THE 80th anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz next month will be a sombre reminder for a Scottish family of heroics performed by a long-dead relative in the first war.
A coveted medal awarded to him in 1916 was lost forever during the Blitz in 1941 when the family’s house was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs.
Andrew Penman, who was born in 1895 and lived at Oakbank Terrace, Maryhill, was a 20-year-old joiner when he enlisted in March, 1915. He served his time as a sapper.
Within 18 months, a remarkable feat on the part of Penman and a handful of colleagues had saved more than 100 French soldiers – and earned him the coveted Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest honours.
Sapper Penman, a Sapper Lumsden from Edinburgh, Captain Turner, O.C., and Lieutenant Forman, of the Royal Engineers, ignored their own safety to rescue the men on September 23/24, 1916.
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According to a report in The Bulletin, a sister paper to the Evening Times and Glasgow , as it was known then, a detachment of French soldiers faced insurmountable difficulties when, during fierce fighting, a sudden and heavy spate in the river Struma, in Bulgaria, wiped out their only means of crossing the river.
Quoting a general order issued by one General Sarrail, the newspaper said the quartet of Royal Engineers “succeeded in effecting communications between the banks of the river, and so made it possible to take in hand the situation, which for 30 hours had been critical.
McNicol family from left to right Ernest, Alistair and Boyd with mum Ruby McNicol, front, one of Sapper Penman’s daughters
“They took a very effective part in the action of the detachment of Royal Engineers – attached to the 31st British Brigade – which effected the release of a detachment of French soldiers in jeopardy at the close of the engagement”.
The Bulletin was able to elaborate on the mission carried out by Sapper Penman and his colleagues.
It said: “A company of Frenchman and French Colonials, numbering over a hundred, were stranded in the Bulgar Lines, unable to wrest themselves free and cross the river to their own lines and safety.
“The river was in flood, and a very strong current was running at the time.
“The British Engineers went to their assistance and succeeded in effecting a timely rescue.
“A raft was made, well-fixed with ropes, launched, and got to the opposite bank after a hard struggle.
“The Officer and his Lieutenant, the Sappers and a doctor manned the craft.
“They were at it from morning till night till the whole of the Frenchmen were brought over”.
The award of the Croix du Guerre made headlines in newspapers in this country.
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Sapper Penman’s father, James, had also been a serving soldier, seeing action in Malta, Gibraltar and Cyprus.
Before he joined up, the son had been employed on Admiralty work by Messrs Speirs Ltd, of Blythswood Square, Glasgow.
His Croix du Guerre was the first to have been awarded to his company.
Shortly after Sapper Penman’s return from the war he met Agnes Livingston, a war widow whose husband had died in the 1914-18 conflict.
They married and set up home in Clydebank and, along with Agnes’s two children from her previous marriage, they raised their own three daughters and one son with Mary, known as Ruby, now 96, and Marion, known as May, 98, surviving their siblings Margaret and Andrew and step-siblings Malcolm and Agnes.
Sapper Penman’s two surviving Penman daughters Ruby (left) and Marion.
Sapper Penman had returned from active service to what the Government of the day called “a land fit for heroes”. His experience was, in fact, very different.
He went back to his trade but found that even “heroes” couldn’t find much work as unemployment rose rapidly in the 1920s as the ambitious wartime programme of “reconstruction” was shelved during the 1921 economic slump.
Sapper Penman, along with many others of that era, struggled to find work until his death in 1933, aged just 38. It was only six years before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Despite his death at such an early age, both of his surviving daughters, Ruby and May, are hopefully on course to receive their very own commendations in the shape of a letter of congratulations from the Queen in two and four years respectively when they become centenarians.
Ruby had three sons, Boyd, Alistair and Ernest. Eldest son Boyd McNicol said: “The whole family is very proud of what my grandfather achieved, and with justification. He and his colleagues showed real bravery to achieve what they did.
“It is a story of true heroism on the part of him and his colleagues. I really can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like on that night.
“To save so many lives was an amazing feat, rightly commended by the French general and, I am sure, much appreciated by the loved ones of those who made it home to France safely after having been in such a precarious position.”