As the country bowed to the inevitable, and World War II was declared, one of the first tentative steps towards a war footing was the abandonment of First Class Cricket. The sentiment behind this was explained by the legendary W.G. Grace 25 years earlier, when he wrote to ‘The Sportsman’ in late July 1914 to say: “It is not fitting at a time like this that able-bodied men should be playing day after day and pleasure-seekers look on… I should like to see all first-class cricketers of suitable age set a good example and come to the help of their country without delay in its hour of need.” On the 1st September, 1939, the final game ended with a 9 wicket win for Yorkshire over Sussex. A pair of names from that Yorkshire side stand clearly above their contemporaries. Len Hutton, the last wicket to fall before the war, would return to cricket after it finished to establish himself as arguably the finest English batsman. In stark contrast to this was the game’s other star, Hedley Verity, the England test spinner, whose second innings figures of 7/9 won that game; he would never see the green playing fields of his homeland again.
Forces War Records has reports issued by the War Office which show Captain H Verity first listed as ‘missing’, which was corrected to ‘wounded and missing’ a week later, before finally, after another fortnight, it was announced that he had ‘died of wounds whilst a Prisoner of War’. These records give the bones of the story of his tragic end, but of course do not mention either the talent that marked his career or the heroism that marked his death.
Verity made his first-class debut relatively late (aged 25), and only managed 10 years of cricket before the declaration of war ended his career. He played 40 times for his country and took 144 wickets (taking 100 wickets faster than any other Englishman). Two other records of his still stand to testify to his excellence. The first record – memorable in its symmetry and simplicity – is 10 wickets for 10 runs. He alone dismissed the whole Nottinghamshire team, whilst only allowing them that meagre score; no bowler has ever had a better innings. The second record, maybe even more impressive, was the taking of 14 wickets in a day in an Ashes Test match; a performance made even more noteworthy because it won England their only victory over Australia, at Lords, during the whole of the 20th Century.
The story has it that Hedley Verity began preparing for his career as a soldier several years before that final game. The thoughtful and methodic mindset which characterized his bowling permeated the rest of his life. During the heightened tensions of late 1938 Verity felt that the war was unavoidable, and so his pragmatic approach saw him shift his concentration temporarily from England’s upcoming tour to South Africa, so that he could begin to prepare for battle. Duly, he sought out a friend who was serving in the British Army. This man, Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Shaw of the Green Howards, gave him a handful of military text books and invited him to get into touch, should war break out. These books clearly didn’t distract Verity from his cricket for long, as he continued as England’s leading wicket taker while the team batted to a series win. Verity would contact Lt. Col. Shaw just one year later.
At the outbreak of war, Verity’s status as a test cricketer saw him posted to the relative comfort of Guernsey, as a sapper in the Royal Engineers. He wanted to do more for his country, and before too long was commissioned as an officer in the Green Howards. In 1942 the regiment was posted to India, and with Verity in tow made its away across Persia and Syria before arriving in Egypt. The regiment arrived too late to fight at El Alamein and contribute to the vanquishing of Rommel, and was instead ordered to attack fascist Italy. It began by invading Sicily. By this point Hedley Verity had been promoted to Captain and given command of B Company, although he had yet to see action. Records in the battalion’s War Diary at Kew show the detailed training and preparations that the Green Howards undertook at this time, in which Verity played an important part.
The initial stages of the invasion had gone well, with Captain Verity remaining unscathed as the Italian forces were swept back and the beachheads secured. As the British Forces (with Canadian and American soldiers) pushed forward to secure Catania and began to advance towards mainland Italy, they ran into stiffer resistance from veteran Nazi formations, such as the 1. Fallschirmjager (Parachute) Division. On the night of the 20th July, 1943, the Green Howards were tasked with driving the Allied Forces towards Misterbianco, through the Axis defensive line. The attack was to be led by B Company, Hedley Verity’s company.
The tactics employed for the advance were simple, to attack under the cover of darkness for protection, combined with an artillery barrage to nullify the formidable defences of the German Forces. With the pitch black night and the shells firing to a fixed schedule, the key to success was timing. As a cricketer Verity knew this better than most, and now it let him down. The artillery bombardment concluded with his men exposed, short of their ground, while their haste to reach their target under the protection of the shells left them far ahead of their support. Under sustained machine gun fire the company suffered heavy casualties, including the fatal wounding of their Company Commander.
Hedley Verity’s supporters, when arguing his case as one of England’s best, often cite the fact that no one had a better record against the greatest of all cricketers, Don Bradman. ‘The Don’ once said: “With Hedley…there’s not breaking point with him.” That grudging respect of his opponent’s determination mirrors the final orders Verity issued. Mortally wounded, with a shrapnel wound to his chest and his lieutenant and half his men killed, surrounded by the enemy, Verity kept his resolve and told his troops to ‘’keep going’’, pushing them forward even though he knew they would be forced to leave him behind. He knew no ‘breaking point’ when seeking an improbable breakthrough with the ball against Australians, and still never reached that point when seeking an impossible breakthrough against the Germans. Sadly, on that night, his resolve and sacrifice was not enough and his men were driven back.
A tragic irony of Verity’s story is reports which suggest that, after playing a game of cricket with a General Dempsey, he was requested to join his headquarters – a safe and comfortable role where he could still contribute to the war effort. General Dempsey states it was a matter of weeks before he was transferred. It is suggested that he initially refused this role, as he didn’t want to abandon the men he spent so long training; this loyalty may have cost him his life. Although his fidelity was not rewarded, it was at least mutual. When he was wounded and left behind by the company’s continued attack, his batman refused to leave his side. That man, Private Tom Rennoldson, only left his captain’s side to find an English speaker at the German Headquarters, to arrange a vehicle to take Verity to a field hospital. He stayed by Verity’s side throughout surgery, and even managed to purloin a tin of soup to cook for him. This was a last gesture from Rennoldson to his captain, as Verity was soon evacuated to the mainland and Rennoldson had to be kept with the other able-bodied prisoners. Forces War Records’ records show a Private Tom Rennoldson of the Green Howards as a prisoner of war in Wolfsberg, in Austria. After this separation Verity’s health continued to deteriorate, with further operations required, and on the 31st of July he succumbed to his wounds.
Don Bradman wrote an obituary for Verity, in which he stated: ‘’We knew when war came, that he would plainly see his duty in the same way he regarded his duty to win cricket matches for Yorkshire’’. He continues in praise of Verity’s character: ‘’I cannot ever recall hearing Verity utter a word of complaint or criticism… if reports of his final sacrifice be correct, and I believe they are, he maintained this example right to the end.’’ Hedley Verity was a truly rare breed, a quiet man of action. His military career earned him no Gallantry Awards, he never won any great battles, and his grave is the same as those of thousands of other men who lost their lives. Despite this, he deserves to be remembered for more than just wickets and runs. His service and sacrifice may not have been remarkable during that war, where so many men suffered similar fates with similar bravery, but just as Alistair Cook and his England team would be keen to have Verity at their disposal today, surely any regiment would be proud to call such a soldier their own.
Captain Hedley Verity's record on the Forces War Records website can be found HERE
WO417 WWII Daily reports (missing, dead, wounded & POWs) collection can be found HERE