My research into Bill's life only came about because I wanted to find out if my birth father was still alive and, if he was, I would have tried to make contact with him. As it turned out my birth father had died shortly before I found my birth mother so, at the time, I decided not to cause waves by contacting siblings who almost certainly didn't know of my existence. That is until I found out something about our grandfather which they could not possibly have known and which I felt they really had to know.
Bill's death certificate says his place of death was "North Africa" and the cause of death was "presumed killed in action whilst POW". He is remembered on the Alamein War Memorial in Egypt along with 11,865 other servicemen who fought in North Africa and who have no known grave. There is nothing to suggest he died over 1,200 miles away on a different continent.
My journey, as they say, was a long, winding one and what follows is the unbelievable but true story of his life, and death, which I discovered over a five year period.
It is believed that Bill served his apprenticeship to become a baker at "Dunbars" in Coupar Angus, after he left school.
Bill was born on 6th July 1896 at 12 Fore Street, Coupar Angus, Perthshire. He was the illegitimate son of Margaret Lamond, a 15 year old domestic servant from Causeway End, also in Coupar Angus. His birth certificate named him as William Anderson Lamond. He was fostered out from a young age, as by the age of 4, on the 1901 census, I found him living with the Ramsay family at Hillgarden Road, Coupar Angus. Ten years later he had become a "ward" of the same family who were still living in Coupar Angus, now at 92 Blairgowrie Road. On both census he was named as 'William Ramsay'.
Bill enlisted on 16th January 1915 into the Army Service Corps, later to become the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), with an address of Craigower, Causeway End, Coupar Angus. His occupation, at this young age, was “Baker” and he was just 5 foot 5.5 inches tall. The enlistment papers give the next of kin as his foster mother, Jane McDonald (nee Ramsay).
He went to France on 10th April 1915 with the 51st Field Bakery. At the end of the War he received the three medals which were sometimes irreverently referred to as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.
The inter war years
Bill, aged 29, married Annie Walker Spence on 31st December 1925 in Crieff. It was not unusual for marriages to take place on Hogmanay as the next day would be a public holiday in Scotland and everyone could party. Their marriage certificate describes him as a baker journeyman of 54 North Street and his wife, Annie, as a 20 year old domestic servant from Auchterarder. They went on to have six children, of whom two are still very much alive and who, for these purposes I will refer to as JW and JC. My birth father was born in September 1927 and is on the front right on this photo.
By 1927 they had moved to Craiglea, Drummond Street in Comrie. Comrie is a small village on the edge of the Scottish Highlands, in Perthshire. JW remembers that after the War Bill worked in a bakery in Comrie called "Wallace the Bakers", not far from the War Memorial. JC recalls that, when she was growing up, it was a home-baked cake shop.
Bill enlisted into the RASC at Perth on 12th January 1940 as a Private. His trade was described as a “Baker”. He was said to be a Presbyterian, had a fresh complexion, brown eyes, grey hair and was 5 foot 6.25 inches high and 161 pounds.
Bill remained in the UK until 2nd April 1940 when he was posted to the 21st Field Bakery with The British Expeditionary Force and he was then overseas until he was evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk around 20th June 1940. It seems he brought home a small puppy called "Yorkie" hidden under his great coat !
On 6th January 1941 he left the UK for what would be the last time. He embarked with the Meditarranean Expeditionary Force and on 10th March he disembarked at Port Suez with his unit. He was promoted to the rank of Sergeant in May 1941 while in Egypt. When Tobruk fell on 20th June 1942 he was listed as "MISSING TOBRUK" and shortly afterwards confirmed as a Prisoner of War in Italy. His status reverts from POW to MISSING again on 28th January 1944 and an entry says : “Cause of becoming non-effective” (seems a harsh description !) - “Presumed KIA while a POW."
After I contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, who keep lists of all known POWs of all nationalities from the Second World War, they confirmed he was captured on 20th June 1942 at Tobruk and was taken as a prisoner of war to Italy. Their reply also contained some unexpected news :
Concerning Mr Anderson’s death, our files do not contain any official information. However, an enquiry about him has apparently taken place on 7th June 1944. The following quote could be of interest to you : " .... unofficial information recaptured by Germans 16/01/44 last seen 28/1/44 travelling from Italy to Germany train bombed no news since."
I posted a question on a WW2 chat board, in the remote hope that someone might know about the train story. Surprisingly I had a response from someone who remembered seeing an “Escape and Evasion Report” about a train where many British servicemen lost their lives. I was told that there was a file held by the National Archives (WO361 / 668) that contained lists of servicemen and enquiries made into P.O.W.’s lost when their train on a bridge at Allerona, near Orvieto in northern Italy, was bombed by the Americans.
I then obtained a digital copy of the National Archives file on the disaster. It confirmed that William Anderson was on this train as there is a handwritten list of those presumed dead with his service number, S/151306, and rank, Sergeant - third down on right hand side (see above).
During one of the official enquiries into the train bombing, the probable death of Sergeant Anderson is referred to in the testimony of 7676195 Private Cyril F. Morris RAOC in WO361/668 :
Reading between the lines it looks like Bill was captured at Tobruk in June 1942 before being transported to a POW camp in Italy. He presumably decided to go on the run with Jim Champkins around September 1943 when the Italian Armistice was announced. In all probability they would have lived off the land, perhaps being sheltered by local Italians. They were then unfortunate to have been recaptured by the Germans on 16th January 1944 and were being taken to Germany on a train with hundreds of other POW's when he was unlucky to find himself on a bridge over a river at Allerona which was bombed by the Americans. They say bad luck comes in threes and his third bit of bad luck was that he was put in one of the central carriages of the train which was completely destroyed by the bombing.
It seems the deadly air attack was by around 32 US bomber and fighter planes including B26’s from the 12th US Air Force. It was obviously a terrible friendly fire accident and the target was the bridge not the train. The reports and enquiries into the incident are unclear as to the number of casualties but there could have been around 500 killed out of a total of 800 being transported.
"Salvage and rescue hampered or even prevented by considerable number of delayed action bombs, so that some of the severely wounded who would otherwise have been saved, also died".
It was primarily because of the fact there was now somewhere tangible relatives of Bill could visit to remember him that I felt I really had to contact my father's other children as I was pretty sure they wouldn't know all of his amazing story. As it turned out none of the family knew very much other than the fact he had no known grave. What made all my research worthwhile was that one of his daughter's went over to Italy to attend the ceremony under the bridge in June 2013 which she found extremely emotional and at the same time cathartic.
As a result of Bill's amazing story, I am now in regular contact with his other grandchildren and am grateful to him for bringing us all together.
If you would like to learn more about this incident and the stories behind those who died and survived, I would recommend reading a book called "The Bridge at Allerona" by Janet Kinrade Dethick or visit her website bombedpowtrain.weebly.com.