August 19, 1918. My father was born in Derby; less than a month before the First World War ended. He died, on St Pancras Station, in 1992. Throughout his life he was a hero: trained as a railway signal engineer, remarkable military service in the Second World War, a successful, career with British Railways, and a Lay Preacher with the Church of England. Of course I’m proud, but I’m also in awe.
Robert Anthony Cox, always known as Tony, attended Bemrose School, Derby, and excelled at tennis (he played at Wimbledon – not the actual annual tournament, but there). He was just 19 when he joined the Territorials: European storm clouds were gathering and he felt the need to ‘do his bit’. A year later and those storm clouds broke.
On September 1, 1939, he was called up for active service; just nine days later he sailed from Southampton with the British Expeditionary Force to France. On June 12, 1940, he returned to Britain with the rank of Acting Corporal. Dad never spoke about the evacuation from Dunkirk, but, as an apprentice engineer, and serving in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, he would probably have been one of the hundreds helping to helping other soldiers.
He switched from R.E.M.E. to the Royal Corps of Signals. In March 1942 he was affiliated to the Royal Artillery’s 51st Medium Regiment, leading a small detachment of signallers. The Canadian-run regiment sailed to Egypt to join the 8th Army. My dad spoke about this stage of his war: the camaraderie with the Canadians and his own unit, the professionalism; the skinny-dipping in the Mediterranean; the detestation of senior British officers who never understood what the soldiers had to put up with, and who relegated the sanctity of life while they stood back, directed and watched; the disaster of Tobruk and the enormous victory of El Alamein; the defeat of Rommel. Then came the voyage to Sicily and the Salerno landings on southern Italy.
Cassino was the pivotal point in my dad’s army career. Many books have been written about that dreadful campaign. The key message I have gleaned is that it was a killing ground during the worst winter that sun-kissed country has ever known. It rained, snowed, hailed and blew, and all the time the Allied forces were trying to get rid of the Germans who had a clear view of the valley below. The rivers were in raging flood, bridges were washed away, and all German spotters could bring artillery fire on to any movement, and snipers to target any wayward soldier.
My father lost colleagues in his unit in the three battles for Cassino: each one he remembered, mostly with anger at their bravery – communications cables had to be affixed to high points, including treetops, and signallers were in constant, mortal danger. I have visited these battlefields; I have paid my respects at the crosses marking those courageous heroes. I was pleased my father had been long gone by then: the emotion would have been unbearable. He knew these men.
Acting Lieutenant Tony Cox hated the Germans at that time, but the Italian Campaign was also the nascence of an intense dislike of Americans, based on their military, but running over into later years. One of the most vilified and detested generals was in charge of the 5th Army, which dad had been transferred to from the 8th. Gen. Mark Clark, the man who disregarded orders and allowed hundreds to be killed, wounded or captured; the man whom my father, a committed Christian, blamed for the wanton destruction of Mount St Bernard Abbey and the flattening of the town of Cassino.
This was 1943 and 1944, when the D-Day Dodgers were holding back German forces. My father was commended for the Military Cross, one of the highest bravery awards possible, and he wore that badge of honour with pride, and always played down his role. The citation by Lt. Col. Gifford, Commander 51 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery sums it up:
SALERNO – CASSINO: 6 October 1943 to date
This officer has maintained an almost unparalleled record of unbroken communications during all the battles of the Fifth Army’s campaign in Italy in the most trying conditions of weather and under fire. He has apparently no fear and his gallantry and speed in establishing forward communication close behind the leading infantry has more than once been the only means of passing information and orders from and to the leading formations.
He has raised the standards of communications generally in his regiment to an exceedingly high level and has maintained them there by his powers of endurance and leadership and by his example and hard work.
Breathe in; read that citation again: this was a man who put his life on the line for others every day for month after month. My father was a true military hero.
After Italy, dad and the 51st sailed to Marseilles and marched through France to join the British Army of the Rhine ‘mopping up’ after Germany’s surrender.
Then it was back to Derby; marriage to his childhood sweetheart; and a career with British Railways that took in North Wales, South Wales, Barking, Milngavie, Lancaster and eventually Crewe. In 1958 Captain Tony Cox (he’d been promoted) founded the 35th South West Cheshire Scout Troop – and led dismantling of an old Nissen hit in Shropshire and its reconstruction in Wistaston, Cheshire. A year later he was approached by the United Nations. They were looking for a signalling engineer to lecture to a wide range of mature students in Lahore, Pakistan. They came from all over Asia, and for two years we lived in a bungalow on the campus. There were banana trees in the garden and it was where I learned to swim – in a pool that dad had to clear of poisonous snakes before I was allowed in! We had incredible adventures, always led by my fearlessly inquisitive father. They included journeys up the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, through the Swat Valley and the Himalyan foothills, and to the earthquake zone of Quetta. Plus a man who had to walk on crocodiles and beat them with a stick just to get them to open their massive jaws!
My dad had been a hero before I was born; now, in my boyhood, he was my ultimate Superman.
In 1960 we returned to Crewe, dad took up his career and progressed rapidly. In August 1963 he was picked up by the police and driven to little Bridego Bridge south of Leighton Buzzard where a mail train stood surrounded by police. Dad’s role was to explain how the Great Train Robbers had fixed the signals to stop the train just where they wanted it.
Tony Cox continued his upward career trajectory. I and my brother were sent to school in Buxton, mum returned to nursing, and the pressure was on to earn enough for a family and our education. But as the 1970s arrived dad lost interest. The railways were changing. Steam had given way to diesel then to electric, and the APT with its bendy suspension was about to take to the rails. His superiors were not ‘railway people’: they had university degrees in zoology and no experience, but they ‘knew it all’.
My fantastic father, war hero, total professional, and leader of men retired as soon as he could. He and mum moved from South Cheshire to Church Broughton, a small South Derbyshire village, where dad realised his lifelong ambition. He took courses, studied assiduously, and became a Lay Preacher in the Church of England. One Christmas morning he told the congregation: “We all know why we are here, to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. So go home, enjoy your lunch, open your gifts, and give thanks.” His life had been fulfilled.
An angina attack was the first sign of ill health and in December 1992, on the way back from a winter holiday on the south coast, a massive heart attack took my father away. My first thoughts were for my mum – alone on St Pancras Station without the man who had been our rock for so many years.
I still talk to him; I still ask his advice; I still proudly show him my minor achievements. He doesn’t answer back, but I feel his presence and it gives me strength. Sadly, I am the last of the family to carry the Cox name. My brother, less than three years older than me, died three years ago. Proudly I bear the name and even more proudly do I hail and celebrate a great man. He was a hero in so many ways, but mostly he was an honest man who believed in God and God’s forgiveness of our sins.
Next year it would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. She died just 10 years short. She also was a hero. Maybe next year I’ll explain that as well.