Museum of the Manchester Regiment
The Men Behind the Medals

Henry Wilson Downey

Henry Wilson Downey :

Henry Wilson Downey : (L to R) 1939-45 Star; Burma Star; 1939-45 Defence Medal; 1939-45 War Medal; Long Service and Good Conduct Medal

(L to R) 1939-45 Star; Burma Star; 1939-45 Defence Medal; 1939-45 War Medal; Long Service and Good Conduct Medal

Henry was born on the 26th November 1913 in the Shankhill area of Belfast in what was then Ireland. His father was called John. We don't know anything else about Henry's early life or the rest of his family, except that they were members of the Church of Ireland. According to his widow 'Henry was always called Mike in the Army', so this is what we will call him.

When he was 20 Mike was working as a clerk. He must have wanted more from life though, because on the 29th January 1934 he joined the Manchester Regiment in Belfast. When he enlisted John lived at 'Laurine' on Taunton Avenue, Belfast. We don't know whether Mike lived with him.

Mike was 5 feet 7 1/2 inches tall and weighed 136 pounds. He had a 'fresh' complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair. He was given the service number 3526963 and travelled to the Regimental Depot in Ashton-under-Lyne to begin his training. Whilst he was there he obtained the 3rd Class Army Certificate of Education on the 23rd February, followed by the 1st Class Certificate 'with a Distinction in Maps' on the 21st March.

On the 11th August Mike finished his training and was posted to the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, based at Strensall near York. Mike put his civilian experience to good use. He had been working as a Clerk from July 1934 onwards, even before he had joined the 2nd Battalion. His officers considered him 'keen, hardworking and willing'.

It would appear that this helped him make a good first impression at the 2nd Battalion, because less than 2 months after he joined them he was appointed Unpaid Lance Corporal. Just over a year later, on the 14th October 1935, he began to be paid in the rank.

In 1936 the 2nd Battalion began to convert from an infantry unit to a mechanised machine gun battalion. This meant soldiers needed to be trained in driving, vehicle maintenance and machine gun shooting. Mike's job meant that he was low on the list to do this. He passed a test to qualify as a Class III Clerk in May 1937, and it was not until June 1938 that he was able to take a Driving and Maintenance Course. Even then, he had to train in his spare time.

Whilst he was on this course he was promoted to Corporal and appointed Orderly Room Corporal. The Orderly Room acted as the battalion office, and dealt with much of the administration of the unit. Mike was well regarded in his role. His officer described him as 'clear thinking, level headed and far seeing. Possesses initiative and ability'. Just as importantly, he was 'a good typist'.

The 2nd Battalion had moved to Aldershot in March 1938. This was where Mike took his Driving course. On the 31st May 1939 its Registry Office was where he married Lilian Stuckey. That he had 'succumbed to a young lady's charms' came as a great surprise to Mike's comrades!

Mike was promoted twice in quick succession between then and the outbreak of the Second World War. He became a Lance Sergeant on the 3rd August, then on the 3rd September, the day war broke out, he became an Acting Sergeant.

The outbreak of war meant a busy time for the Orderly Room. They had to prepare copies of mobilisation orders, carry out administration for reservists recalled to the Army, and make seemingly constant amendments to paperwork already published. They also had to make sure the Battalion and all its equipment was made ready to deploy overseas, and carry out their own training. All the work came to a head on the 22nd September, when Mike and the 2nd Battalion sailed to France. His role meant that he was part of Headquarters Company.

The 2nd Battalion prepared to defend against a German invasion. This period was known as the 'Phoney War' due to the large armies in the area, and the lack of fighting. Mike was confirmed in the rank of Sergeant on the 3rd December, and was able to return to the UK on leave between the 20th and the 29th January 1940.

The Germans invaded France and Belgium on the 10th May 1940. Despite the best efforts of British and French forces they were quickly overwhelmed and forced back to the Channel coast. Between the 27th May and the 4th June most of the British forces were evacuated from the town of Dunkirk. Mike returned to the UK on the 1st June.

After Dunkirk the British Army quickly reorganised itself. Men of the 2nd Battalion had been scattered all over England, but by the 25th June they had come together in Lincolnshire. We don't know much about what Mike did during this time. On the 25th February 1941 he left the 2nd Battalion at Beverley in Yorkshire for around 2 weeks and attended a course of instruction run by the Orderly Room Staff at the Infantry Records Office in Preston, Lancashire.

