This is the story of Private John Readitt VC – a member of The Duke of Lancaster Regiment in conflict; Manchester United football boots in business and Lancashire Infantry Museum in peace.
John Readitt was the Victoria Cross winner who looked after the football boots of Manchester United Football Club. Born in Clayton, Manchester, in 1897, John was educated locally and, like so many Manchester lads, football played a large part in his life.
He first played regularly as fullback for a team in the Manchester Sunday School League. Later, after he had left school and joined his father as a clogger and shoe repairer in the family business in Ashton New Road, Clayton, the game took on a financial significance when the father and son partnership secured a ten-year contract to make and repair the football boots at Manchester United Football Club.
He was just 17 when he enlisted into the 6th (Service) Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment (The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers) on Monday 12th April 1915 and sailed with them to the Gallipoli campaign. At some stage he suffered from serious frostbite, though the length and severity of his incapacity is not known. His Battalion moved to Egypt in February 1916 and then to Mesopotamia in June the same year in preparation for the relief of Kut-el-Amara. Here, on the Sunday 25th February 1917, he was to win the Regiment’s second Victoria Cross of the War.
The Battalion’s War Diary gives a somewhat understated account of the action. Dated Thursday 25th February 1917, location left bank of the River Tigris, it states:
‘The Battalion started out as flank guard to Div. advance guard. Enemy encountered about noon, flank guard became merged with advance guns and captured watercourse from enemy. Enemy still held left of watercourse. Party led by 2nd Lt. Jackson cleared watercourse on left with bayonet in face of terrific machine-gun fire, rifle grenades and bombs. 2nd Lts. Jackson and Jefferson killed, 2nd Lts. Fletcher and Sharpley wounded, 21 men killed and 58 wounded’.
It is left to the citation for John’s Victoria Cross to summarise his gallantry that day:
‘Five times he went forward along a deep watercourse in the face of heavy machine-gun fire at close range, despite the fact that on each occasion he was the sole survivor. In an hour about 300 yards of watercourse was secured. After the death of his Officer, Private Readitt organised and made several more pushes forward until one reached the enemy barricade. Though driven back, he gave ground only slowly, all the while contriving to throw bombs. As support arrived, he was able to hold and finally secure a forward bend by continuous bombing. The action of this gallant soldier saved the left bank flank and enabled his Battalion to maintain its position.’
A newspaper account in the Empire News, published just four months later on Sunday 8th July 1917, gave a more detailed and colourful description, recording that as the only survivor of the first four bombing raids along the watercourse he had fought on by himself until all his bombs were exhausted. During the fifth raid, John Readitt had to rally the bombers who had scattered in the face of heavy enemy fire, and eventually he moved them up to the Turkish barricade, ‘which formed the main enemy position and was the chief obstacle to the advance’.
‘Here the enemy counter-attacked, but in spite of the fact that the enemy concentrated on him a deadly fire and every sniper in the Turkish ranks seemed to be shooting at him, Readitt never abandoned his so-as-you-please style of retirement. Whenever the enemy pressed him too closely he would just turn and let them have a bomb, which scattered them in all directions’.
‘Finally he was joined by another bombing party and then he made his most determined stand. Under his leadership, the bombers drove the enemy back once more, and after a fierce fight the whole position was captured and consolidated’.
‘The Turkish commander whom we captured later in the day, said he had never seen anything finer than the way that stripling (Readitt is only 20 years of age) had stood up to a whole army’.
John Readitt later reached the rank of Sergeant. He received his Victoria Cross from King George V at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday 26th November 1919.
After the Great War, he returned to work with his father and took over the family business on the latter’s death. John married in 1921 and he and his wife brought up two sons and a daughter. Acknowledged by those who knew him to be a quiet and unassuming man, his deep modesty prevented him talking much about his Victoria Cross and the gallant deeds that won it. Nevertheless, during his lifetime he liked to attend the official occasions to which he, as a Victoria Cross recipient, was regularly invited. He was present at the V.C. Centenary Review by Queen Elizabeth II in Hyde Park in June 1956, at several Buckingham Palace garden parties, official dinners at the House of Lords, Mansion House and elsewhere through from 1920 to the early 1960s, and he attended the Second World War Victory Parade in Whitehall and the associated dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in 1946.
John died on Tuesday 9th June 1964, aged 67, after a long illness at his home in Clayton, and was buried with much ceremony in Gorton Cemetery, Manchester.
His medals, including his Victoria Cross and the Italian Military Medal for Gallantry which he was also awarded, were bought by Lord Ashcroft in 2000 and are on display in the Lord Ashcroft Medal Collection at the Imperial War Museum, London.