V.C. London Gazette 5.7.1917 'For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when working down a broad, deep watercourse. Five times he went forward in the face of very heavy machine-gun fire at very close range, being the sole survivor on each occasion. These advances drove back the enemy machine-guns, and about 300 yards of watercourse was made good in an hour. After his Officer had been killed, Private Readitt, on his own initiative, organised and made several more advances. On reaching the enemy barricade he was forced by a counter-attack to retire, giving ground slowly and continuing to throw bombs. On supports reaching him, he held a forward bend by bombing until the position was consolidated. The action of this gallant soldier saved the left flank and enabled his Battalion to maintain its position'.
Sergeant John Readitt, V.C., was born at 34 Bamford Street, Clayton Manchester on 19.1.1897. He was educated at the local St. Cross Day School and regularly attended St. Paul's Sunday School and Church. Coming from a renowned footballing city, it is not surprising that the game featured in his life. First he played regularly as fullback for a team in the Manchester Sunday School League. Later, after he had left school and entered the family business as a clogger and shoe repairer at 600 Ashton New Road, Clayton, the game took on a financial significance when the father and son partnership secured a ten-year contract to repair the football boots at Manchester United Football Club.
Only eight months after the British declaration of war, John Readitt, at just 17 years of age, enlisted into the 6th (Service) Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment (The Prince of Wales's Volunteers) on 12.4.1915 and sailed to the Dardanelles. The Battalion formed part of 38 Brigade, 13 Division. He entered the Balkan Theatre of War on 24.11.1915 where, 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 25.2.1917, he was to win the Regiment's second Victoria Cross of the War.
At the end of 1914, the fear that Turkey might enter the War resulted in a British Mesopotamia Expedition being sent from India to occupy Basra. The Turks evacuated Basra on 21.11.1914 and British Forces occupied the city the next day. Fierce military confrontation between opposing forces continued and in March 1915, there was particularly heavy fighting between Indian and Turkish troops. Consequently Lord Crewe announced in the House of Lords that considerable reinforcements were to proceed to the area. The resultant British success in taking Kut-al-Amara in September 1915 was not to be sustained, however, as the Turks rallied and in December laid siege to the city, which finally surrendered in the following April. The British response was to undertake a considerable reorganisation and reinforcement of their Army. General Sir Stanley Maude took on the command, but a difficult job awaited him. The Turks had had time to strengthen their defences in front of Kut and on the right bank of the River Tigris. The trenches on the left bank were occupied by the British. At the end of 1916 the combined strength of British and Indian troops was ready for action, with the retaking of Kut as the initial major objective, but first they had to dislodge the enemy from its positions on the Rivers Tigris and Hai. Heavy rain brought considerable discomfort and hampered progress, but the British trenches were gradually advanced forward.
Towards the end of February 1917, the main concentration of Turkish troops was in retreat up the Tigris river. Though having suffered heavily over the previous two and a half months from battle casualties, troops taken Prisoner of War and loss of arms and ammunition, they were still able to hamper the advance of the British. On 23 February, General Maude and his troops successfully crossed the Tigris River and next day Kut-el-Amara was evacuated by the Turks. Additionally, the British took the enemy positions from Kut to Sanna-i-Yat, together with over 1,700 prisoners. This withdrawal of Turkish troops, and their retreat towards Baghdad, caused General Maude to worry that the Turks might be out of reach of his Cavalry and therefore safe from the further heavy losses he was anticipating. However, reconnaissance planes soon reported that the main Turkish Force was near Bughaila, covered by a Rearguard of some 1,500 rifles and about 20 guns, which occupied a disused canal extending north from the river near Imam Mahdi. Despite heavy fatigue, the Turks worked overnight at entrenchments.
General Maude's plan for 25th February was for the Cavalry Division to operate around the enemy's northern flank, with a Division from III Corps to push up the left bank of the Tigris along the route the enemy would be compelled to use because of their lack of water. In conjunction, the Senior Naval Officer was asked to assist with his Flotilla, the 1st Corps was to accomlish the clearance of the battlefields on the banks of the Tigris and Hai, and the Second Division of the III Corps was to be in a state of readiness to move westward when required.
