The gallantry medal of a soldier from British Guiana who exposed himself to terrific danger to single-handedly repel a force of over 20 Germans during the Second World War is up for sale.
Laurie Nurse was awarded the Military Medal for his actions in the Anzio campaign after vehicles of his unit came under gun and mortar fire southwest of Rome on June 4, 1944. The ambush occurred the day before the Allied capture of the Italian capital, when Nurse was a 38-year-old lance bombardier in the Royal Artillery whose role was to observe troop movements and help direct artillery fire.
Auctioneers at Noonans, of Mayfair, which is selling the medal today, said Nurse was one of many people of African heritage who served in the British Army during the conflict and it was fitting that his untold story was being highlighted during Black History Month.
The original recommendation for the medal describes Nurse’s extraordinary bravery: “On 4 June 1944, this N.C.O. [non-commissioned officer] was riding in his troop commander’s armoured car which was following the battery commander’s armoured car down a narrow lane in the woods south-west of Rome. Both vehicles were caught in an ambush and came under automatic fire from the front and both sides, and mortar fire from in front. At one time as many as twenty Germans were visible simultaneously and the battery commander ordered both vehicles to reverse down the lane. The armoured car could do nothing but fire smoke, and seeing that the Germans were closing Lance-Bombardier Nurse stood up and started firing his rifle.
“This checked the enemy who replied with over twenty mortar bombs and renewed automatic fire. With complete disregard of his own safety this N.C.O. remained unprotected by the armour of the vehicle in order to keep up his fire and although his vehicle was repeatedly struck did not desist until it had reversed for over half a mile. To his offensive action his battery commander attributes the failure of the enemy to close to grenade throwing distance.”
It adds that Nurse had served as an observation post assistant throughout the Anzio campaign and had twice taken control of posts when his officer was wounded. It said his work was “remarkable for its efficiency in the face of enemy action” and that troop commanders had found his behaviour to be “first class under fire”.
“He could see enemy moving, smoke from mortars and gun flashes that were invisible to the rest of us”AM Cheetham, MC
Nurse was born in George Town in the region of Demerara-Mahaica, British Guiana, in 1905, to Richard Nurse, a building contractor, and Francina, née MacDonald. The family moved to Britain during Nurse’s childhood and are recorded as living in Edinburgh in 1919-1923. In Scotland, Laurie was a pupil at George Heriot’s School where he excelled at sports and was heavyweight boxing champion and a member of the 2nd XV. However, he was asked to leave Heriot’s in July 1922 on account of his alleged bad influence over the other boys, his report at the time stating: “A boy with ability who lacked applications. His size, his age and his colour caused him to be idolised by the boys in his class. His influence became more and more hurtful.”
Nurse subsequently joined the Royal Artillery (Territorial Army) in 1923 and served for four years. He rejoined the Army in 1939 after the outbreak of the Second World War. He served with the 2nd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, in North Africa, at the landings at Pantellaria and Anzio, and in the assaults on the Germans’ defensive Gothic Line in Northern Italy.
In his memoir Ubique, AM Cheetham, MC, wrote: “Bombardier Nurse was a large West Indian and a very cheerful character. He was quite artistic and was very good at drawing the panorama view from the O.P. [observation post] This was a sketch of the area we were observing, on which were marked salient features… Unfortunately, he sometimes let his poetic licence overcome his factual vision. Once he drew a panorama which included Rome, sitting on its seven hills, when the eternal city lay twenty miles away obscured by a couple of intervening ridges. He could see enemy moving, smoke from mortars and gun flashes that were invisible to the rest of us… he was a great asset in that he always managed to acquire some extra rations for us, especially what was known as the ‘makings’, namely tea, sugar and powdered milk.”
Nurse was later commissioned into the Royal Pioneer Corps. He resigned his commission, with the rank of lieutenant, in February 1962, and died in Birmingham in October 1984.
James Carver, medal specialist at Noonan’s, said: “He was obviously a man who was loved by his peers, both in school and in his regiment. He came from British Guiana to settle in Scotland, which was a very different environment. He was decorated for bravery in the field, which showed an immense strength of character. So much so that he ended up being commissioned. He’s an example of many Britons of black heritage, who served in the British Army and not only in African or or Caribbean units. It’s a story that needs to be told about an everyday guy whose family came to Britain and who clearly took every opportunity to help his country.”
Nurse’s military medal is up for auction with his 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, Italy Star, Defence Medal and and War Medals, 1939-45 at Noonans this morning, with an estimate of £3,000-£4,000. The lot also includes an original postcard photograph (pictured top), showing the recipient as part of Heriot’s 2nd XV. On the reverse he wrote: “5/5/22. Dear Father, this photograph will show you that I have a lot to do in sports. I have also recently won the heavy-weight championship of the School in boxing so you see I need a lot of cash. Yours, Laurie.”