just 23 when he played his final innings.

The whole road was mapped out for him and only the unwanted obstruction of war was able to prevent him from securing what seemed to be such an obvious destiny for the boy from the Melbourne suburb of Malvern, who had made his debut for Victoria whilst still a schoolboy at Wesley College.

Just four years after that he performed memorably in two Ashes Test Matches at the end of the 1936/37 series. Debuting in the 4th test at the Adelaide Oval he hit a second innings half-century to set Australia up for a 148-run victory that levelled the series.

Not surprisingly, he retained his place for the final match on his home turf at Melbourne in what proved to be a punishing victory by an innings and 200 runs.

It marked what is still the only successful comeback from a two-nil deficit in any Ashes series. As Australia piled up a formidable 604 in their first innings Gregory looked to be odds-on for a well-crafted hundred before losing his wicket for 80. The fielder that gratefully clung onto the ball may have cast a tired, whimsical look at the scoreboard as the numbers rotated to 6 for 544.

In the Caserta War Cemetery, some 36 kilometres from Naples, you will find the fielder that prematurely ended Gregory’s test career on that distant late summer’s day. The inscription on his white Portland stone memorial simply states his name, rank, regiment, and date of death.

There are no frivolities, no prayers, or words of wisdom for the ages. They remain exactly in keeping with the man who throughout his 38 years of life conducted himself with an unprepossessing and quiet dignity.

In any case, the man who lies there had already bequeathed his final words whilst being severely wounded leading his men through a blazing cornfield under heavy machine-gun fire. As he fought in vain to retain consciousness, Captain Hedley Verity’s final instructions to his men were simply to “Keep going.”

Several days later he died in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Commemorating the 75th anniversary of VE Day, while remembering those who lost their lives protecting our freedom. Five England Test players were among the cricketers who lost their lives in WWII, including Hedley Verity (pictured). Cricket thanks them for their service pic.twitter.com/tqLjWr6xd8

— England and Wales Cricket Board (@ECB_cricket) May 8, 2020

As a cricketer, Verity took 1,956 first-class wickets for Yorkshire at an average of less than fifteen runs. He also appeared in 40 test matches collecting 144 wickets at 24.37 with his often-devastating slow left arm bowling.

In his final first-class appearance, Verity bagged a remarkable seven wickets for nine runs against Sussex at Hove. It was to be the last championship cricket played in England for seven years.

As Verity and his colleagues travelled back north to Yorkshire, they would have seen all the preparations for war being constructed around them, as well as the commencement of the evacuation of 1,500,000 children from major cities.

Already, comfortably into his 30s, married with a family and a household name, he could have opted for a quiet war. But as befitted the man he volunteered for action and gave his life far from home.

Ken Farnes, writing in The Cricketer in June 1940.

Thoughts of keeping cricket in mind as a fruit of victory over a deadly enemy.

Sentiments we can sympathise with in these dark days and no first-class season.

Sadly Farnes was not to see eventual victory. I hope we do. pic.twitter.com/SECoBqaOLc

— Wartime Cricket (@CricketWartime) April 12, 2020

Ken Farnes was born in Leytonstone, Essex. His imposing 6”5 frame and penchant for tear-away fast bowling, were at complete odds with the gentle non-cricketing persona of the man.

Bookish and introspective his hobbies were painting and music. Appearing for Essex as an amateur his appearances in first-class cricket were often shoe-horned into late summer due to his paid career as a schoolmaster at Worksop College.

His 1,182 first-class wickets (including 60 at a shade under 30 in 15 test matches) tell only half the story. Faced with the right pitch and conditions, Farnes on his day could be a handful for any batsman.

But beyond all the numbers and old newspaper match reports, you will find him now only in Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey. He has lain there since the autumn of 1941, when as a 31-year-old RAF Pilot Officer his plane tragically crashed in a training exercise.

By now it will probably come as no surprise to learn that when Verity held onto that catch at Adelaide Oval some four years earlier, in what must have felt like a different universe, Farnes was the wicket-taking bowler.

Beating in relentlessly, his heavy feet rebounding off the marble-like ground he returned figures of six for 96 in 29 energy-sapping overs. They remain the best bowling figures he ever recorded in Tests.

@bbctms @BBCRadio4 From Ken Farnes diaries 1936.@Cricket_Museum pic.twitter.com/EhC1LWWXaL

— Andy Collier (@CotswoldColly) July 6, 2015

Perhaps, there is a feeling of poker’s infamous Deadman’s Hand about all of this. The line in a scorebook that forever links three cricketers together as much as the conflict that claimed their lives.

It was all a long time ago and thus it would be easy to forget them. To see them as unrelatable images on old news reels, and black and white pictures staring back from forgotten history books.

But there was a time when small boys collected their images on brilliantly coloured cigarette cards and stored them lovingly in their father’s metal tobacco tins. The boys were certain that the players on them were heroes, even before the actions of the men on them were to prove it beyond all doubt.

It is sobering to think that those same boys would now be at least ninety and for the most part, are also dead. If you ponder this inevitably of fate, the certainty of their youth and that of their heroes being so easily washed away and forgotten; then it is liable to break your heart.

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But we owe it to Gregory, Verity, Farnes, and all the myriad other names to go back there today. To tread back into their old world and remember them as they were and as they are: dead men with so much life left to live.


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