Truth behind ‘brutal attack’ on Southwick soldier still a mystery

The battling 8 Section of 43 Company, Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, pictured in 1939. Alec is the tallest man on the back row.

The battling 8 Section of 43 Company, Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, pictured in 1939. Alec is the tallest man on the back row.

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A Wearside man is hoping to discover the truth behind an alleged act of brutality that left his soldier uncle hospitalised for life.

Southwick labourer Alexander Middleton signed up to serve his King and Country with the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps after war was declared in 1939.

Alec's childhood home in Clarendon Street, Southwick, can just be seen to the left of this picture - just before most of the houses were demolished.

Alec's childhood home in Clarendon Street, Southwick, can just be seen to the left of this picture - just before most of the houses were demolished.

Weeks later he landed in Europe with the British Expeditionary Force, fighting at the Battle of France in May 1940 – against unbeatable German armoured units.

But after plans to evacuate the troops from Dunkirk were drawn up, Alec was discovered beaten and unconscious. He spent the rest of his life at Cherry Knowle.

“Alec was in the Glasshouse when the evacuation started. When his pals discovered he wasn’t on their ship, they went back to get him,” said Robin Middleton.

“From what I’ve been told, his friends found him lying un-conscious on the prison floor.

It is just possible there is someone out there who knows exactly what happened. My Uncle Alec was a good man; he didn’t deserve to suffer for the rest of his life just for being a bit cheeky.

Robin Middleton

“He had been badly beaten and his head was as swollen as a football.

“Although his friends managed to get him aboard a boat and safely home, he had sustained such bad head injuries that he ended up hospitalised for life.”

Alec – a cheery and boisterous boy – was born to Pickersgill plater’s helper Alexander Middleton and his wife Rose Anne, a Southwick Bottleworks worker, in 1917.

The “headstrong” lad enjoyed a happy upbringing at Clarendon Street, Southwick, finding work as a labourer for Tyzack’s after leaving St Columba’s School.

Alec Middleton - doomed to die in hospital.

Alec Middleton - doomed to die in hospital.

And, when the call went up for soldiers following the outbreak of World War Two, he immediately enlisted as a private in the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps.

Several letters penned by Alec still survive, in which he reveals details of everyday army life, from trips to the pictures, to camping out in blizzards.

But although his notes appear cheery for the most part, he was facing far worse threats than chapped hands, chills and even marauding enemies.

Indeed, he was being routinely beaten and jailed.

“When Alec’s unit first went to France, his captain put up with Alec’s boisterous humour. However, when a new officer arrived, things changed,” said Robin.

“The new officer was a totally different animal and soon had him on a charge whenever he thought Alec had over-stepped the mark of his rigid approach.

“That’s when he ended up beaten and jailed. I don’t believe the officer carried out the assaults himself, but instead ordered the Military Police to beat him.”

Alec was in the Glasshouse yet again when the order to evacuate was given and, if his pals had not gone back for him, he may never have been brought home.

Officially, Mr and Mrs Middleton were told their son was suffering from shell-shock. It was only years later, when the men who had served with Alec returned home, that the true story came out.

“There were several Southwick lads in the unit, and some worked at Wearmouth Pit after the war. When my cousin Vincent started there, they told him what really happened to Alec,” said Robin.

“It would probably be too late, at this stage, to prove anything, but I’d like to find out more. I still remember visiting Alec at Cherry Knowle; he always thought he was 19, even 50 years later.”

Alec – whose Army nickname was Butch – was treated with a variety of medications over the years and, at one point, it was hoped he might go home – but by then his parents were too old to help out.

Instead he remained at Cherry Knowle as first his father, then mother, passed away. His remaining family continued, however, to visit him each week – bringing supplies of cigarettes and fruit cake.

“He was left so badly brain-damaged by the beating that he just seemed out of it all the time. He recognised his parents, but not many others. What happened to him was terrible,” said Robin.

Alec finally passed away at Cherry Knowle Hospital on September 24, 1993, after suffering a stroke. It is not believed that anyone was ever brought to justice for his beating.

“It is just possible there is someone out there who knows exactly what happened. My Uncle Alec was a good man; he didn’t deserve to suffer for the rest of his life just for being a bit cheeky,” said Robin.