Page last updated at 00:57 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

Youngest World War II service casualty identified

Reginald Earnshaw
Reginald Earnshaw lied about his age to help the war effort

A 14-year-old boy has been confirmed as the UK's youngest known service member to have been killed in WWII.

Reginald Earnshaw was aged 14 years and 152 days when he died under enemy fire on the SS North Devon on 6 July 1941.

The merchant navy cabin boy had lied about his age, claiming he was 15, so he could join the war effort.

His sister Pauline Harvey, 77, will mark his birthday on Friday by laying flowers at his grave in Comely Bank Cemetery, Edinburgh.

Official confirmation of Mr Earnshaw's age by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was made after his sister responded to their nationwide appeal for his relatives to come forward.

During the graveside visit, Mrs Harvey and her great-niece Jenny will also meet relatives of Douglas Crichton and Reg Mitchell, who were also killed in the attack off the Norfolk coast.

Mrs Harvey, a retired teacher from Epworth in North Lincolnshire, was nine when her brother was killed.

She said: "Reggie's death at such a young age and after just a few months at sea came as a great shock to the whole family.

"I am immensely grateful to so many people who helped research my brother's forgotten story, and to the War Graves Commission for providing his grave with a headstone."

Mr Earnshaw's story came to light after a shipmate conducted research to find out what happened to his friend.

Former machine gunner Alf Tubb was 18 when their merchant ship was bombed by German planes on its way to Tyneside in July 1941.

He returned fire before rushing to the engine room to find Mr Earnshaw, but was beaten back by steam. Five other people died in the attack.

By Nick Hewitt, Imperial War Museum historian

You can imagine how someone could slip under the radar with the merchant navy, as it wasn't a regulated service at the start of the war. Under-age boys joining up were less common in World War II than in World War I, as the first war kept less reliable records.

There are lots of reasons why these boys did it - a sense of doing your bit, perhaps their older brother or other boys from the village had gone, a sense of adventure, boredom at home.

There were some legitimate boy soldiers, but they were usually buglers or drummers and not sent to the front. It's hard to estimate how many did see some kind of active service, but anecdotally there are lots of references from veterans who talk about boys they served on the front line with.

This went on all around the world, not just in Britain, and the problem is ongoing, with boy soldiers fighting in Africa today, for example.

More than four years ago Mr Tubb, 86, of Swansea, decided to find out where his friend had been laid to rest and tracked down information through an internet appeal.

He discovered Reggie's body had been buried in an unmarked grave in Edinburgh and, following Mr Tubb's efforts, a permanent granite headstone was erected by the CWGC last year.

It is now known that Mr Earnshaw was born in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, on 5 February 1927 to Dorothy Earnshaw.

She later married Eric Shires and the couple had two daughters, Pauline and Neva. The family moved to the Granton area of Edinburgh in 1939 when Mr Earnshaw was 12.

He attended Bellevue School and left, aged 14, to join the merchant navy in February 1941.

Ranald Leask, of the CWGC, said: "Having last year erected a headstone at Reggie's grave, we at the War Graves Commission are very pleased that Mrs Harvey contacted us.

"She will now be able to choose an inscription for her brother's headstone and provide Reggie with a fitting final tribute."

The youngest known service casualty of World War II was previously recorded as Raymond Steed, another merchant seaman who was killed aged 14 years and 207 days.

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