In Loving Memory of
William Ernest Earl
12th May 1915 – 11th March 2022
A veteran of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), William played a vital role on the battlefields of North Africa and Italy during the horrors of the Second World War. His remarkable story was later captured in author Liz Coward’s acclaimed war memoir, Blood and Bandages.
Renowned for his “gentleness, humility, humour and selfless courage,” William was born on May 12th, 1915 when homes were without electricity, cars were a rarity and there was no NHS. The First World War was also raging on the Western Front.
On 12th May, the Germans had just torpedoed RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland killing all 1,198 onboard; troops were fighting to emerge victorious from the second Battle of Ypres and Herbert Asquith was the British Prime Minister. In 1940, aged just 25, William was soon to experience the bitter taste of war himself, following the historic evacuation of Dunkirk. Newly in love, William – known as Bill – left his wife-to-be and later their first child to serve in the RAMC.
He returned in 1945 after three years of service, and re-joined Boots the Chemist as a dispensing pharmacist. He remained with Boots for 33 years and, upon his retirement, was invited to attend the Queen’s garden party to celebrate 50 years of the NHS.
William played an active role in his local camera club, horticultural society and community centre. He had an abiding love of classical music and was the vice-president of the Mario Lanza Foundation Trust which helped fund aspiring singers.
When in his 90s, Bill shared his war story with his co-author and friend, Liz Coward, and the subsequent memoir, Blood and Bandages – fighting for life in the RAMC Field Ambulance 1940-1946, was published in 2017.
Blood and Bandages gave Bill a new lease of life which culminated in a trip to Italy to take part in the BBC documentary, Gary Lineker: My Grandad’s War. He was 104 at the time. Within days of his death, part of his story was featured in We Have Ways of Making you Talk, a WW2 podcast, hosted by Al Murray and James Holland.
Liz Coward said, “Bill was gentle, humble, humorous and courageous. He showed tremendous commitment and never failed to rise to the occasion.”
He will be sorely missed by family, friends and those whom he inspired.
William is survived by his second wife, grand-children, great-grand-children and great-great-grandchildren.
A summary of Bill’s remarkable life story is highlighted below:
- William was born on 12th May 1915 in Sudbury Suffolk
- In 1931, William moved with his family to Harlesden London and trained to become a chemist’s assistant at Boots the Chemist.
- On the eve of the outbreak of World War Two, William fell head over heels in love with Mary Standen but after the disaster at Dunkirk, was called up to join a field ambulance with the Royal Army Medical Corps.
- He joined the 214th Field Ambulance on 2nd July 1940. He was trained as a nursing orderly in which role he was responsible for collecting, treating and evacuating the wounded from the front line. However, he never considered himself in the army, but of the army.
- In anticipation of action overseas, William married his sweetheart in November 1941 and their first son David, was born the following spring. He saw David twice before leaving England.
- Luckily, William had made friends with another nursing orderly, Frank Allen, and in the journey across the Atlantic to South Africa, they became inseparable.
- William first saw action in Enfidaville in April 1942 with the Eighth Army. Within weeks he was involved in a highly dangerous mission to recover the injured from No Man’s Land. It resulted in the death of a comrade and the award of Military Medals to two others.
- At the end of the North African Campaign, William joined a German dressing station to deal with the wounded before the 214th was assigned to join the Anglo-American Fifth Army, which was preparing to invade Italy. Although he liked the American rations, William came to despise General Mark Clark.
- William landed 25 minutes after the first assault troops at Salerno Bay in September 1943, and, along with his colleagues, treated the wounded on the beachhead before finally advancing inland.
- The tough opposition and high casualty rate at Salerno came to typify those during the Italian Campaign. William grew used to the appalling injuries, comforting the dying and dicing with death, but when Frank was taken prisoner during a disastrous night mission into No Man’s Land, he fell into a deep depression and had to be sent behind the lines to recover.
- Within the month, he was back again, just in time to join his unit as they raced to reinforce the Allies being forced back towards the sea at Anzio.
- Sandwiched between 100,000 Germans on the surrounding hills and the sea, the Allies were trapped in ‘the largest self-supporting PoW camp in the world.’ German artillery slaughtered the troops trapped on the ever-decreasing bridgehead and after just 18 days William’s division, the Black Cats, was decimated. William was never the same again.
- After a brief rest period in Egypt during which William’s horizons were broadened, in August 1944, the Black Cats rejoined the Eighth Army and set off for their last obstacle, the Gothic Line.
- Lacking sufficient men and resources and under horrendous conditions, the Eighth Army’s advance through the Apennines was slow, in stark contrast to the rapid success of D-Day in Northern France. For this, they were scorned as D-Day Dodgers, yet that insult was insignificant to the horror William experienced at the A and B tents.
- When peace finally came to Italy in May 1945, William raced to beat the New Zealanders to Venice. They won and within two months, William was on his way home, after three years away.
- Oddly, William had expected everything to have remained the same. He found it hard to adapt and get used to his role as a father of a 4-year-old son. However, a belated honeymoon with his beloved Mary secured his marriage for good and he settled into his new life as a civilian.
- William was demobbed in July 1946. His war record described him as a ‘very willing and hard-working soldier.’
- William returned to Boots the Chemist to train as a dispensing chemist and he stayed with them until he retired.
- In 1952, William and Mary had a second son, Michael and four years later the family moved to Shoreham-by-Sea for health reasons.
- There, William involved himself in voluntary work, setting up Shoreham Camera club and joining the management committees of the Shoreham Community Centre and the Horticultural Society. William joined the Mario Lanza Society of which he became chairman in 1980 and trustee of the Mario Lanza Foundation in 1986.
- The same year, after 43 years of very happy marriage, his soul mate, Mary, died. The heart defect, with which she’d been born, finally claimed her life. Worse was to come, for she’d passed it on to their children, both of whom died within 7 years of Mary’s death.
- Between Michael’s and David’s death, William met his second wife, Judith Deak, and they were married in April 1992. Together, they toured the world as part of Jose Carreras’s production team in his tribute to Mario Lanza, The Last Serenade.
- William continued to work as a part-time dispensing chemist into his 80s and in 1998 attended the Queen’s garden party to celebrate 50 years of the NHS.
- In 2017, Blood and Bandages – fighting for life in the RAMC field ambulance 1940-46 co-written with Liz Coward, was published by Sabrestorm. This led to a series of press, TV and radio interviews, book talks and visits.
- In 2019, William and Liz travelled to Italy to take part in Gary Lineker: My Granddad’s War, a BBC documentary.
- 11th March 2022, William passed away peacefully at home. He was 106 years old.
- 13th March 2022, William’s story was featured in the We Have Ways of Making you Talk podcast with Al Murray and James Holland.