Corporal Walter James Wicken RE

Walter in a bomb Trench during WW2

At the back of Christ Church we are aware of the immaculately kept Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery containing the graves of WW1 and WW2 Military personnel. Those war graves with inscriptions facing the church are the first graves placed in the cemetery and contain war dead from WW1 or The Great War as it was known before WW2 took place. World War 2 (WW2) grave stone inscriptions face away from the church, to differentiate the graves!

Six WW2 graves are grouped together in pairs on the grassy slope of the Military Cemetery, these graves contain the remains of Walter Wicken and five comrades who were members of a Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal team who all perished together on Friday 14th March 1941 while dealing with an unexploded German bomb dropped on Portsmouth the previous day.

Walter’s mother visiting his grave after the war.

Unexploded bombs were a nightmare to deal with and were handled with extreme caution, with excavation required to fully access the bomb from its resting place! It is not known how such a large team all lost their lives together dealing with the same bomb, a tragedy for all the relatives who received War Office telegrams that day, including the mother of Cpl. Walter Wicken. Walter was born on 7th June 1905 in Rotherhithe, South East London. This was the area of Surrey Commercial Docks on the River Thames, Walter’s father Alexander Wicken worked in the docks as a porter. Walter was the oldest of eight children having six sisters and one brother. Walter’s father served in France during WW1 and returned home in 1917 on medical discharge, many men from the area did not return home. Four years after that war ended, Walter aged 19 joined the Merchant Navy and travelled to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In 1929 Walter’s father died and Walter became the main bread winner for the family, being so much older than his siblings he became a fatherly figure and gave his sisters away at their respective weddings. As they married and had children the family began to grow and his mother Alice ended up having 13 Grandchildren. Walter never married and on outbreak of war in 1939 aged 34 decided to join up. Younger men were being called up first but Walter reasoned that as he was single he should enlist with the youngsters of 18. He did so without informing his family & was drafted into the Royal Engineers starting off his service in France and returning to UK in mid 1940. He did not serve outside UK again and was trained as a Bomb Disposal operative a role that was also carried out by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. These units were assigned to the larger towns and cities within the UK during the period of German bombing and Walter’s unit was assigned to Portsmouth. Portsmouth experienced severe devastation from enemy air raids and over 3,400 citizens died during those raids. One of the letters Walter, now a Corporal, wrote home, showed his section address as Park Avenue, Purbrook, Portsmouth within our Parish of Portsdown. Walter and his team would have been on standby to head into the city after the air raids to deal with unexploded bombs that had been observed or detected by the Air Raid Patrol Wardens. Walter’s body along with those of his comrades killed on that fateful day, were interred in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Portsdown, wooden crosses being placed to mark the graves initially, later being replaced by the stone headstones inscribed with details that we see today. Walter’s grave stands out from the others as his family arranged for kerb stones to be added to the grave at a later date. On Sunday 14th November 2010 at the Remembrance Parade Service at Christ Church, six members of the Wicken family attended and laid a wreath on the grave of their brave relative. Walter the East End boy from London now rests in peace near the city he helped to protect, behind the church with D Day links to the invasion of France and subsequent end to the war, that he bravely joined but was not to survive.

Walter’s grave today.

Keith Fisher
CCP Historian
With acknowledgements to Mr Jon Wicken , Great Grand Nephew of Walter Wicken