Operations on the 25th started with the British advance guard of 13th Division (including 38th Infantry Brigade) advancing up the left bank of the Tigris, while the slightly delayed Cavalry Division moved to the north. Mid-morning, the Hertfordshire Yeomanry established contact with the Turkish Rearguard positioned in a canal and was ordered to contain them there until the arrival of the British Infantry. It had only half an hour to wait before 38th Brigade reached the canal position on the Husaini bend, where they came under Turkish shell fire. The Artillery pushed forward into action with the Turkish guns thus enabling the leading Battalions of 38th Infantry Brigade to continue the advance and drive the enemy's advance posts south of the line occupied by the Yeomanry. The advance now received support from the Naval Flotilla - Tarantula, Mantis, Moth, Gadfly and Butterfly - which had arrived and was co-operating with the Brigade guns. The Official War History sets the scene:
'By 12.30 p.m..., however, it was clear that the 38th Brigade's advanced line - 6th King's Own, 6th East Lancashire and 6th Loyal North Lancashire, in this order from the right - had been definitely checked by heavy rifle and machine-gun fire from some seven hundred yards from the enemy's trenches and was beginning to dig itself in. At this hour the fourth Battalion of the Brigade, the 6th South Lancashire, was sent to the right to try and turn the enemy's flank. Passing through the line of the Hertfordshire Yeomanry, this Battalion effected a lodgment in a section of the enemy's line about a mile and half north of the Tigris bank, but found itself still south of the enemy's left flank'.
It was at this point in the engagement that the 6th Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment and John Readitt really made their mark. The Battalion's War Diary give a somewhat understated account of this determined and gallant push forward, which resulted in significant Battalion casualties. Dated 25.2.1917, 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 Lt. Jackson and Jefferson killed, 2nd Lts. Fletcher and Sharpley wounded, 21 men killed and 58 wounded'.
It is left to the London Gazette Victoria Cross citation to detail Private Readitt's gallantry during this day as 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'.
Another account from an unnamed source in Empire News (dated 8.7.1917) further emphasises the commitment and bravery of Private Readitt, A Company, during this most critical stage of the Battle, 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, 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'.
With barricades on either flank, the 38th Brigade remained in this position for the rest of the day in constant combat until the enemy withdrew after dark. At the end of the day, after sustained action by all sections of the British and Indian troops involved, the Turks had retreated further only to be pursued by the Cavalry.
After the successes of 24-25.2.1917, not a moment was lost in pushing home the considerable advantage. British and Indian troops were now too strong for the Turkish Force. General Maude had Baghdad in his sights. Successfully he employed similar tactics to those at Kut-el-Amara and Baghdad fell in March. A further advance continued to consolidate the capture so that by April 1917 the Indian Cavalry were able to join up with the Cossacks of the Russian Army advancing southwards.
Little more is known of John Readitt's service beyond that he gained advancement to Lance-Corporal, and promotion through Corporal to Sergeant. He was taken sick in hospital at Kut and was transferred finally to the Z Reserve (effectively discharged) on 18.7.1919. Sergeant Readitt was decorated for gallantry by H.M. King George V at Buckingham Palace on 26.11.1919.
After the Great War, he returned to work with his father and finally took over the family business on the latter's death. John married in March 1921 at St. Paul's Church, Philips Park, Bradford, Manchester and he and his wife Lily became parents to two sons and one daughter. 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 H.M. 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.
He died on 9.6.1964, aged 67 years, after a long illness at his home in Bury Brow, Clayton and was buried in Gorton Cemetery. His funeral was attended by family, friends, Standard Bearers from the County Branch of the British Legion, and Buglers from the Ashton and Preston Barracks. Floral tributes included one from General Lambert, Officers and Men of the South Lancashire Regiment.
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.