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D-Day nightmare made unions supremo Len Murray a driven man

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

One moment Shropshire soldier Len Murray was in a Normandy orchard under fire just after D-Day.

The next thing he knew he was waking up in a London hospital. He was injured – but not physically.

"My father had a complete breakdown, physically and mentally," said his son, Air Vice-Marshal David Murray.

Len Murray was to recover and have a full life of great success and achievement.

In the 1970s he was one of the most powerful men in Britain as general secretary of the Trades Union Congress at a time that union barons could make or break governments.

He served from 1973 to 1984, and subsequently became a peer with the title "Lord Murray of Epping Forest and Telford in the County of Salop."

But those wartime experiences as a young Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry who landed on D-Day were to stay with him, and his survivor's guilt contributed to his sense of vocation and service.

He would rarely speak about what had happened, but in one interview late in life – he died in 2004 – he said: "I was terribly frightened at times, numbed at times, appalled at times, but this was a long time ago and I’m still here, not like some of my friends.

"After a spell of fighting I was evacuated with what was then called combat exhaustion and eventually was discharged. I think they still call it battle fatigue or something. They called it shell shock in the First World War.

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"I might well have been shot in the First World War. Instead I was given proper treatment and survived. I felt terribly guilty when I was eventually discharged."

It was a guilt at having survived.

Son David is the chief executive of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, and part of its work embraces helping serving and former service personnel with mental health issues.

The charity in this, its centenary year, has set itself a target of increasing the numbers of those it supports from 55,000 to 100,000 over the next three years, and in doing so, significantly increase the amount spent on supporting the RAF "family," currently at £21 million a year.

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David has been able to piece together much of what happened to his father on and just after D-Day.

"My father did not talk about this stuff while he was alive. My mother died last year. I requested her permission to talk about it as I wanted to make sure she was happy about it. She took the view that if it helps other people, we should be talking about it."

While Len was essentially silent, there were tell-tale signs of his wartime mental trauma.

"When we were children, if we ever went to the seaside he would never go in the sea. I thought it was because he couldn't swim. In fact I subsequently discovered that it was because he could not face going into the water, bearing in mind what happened in Normandy.

"And he was absolutely driven to not waste any time. If people had talent and skills and they wasted them by frivolous activity or self indulgence he felt that was a crime because he felt he had been given time, and his comrades who died had not been given time."

Even in later life he busied himself with activities like working for charities or driving the pensioners' mini bus.

Lionel Murray – it was only during the war he became Len – came from Hadley, from tough beginnings, with his mother giving him up to the local district nurse when he was very young.

It was only when he was about 14 that he discovered that a local woman whom he already knew was his mother.

"He lived at Lawley Bank for a while. He was moved around quite a bit as a child between various people who looked after him."

He won a scholarship to Wellington Grammar School. In fact evidence from a contemporary points to him being first at Wellington Boys' High School in King Street. The grammar school opened in Golf Links Lane in 1940 and he would have transferred there then.

During the war he was determined to do his bit.

"He joined up, not out of a desire to fight, but because of a fierce anger and opposition to fascism," says David.

And on D-Day, June 6, 1944, he saw action for the first time as the KSLI landed mid-morning on the Normandy beaches.

"He was a young Lieutenant with, I think, about 30 soldiers. A significant number of them were drowned in the water coming ashore.

"The only one he spoke to me about was the radio operator who had a very heavy radio on his back and went under the water and did not come back up again. They were also under fire, being shot at, which would account for some of them. A number of others were killed on the beach.

"He did not tell me this, but after he died somebody wrote me a letter, a bank manager, who said 'you don't know me but your father pulled me out of a burning tank. I'm alive because your father saved me.' According to this chap my father pulled him out and left him by the medics as he carried on.

"They then fought their way inland, he and the remnants of his platoon of whom there weren't many left, plus somebody else's platoon – I think the young officer had been killed.

"I know from regimental records and a history written by one of the Majors there that my father was sent off to clear out a church and a chateau which had German snipers in them. He cleared out the snipers from both these locations and carried on fighting.

"One of his Corporals, a Corporal Millward, was awarded a Military Medal for a small skirmish that took place as they were going forward. They carried on skirmishing all the way.

"They had been going for three days and three nights. They were absolutely knackered with very little food and very little sleep. They had been under fire all the time."

Len's personal crunch came, David believes, about three days after D-Day.

"They met the 21st Panzer Division who were equipped with tanks. They were being shelled in an orchard overlooking Caen. According to one of his obituaries he fell against a tree and was knocked out, but that was news to us.

"He remembered he was leading his troops. They were fighting and the next thing he remembered was waking up in the UK at Guy's Hospital. He was out cold for some considerable time.

"There were no overt physical injuries. They diagnosed complete battle exhaustion. They decided to administer their own form of medication to him which was electric shocks to the brain at Guy's. That was of the time.

"It certainly helped, I suspect. After some months they released him from the hospital. He ended up with an honourable discharge."

When David was about 15 his father asked him to get a handkerchief to put in his pocket as he went to church.

"He said it was in his sock drawer. I went upstairs and it rattled about. I put my hand in and found a bunch of medals. I took them down to him and said: 'What's this stuff, dad?'

"He said: 'That's another time, another place, another life. You look after those.'

"I never saw him wear his medals. He would go to Remembrance Day services and quietly stand at the back."

David was also to go into uniform, in the RAF.

"When I was joining the air force he questioned me quite hard to make sure I knew what I was doing. Secondly, when I came back from Bosnia he wanted to know what had happened and what experiences I had. We would talk on a man-to-man basis.

"My experience is that veterans don't talk about what happened to them to anybody apart from the people with them on those occasions, mainly because they want to protect their families."

David has seen big improvements in recent years in the way service personnel with mental health issues are helped.

"I'm delighted to say that these days people are much more willing to come forward with these problems. Previously they would hide them away or there was a stigma attached.

"We provide support to currently serving members and veterans in the RAF family with mental health issues. We regard mental health illness or injury exactly the same as physical injury."

Len was to marry Heather Woolf in Wolverhampton – Len had begun work at Wolverhampton Engineering Works – in 1945.

"She was from Hadley. She lived in the village when my father was growing up. He was the little boy that her mother said to keep away from. The one with hobnail boots. I suspect he was a little bit feral."

The couple would return regularly to Shropshire, and Len is the subject of one of the displays at Shropshire Regimental Museum at Shrewsbury Castle, which includes his medal miniatures donated by his family.

David said: "When he went back to the Wellington school where he had been educated he told me he had seen the names of all the boys in his school who had been killed, many in the KSLI.

"He said he remembered all of their faces."

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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