Love and tragedy in WWII...

During the time away from my blogging I have progressively been sucked into the 'Who Do You Think You Are' fad and have been searching for an exciting history hidden away in my ancestral lines.  Try as I might, and I have tried, I have failed to spice up the family history with tales of murder, crime, infidelity (not much recorded anyway), heroics, fame, or any other form of notoriety!  But what of tragedy you may be asking? Until now I had come across one case, of a sad suicide, perhaps a story for another blog as it reportedly involves a passing acquaintance with the historian AJP Taylor, but that will need some more research before I write it up. However, I did come across a truly tragic story of the death of a 1st cousin twice removed.

My great great aunt Gertrude Violet Todman was the youngest of seven children and was born in late 1879 in New Church Rd, Camberwell. Her parents were 40 and 38 when she was born but her father, who had worked as a die sinker, died soon after her 10th birthday. 

At the next census on the 4th April 1901 when she was 21 she was staying with her eldest sister, my great great grandmother, Ellen Susan Todman now Mrs Samuel Kendon, at Bethany Boys school in Curtisden Green near Goudhurst in Kent.  

In 1907 she married George Ernest Vilvandré, a surgeon born in France who had became a British Citizen in 1903. They were living in Hayes Rd in Bromley in a house called 'Goudhurst' and they had a young daughter, Marguerite , just 3 1/2 months old. 

It is Marguerite's story that I chanced upon and will tell here. She followed her father into medicine becoming a nurse and at some point joined the T.A.N.S. (Territorial Army Nursing Service). On the 13th Nov 1939 she was deployed as a Staff Nurse with the 5th General Hospital Unit which had arrived at Le Tréport a month earlier. Just a fortnight after arriving she was promoted to Sister. 

When I next found a record of Marguerite she is in Asmara, the capital of the Italian colony Eritrea, which had been captured from the Italians on the 1st of April 1942 by British forces from around the Empire. I assume that her unit of the TANS had been deployed to Egypt and then to Eritrea as the conflict developed across N Africa. The report I came across is of her marriage on the 26th Nov 1941, in Asmara, to Richard James Finch a Capt. in the Prince of Wales Own Sikhs 12th Frontier Regiment. They must have had a very short time together because Richard's unit, part of the Indian 5th Infantry Division, was soon transferred to N. Africa and deployed to protect Egypt from the rapidly advancing Axis forces.  It seems likely that he took part in the defence of Tobruk and was captured by Italian forces as he is reported as a P.O.W in Italy in June 1943. 

Marguerite seems to have left the TANS after her marriage and would have been looking for a way to return home to the UK having been separated from her husband. Traveling through the Mediterranean would have been out of the question at that stage of the war so the opportunity to travel to South Africa and then on to the UK would have been appealing.  The British had captured large numbers of Italians in the Eritrea and Ethiopian campaigns and were using troopships to move them to detention camps in South Africa. One of these troopships was the Nova Scotia. In the autumn of 1942 Nova Scotia left Port Tewfik in Egypt and sailed down the Red Sea to Massawa in British-occupied Eritrea, where she put US troops ashore and embarked Italian prisoners of war. She also called at the British Colony of Aden and then proceeded southwards unescorted, carrying over 750 Italian prisoners of war and civilian internees, along with guards and five civilian passengers along with 3,000 bags of mail bound for Durban, South Africa. One of the civilians was Marguerite Finch.  

The Nova Scotia had passed through the Mozambique Channel and was off the coast of Natal Province, South Africa, when at 0715 hrs on the morning of 28 November the German submarine U-177 hit her with three torpedoes. Nova Scotia rolled to port, caught fire and sank by the bow within 10 minutes. The crew managed to launch only one lifeboat; other survivors depended on life rafts or pieces of wreckage. Sadly, those who were left in the water either drowned or were eaten by sharks.

An horrific end to anyone's life and a sad end to this story.

If you are family over a certain age you will remember Margeritue's younger sister who we knew as Mima

Andrews Newspaper Index Cards from


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