Charles Leslie "Les" Stokell, 1919-2001

Runners in the Polytechnic and A.A.A. Marathon of 1952 with Les wearing the hand-drawn number 9. Left of picture is C.W. Ellick the Northern Champion, number 41 is C.D. Robertson of Dundee Thistle and on his left, in white, is South London Harriers' Tom Richards. Leading the bunch is B. Richards of Bournemouth. Winner was Jim Peters of Essex Beagles in the then best ever time of 2 hours 20 minutes 42.2 seconds.

Born: 27 September 1919.

Joined: 18 September 1946, re-joined 17 October 1955.

Died: 20 January 2001, Sidmouth, Devon.

International: vests Canada (1954).

Link to Pathé Newsreel: Walcheren Landings November 1944

With the war over, Les joined Belgrave Harriers and was soon making his presence felt in our cross country teams, running to 7th place in the South of the Thames Championship at Windsor Great Park in 1947, scoring in our Surrey County Cross Country teams, twice being selected to run for Surrey in the Inter-Counties Championship and three times appearing in our ‘National’ teams. In the ‘National of 1950, at Aylesbury, he was first Belgravian home and therefore took possession of the prestigious ‘Parker Bowl’ for a year.  

 

Around 1952 life in the Dominion of Canada drew Les over the Atlantic and before long it was reported that he’d won the Canadian 10 miles championship on the road in an extraordinarily fast time. As a resident of Canada, he was selected to run for his new country at the marathon distance in the British Empire & Commonwealth Games of 1954. The ‘Games’ were held in Vancouver and on the last day, 7th August 1954, one of the most dramatic marathons of all time unfolded.

England’s Jim Peters built up a huge lead but was dangerously dehydrated; he collapsed repeatedly when on the final circuit of the track and was eventually prevented from attempting to continue by the England team manager. Others similarly found the conditions beyond them and Scotland’s Joe McGhee, sitting at the roadside and waiting for an ambulance, heard that the runners ahead of him had collapsed, so wearily got himself to his feet and painfully continued and eventually won the title. Only six men finished the race, and among those who did not – Leslie Stokell (Canada).

A return to the UK saw Les working for the P.E. Department of H.M. Prison Service and then, after gaining a physical education teaching certificate, came a move to Archbishop Tenison’s School where he taught P.E. and Mathematics – and was known by the pupils as ‘Blockhead’. Under his wing the P.E. department widened considerably to include, alongside football and cricket, rugby, hockey, sailing, canoeing and orienteering. Of course, athletics flourished and eventually tennis, badminton, basketball, gymnastics and rock climbing all became regular features of the P.E. programme. The school entered the Ten Tors competition and on wildest Dartmoor Les was to be seen rounding up those schoolboys who had gone astray, striding through pouring rain and a howling gale, wearing a battered pair of shorts and an open necked shirt.

He renewed his membership of Belgrave Harriers and in 1959 became the club’s first ever Junior Secretary and along with Tom Carter introduced a crowd of lads to the joys of cross country running.

An interest in antiques first had him running a Sunday stall in Petticoat Lane, then a shop, Mr. Bumble’s, and finally setting up his own antique market with Dot in the village of Henfield, West Sussex.  Nothing in his home was considered safe from the stock list, even if nailed down.  His family learned to lock away their treasured possessions from a very early age. One of his best lines was ‘genuine’ Russian icons, which he was rumoured to have knocked up in his garage.

Les was always a law unto himself, a non-conformist; some might even say an eccentric. He appeared to be half a pace out of step with the rest of the world but was ever confident that it was they who were out of time with him. It was said by his teaching colleagues that they would have gone through fire and water for him.  As a Royal Marine he had been an inspiration to his comrades and he was honoured at his funeral by the presence of a Royal Marine bugler in full ceremonial dress who sounded the Last Post and Reveille.

Charles Leslie Stokell grew up in Eltham with his two brothers and three sisters, and from tales told to family and friends in later years, the adventures of his childhood “gang” were comparable with those of William Brown of ‘Just William’ fame. He would often regale his family with stories that would have any audience crying with laughter.

Les enlisted as a professional soldier before the war and as a first-class sportsman became a Physical Training Instructor with Royal Marine 41 Commando.  He was involved in the storming of southern Sicily at Anzio before the beach-heads were secured.  Among many other exploits was a night excursion to enemy held Norway, there was the post D-Day landing at Walcheren on the Netherlands coast where he finished up with the loss of two fingers and a shattered left shin; and there were so many other military actions which tended not to be talked about unless they gave rise to some funny story.

 

Les was injured seven times in all. On one occasion he fell 30 feet from a cliff where he was free-climbing in preparation for a night ‘visit’ to occupied France and, despite landing on his feet, his own knee fractured his skull. A spell in military hospital recovering from one of these injuries put his appearance at the D-Day landings in jeopardy but determined to be with his unit, he ‘discharged’ himself at night, shinning down a drainpipe but not forgetting to take with him his cricket bat and ball and a football.

When asked about his Military Medal he would say, “they were given out to everyone who was ‘there’ ”. ‘There’, it turned out, was the operation in 1944 to capture the island of Walcheren which formed a strategic block to the Allies reaching the great port of Antwerp which they had captured two months earlier. Unless the island could quickly be taken the advances would be dangerously slowed. The Military Medal was awarded to Les for, “gallantry, leadership and undaunted devotion to duty during the assault on the Island of Walcheren”.

It was a far from easy task.  The island, roughly circular, was surrounded by sea walls some thirty feet high, surmounted by coastal batteries and anti-aircraft guns. The German defenders were determined and well supplied with ammunition and food, sufficient for a long siege. Parts of the sea walls had been breached by Allied bombings and consequently much of the interior, well below sea level, was flooded. Those selected for the assault, were of a high calibre to ensure ultimate success.

The attack began on November 1st, 1944 at 09:45 preceded by a bombardment by RAF Mosquito aircraft then later, as it progressed, by Spitfires and Typhoons. Ships of the Royal Navy shelled the shore installations.

On the west coast, the Royal Marine Commandos landed on three fronts. Defensive fire was heavy and accurate, and several tank and infantry landing craft were sunk or disabled, but by the next day the Commando forces had possession of the villages of Domburg, Zouteland and critical areas of the sea-wall. German resistance continued until the 8th, when they surrendered near the village of Veere.

The price paid was high, with many killed, wounded, or missing, but the way to Antwerp was open. Les later admitted that he was, “lucky to ‘make it’ ”, but would always add, “They were the best days of my life.”

 

References:

Athletics Weekly, 1952.

Gebbett, Eric, 2001.

Herbert, Eric. 2001.

Motspur Mumblings, Old Tenisonians Association.

Robb, Alex, 2001
Special Forces Roll of Honour http://www.specialforcesroh.com (accessed : 23 February 2018.

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