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Yesterday’s Heroes – the life of the courageous Don Theobald

Don Theobald
Miles Templeton uncovers the story of forgotten hero Don Theobald

SOME years ago, when I was researching 1930s boxing in East Anglia, I came across a boxer by the name of Don Theobald of Sudbury. His last contest took place just before the outbreak of the Second World War and I wondered if the reason that he did not fight again after that was because he did not survive to do so. I searched the Commonwealth War Grave Commission website and, sadly, found his name listed among the dead. I telephoned all of the present-day Theobalds living in Sudbury and on the sixth call I found myself talking to Jim Theobald, Don’s nephew, and thanks to him and other members of the family I can tell Don’s tale. I knew he was a pretty decent boxer, but it was pleasing to find that whilst he died in a shocking tragedy that occurred in the Bay of Biscay in a huge explosion that claimed the lives of over 3,000 servicemen, he died a hero.

One of his sisters, Connie, provided me with some photos of Don, which she sent from her home in the States. In the mid-1930s, Don had started to make a name for himself in the rings around the various market towns in Suffolk and Essex, where he won contests in such places as Chelmsford, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Colchester.

In one of the long hot summers that preceded the war, Don went to fight in King’s Lynn. This entailed a round trip of around 140 miles, so Don approached a local friend – a man who sold fruit and vegetables, and who kept a horse and cart – and asked him if he could take him to the bout. The two men departed from Sudbury on a Thursday and arrived in Lynn for the contest, which took place on the Saturday night. The next day, they left on the return journey and arrived back in Sudbury on Tuesday. They slept rough each evening in the fields along the route. Such was the life of a professional boxer in those days.

The year 1937 proved to be a turning point in Don’s career. He lost three in a row but then never lost another bout. He won 15 and drew one of his remaining sixteen contests, and he beat some very good men along the way.

Don’s last fight took place just a few days after war was declared, and he was soon in uniform. He was a Royal Military Policeman and he served with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. As this force was being ousted from France in the summer of 1940, Don was with those seeking to evacuate from the French port of St Nazaire. He managed to get on board a large ship – the HMS Lancastria. It is estimated that she had as many as 9,000 men on board when she was attacked by a loan Junkers 88 bomber. A sitting duck, she was hit by two bombs. One of these exploded in the dining salon and the other one went straight down the funnel and detonated in the engine room. The ship sank very quickly and over 3,000 men died. Three of the unfortunate victims came from Sudbury, and Don was one of them.

In 1945, Lily Theobald received a letter from one of her son’s friends who was with him during his final moments. Flight/Sgt. Cherry reported to Don’s mother that “Don and I were together on the ship when she got her final hit. I got a splinter in the leg and a few burns. Don got me out up on deck and then went back to help get some other fellows out who had been hurt. That was the last I saw of him, as someone else pushed me over the side and I swam around until I got picked up about an hour later. Don was the finest man I’ve met and I know that I owe my life to him.”

At the time of his death, Don was 22 years old. He has no known grave and he is therefore remembered on the Dunkirk Memorial. He is also remembered on the Great Cornard Memorial on the outskirts of Sudbury, where he lived all his life.

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