While we tend to focus on war on a grand scale, the small stories of individual tragedy are often the most affecting. CWGC Public Engagement Coordinator Sarah Nathaniel shares the heart-breaking story of the Knapps.
Personal Stories: The Story of the Knapps
Image: St Giles Church, Horsted Keynes (Sarah Nathaniel)
In a small village churchyard in rural Sussex, stands a Commonwealth War Graves headstone. Nothing particularly unusual about that, but a closer look reveals that there are two badges and two names on this stone and the same date of death, 31st July 1943.
80 years ago in July, Winifred Knapp and Ronald Knapp died together just four hours after they were married in the same church in whose grounds they are now buried.
This tragic story stands as a reminder that not all of our casualties died on a battlefield.
21-year-old, Aircraftwoman 2nd Class Winifred Ellen Standing, from Horsted Keynes, West Sussex in the south of England was serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, attached to 953 Balloon Squadron at the time of her marriage and subsequent death.
Image: WAAFs being instructed on mooring barrage balloons
She was one of the many thousands of women who were trained to work with the barrage balloons that were so vital for our country’s defence during the Second World War.
Winifred’s husband, Gunner Ronald Knapp, aged 22, from nearby Haywards Heath, had attested in 1941 and was serving in the Royal Artillery, 570 Coast Regiment, also working to protect our shores from enemy attack.
It is likely that both Ronald and Winifred were based in South Wales during 1943. Whether they met here or closer to home we do not know.
What we do know is that on the 31st of August, the respective families and friends of the couple gathered together in the beautiful church of St Giles in Horsted Keynes to see Winifred and Ronald married by the Reverend Eardley at 4pm.
The vicar told the newspapers after the tragedy that he believed Ronald Knapp was due to be posted overseas and had therefore been granted leave to marry Winifred.
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Tragedy on the tracks
Image: The shared headstone of the Knapps (Sarah Nathaniel)
The wedding reception was held at Winifred’s parents’ home in Horsted Keynes. After enjoying themselves, Ronald’s parents had to leave early in order to catch the last bus back to nearby Haywards Heath.
The newlyweds accompanied them to the bus stop and said their goodbyes at around 8.20 pm.
The weather was particularly bad that day, with lots of rain, and, of course, due to blackout regulations, there was no light.
Due to the muddy nature of the track they had walked along to the bus stop, the couple decided to walk back along the railway track of what is now the Bluebell Railway.
In the darkness and poor conditions, and with the engine of the Lewes to East Grinstead train travelling backwards, neither the driver nor the couple would have seen the danger.
As the train passed the place where the Knapps would have been walking, the guard reported that he had seen something dark lying on the railway tracks.
Further examination of the train when it stopped at Horsted Keynes, led the driver to believe there had been an accident and a line ganger was sent out to investigate. Sadly, he found the bodies of Winifred and Ronald Knapp and a mackintosh.
What happened that fateful night?
At the subsequent inquest, evidence was given that it appeared that the couple had been walking along the railway line together, holding a mackintosh over their head.
The rain was very heavy at that time, and it was stated that the couple had probably not heard a thing.
The Knapps had been married for just four and a half hours.
Reverend Eardley, the vicar who had married the couple only days earlier, had the sad duty of officiating at their funeral which was well attended by both family, friends and representatives of the military.
The funeral notice reports that in attendance were:
"A WAAF officer from the bride’s station was present and the many floral tributes included those from the commanding officer, officers, airwomen and airmen of the station and the flight commander, officers, airmen and airwomen of the flight of which she had been a member."
These words from the Reverend Eardley again, perhaps sum up best how we should remember Winifred and Ronald Knapp: "The young pair were often to be seen walking together hand in hand, and they obviously believed they were destined for each other."
The couple are buried together and their joint headstone bears the poignant personal inscription:
"UNDERNEATH ARE THE EVERLASTING ARMS"
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