What heroic feat did a petty officer perform?

The gun carriage taking William Cornish to the  cemeter at HMAS Cerberus
The gun carriage taking William Cornish to the cemeter at HMAS Cerberus
Passchendaele. Picture: Imperial War Museum

Pompey Pals will lay wreath at Guildhall Square for Passchendaele dead

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Many of you might have heard of The Man Who Never Was, whose body was used in a spectacular plot to deceive the Germans over the invasion of Sicily in the Second World War. The episode was later immortalised in a 1956 film.

But did you know that Portsmouth also has its own Man Who Never Was in Petty Officer William Cornish, formerly of Paulsgrove? William died in 1960, but the facts associated with his death are somewhat mysterious.

Petty Officer William Cornish

Petty Officer William Cornish

He was serving in HMS Solebay, a Battle Class destroyer, in 1960 when he became seriously ill. He was transferred to Flinders Hospital in Melbourne, Australia where his illness caused much concern.

Back home in England a special detail made up of senior officers arrived at his wife Emily’s home in Cromer Road, Paulsgrove. She was given an emergency passport and other details for an international flight and she was flown to Melbourne to be with her husband.

Emily arrived within hours of William dying, just two days later on February 11, 1960. Now comes the strangest part of the story. The day after he died, William was given a full naval funeral with gun carriage and coffin draped in the Union Jack 60 miles away from where he died in the Melbourne hospital. He was buried with full honours at HMAS Cerberus, the Australian naval training establishment.

Why should a petty officer be awarded a funeral with gun carriage drawn through the streets, rifle salute over his grave and flowers from many high-ranking officers? It’s a mystery which William’s daughter Christine, of Lowestoft Road, needs to solve.

After the funeral, William’s kit was auctioned around the fleet which was known many years ago as a ‘sale before the mast.’ When a sailor died his kit was auctioned and sailors used to bid unwarranted amounts for the most useless pieces of kit to raise funds for the dead person’s family. This custom, I understand, continues to this day. In William’s case £900 was raised and in 1960 that was a huge amount.

Ten years ago Christine and her husband visited William’s grave at the naval establishment. On returning home, Christine made contact with the Royal Navy Records Office and spoke to an officer about her late father. The officer said that he would ring back the next day but never did. Christine phoned again and was told that the officer she spoke to was not available for comment.

Christine contacted the Admiralty in London and again came up against a brick wall with no-one wanting to speak about her father. Why?

On leaving the navy servicemen were given a chart showing all the ships they had served on, medals received and conduct while serving. For William there seems to be nothing for the 22 years he served, yet his wife received a naval pension until she died three years ago and his medals are now with his son.

So what was so special about Petty Officer Cornish? Can anyone help, either ex-matelots or someone who knew him? I’d be grateful for any help someone can give me in solving the mystery.