The 2nd Battalion was training during its time in the UK, and in October 1941 they were told that they would be sent overseas to a tropical location. It was not until the 11th April 1942 that Mike left for India. Once he was there he began to train to fight in the jungle, including crossing wide, fast tropical rivers. His enemy would be the Japanese, who had conquered most of Burma and now threatened India.

Mike was assigned to the Headquarters 2nd Echelon in Jhansi, near Delhi on the 9th September 1942. He served as Orderly Room Sergeant with this unit, and stayed with it until the 30th July 1943 when he returned to the 2nd Battalion. Mike was promoted twice during this period, to Colour Sergeant on the 2nd September, just before he took up his new job, and then to Acting Warrant Officer Class II (WOII) on the 7th April 1943.

Mike donated blood during August 1943. He was confirmed in the rank of WOII, holding the job of Company Sergeant Major, on the 2nd January 1944. He returned to the Orderly Room as the Orderly Room Quartermaster Sergeant on the 3rd March.

During this time the Japanese had been advancing towards India, eventually entering the country. They were besieging the towns of Imphal and Kohima when the 2nd Battalion was ordered to move to the area and take part in attempts to relieve them.

Mike took part in the Battle of Kohima, fought between the 4th April and the 22nd June. This was a decisive struggle that stopped the Japanese advance, relieved the forces at Kohima, and then began the Allied advance towards Burma. As a machine gun unit the 2nd Battalion was split up and supported a number of different infantry units. For this reason we don't know exactly what role Mike played in the battle.

We don't know much about the rest of Mike's war. The 2nd Battalion rested after Kohima before joining the advance into Burma in January 1945. By March they had reached Mandalay.

The Second World War ended in August 1945. Mike was sent back to the UK during December 1945 and arrived on the 6th January 1946. This was the start of a period of leave that lasted until the 10th March. He then returned to the 2nd Battalion in India, where he was appointed Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant (RQMS) on the 6th July 1947.

India became independent on the 15th August that year so Mike and the 2nd Battalion left the country for the last time on the 21st September. When they arrived in Liverpool a month later Mike was one of only 3 soldiers who had sailed for India 5 1/2 years earlier to still be serving with the 2nd Battalion.

Mike was assigned to the Regimental Depot in Ashton, and by June 1948 he had been appointed Regimental Sergeant Major there with the rank of Acting Warrant Officer Class I (WOI). He was a member of the Depot shooting team during his time in Ashton.

Mike relinquished the rank of WO1 in November 1949 when he was posted to the Ship's Staff Pool in Southampton. We don't know what this job involved. His service record records 7 journeys aboard the troopship HMT Empire Windrush during 1950 and the first half of 1951, each one lasting around a month. The Empire Windrush was the ship that had carried the first group of West Indian immigrants to the UK in 1948, and was now being used to ferry soldiers to various Imperial bases such as Aden and the Suez Canal. During the Korean War troops were also sent to Japan.

In 1952 Mike was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal to recognise his 18 years in the Army. After 22 years his service ended on the 28th January 1955, but he was allowed to reenlist for 3 years Supplemental Service. He signed his re-enlistment papers at sea aboard HMT Cheshire on the 29th.

At this time Lilian lived at 22 Damson Terrace in Chorley, Lancashire. We believe that Mike continued to work at the Ship's Staff Pool for the full 3 years of his enlistment.

Mike finally left the Army on the 21st January 1958. He and Lilian went to live at 51 Bowers Avenue in Norwich. They later moved to 1 Goldstoke Road in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. As a civilian Mike found work as a wages clerk. He continued to work in this field for the rest of his life.

Between April and June 1978 Mike married Dorothy Eleanor Smith in Norwich. We don't know whether he and Lilian had divorced or whether she had died. We believe they had had at least 1 child, Michael Henry W. Downey, who was born on the 21st September 1949 in Chorley.

Mike went to live with Dorothy at 83 Whaddon Chase in Aylesbury. Their new life did not last for long though. Mike died on the 23rd May 1979 in Stoke Mandeville Hospital. He was 65 years old and due to retire on the 1st June. 'It was a very bad blow' for Dorothy, as Mike's Army pension ended with his death, and she suddenly had 'only the OAP'.

Mike's medals were donated to the Museum of the Manchester Regiment in July 1985.

Museum of the Manchester Regiment
c/o Portland Basin Museum
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Telephone: 0161 342 5480
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Trustees of the Manchester Regiment Museum & Archive and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council