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The Story of the Mysterious Antique Military Trunk

The Story of the Mysterious Antique Military Trunk

I've loved travelling for as long as I can remember. My oldest memory goes back to when I was 3. My mum was packing to emigrate to northern Nigeria. Since then I've been captivated with antique and vintage luggage - especially vintage travel trunks. I've bought thousands of trunks, chests and boxes since Scaramanga was started and researching the stories behind them is an important part that we find interesting.

So when I spotted an antique military trunk belonging to 'Col AD Stirling' it caught my attention and I thought I should investigate. I knew Major A David Stirling was the legendary founder of the SAS so my investigation went into overdrive. It did not take long to discover that he was also known as Lt Col AD Stirling DSO, the same name printed on the old 'H.T. Neuralia' shipping labels on the trunk. So the big question is: did this trunk belong to the maverick founder of the most famous regiment in the British army?

Military chests and trunks are usually straightforward to research, especially for British officers during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Over the years I have bought hundreds of officers' trunks and chests and I have only ever found one that I could not find some history of its previous owner. There is a lot of information about armed service personnel's lives, their regiments, ships and squadrons. Especially during the 1st and 2nd World Wars. There were regular announcements in the press for commissions, promotions, postings and mentions in despatches for the British Army, Royal Airforce and Royal Navy.
What I knew: Col AD Stirling was on H.T. Neuralia.

Lt Col A D Stirling DSO

There is no shortage of information about David Stirling during WW2. He was on active duty in North Africa and the Middle East between 1941 and 1943. Archibald David Stirling aka David Stirling was born in Perthshire, Scotland 15th November 1915. He was training to climb Mount Everest when WW2 broke out. He was commissioned into the Scots Guards in July 1939. In June 1940, he volunteered for the new No. 8 (Guards) Commando under Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Laycock, which became part of Force Z (later named "Layforce"). On 1 February 1941, Layforce sailed for the Middle East, supporting the capture of Rhodes, but were soon disbanded after suffering heavy casualties in the Battle of Crete and the Battle of the Litani River. Stirling was convinced that due to the mechanised nature of war, a small team of highly trained soldiers with the advantage of surprise could attack several targets from the desert in a single night. He was promoted to Lt-Colonel in September 1942. You can read more detail about Sir David Stirling at the National Army Museum's website.

H.T. Nuealia sailing from Southampton

So what do we know about H.T. Nueralia? She was built for the British India Steam Navigation Company and was launched on 12th September 1912 and was the largest ship in the British India Fleet at this time. She was built for the London - Calcutta Service. She was requisitioned by the Admiralty on 12 Jun 1915 for use as a Military Hospital Ship and used during the Dardanelles Campaign in 1915, most notably at Suvla Bay and Salonika. She then saw service in the Indian Ocean before returning to the UK in March of 1916 and remained on station with the Home Fleet until September 1918 when she was converted to an ambulance transport and remained as such until July 1919. in 1925 she was converted for permanent trooping, carrying about 1,000 men mainly between Southampton and India but also to and from Malta, Egypt and Singapore. In early 1940 she carried Australian troops to the Eastern Mediterranean. Later she carried refugees, some of them to Jamaica. In 1942, evacuation of the Andaman Islands and Rangoon and then trooping to North Africa, Sicily and Italy. At 2:00am on 1 May 1945 while turning into the Gulf of Taranto she struck a mine and the engine room flooded rapidly. Orders were given to abandon ship and her boats stood off. She was still afloat in the morning but as her boats approached to consider re-boarding she began to list and sank.

So did the Nueralia carry David Stirling on a return trip to Southampton from Cairo after he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 24 February 1942 and after being promoted to Lt Colonel in September 1942 and before she sank in 1945?

His daring hit-and-run operations targeted enemy airfields using modified Jeeps fitted with two heavy machine guns. The pioneering small-group lightning night raids were a success in destroying supply ports and aircraft on airfields in North Africa.
Unfortunately, he was captured by the Germans in January 1943. He soon escaped and was captured only to attempt a further 4 times before being sent to Colditz where we spent the rest of the war.
His SAS group in the space of 15 months destroyed over 250 aeroplanes, immobilised hundreds of vehicles, and destroyed railway lines and dozens of supply dumps. Field Marshal Montgomery described colonel Stirling as 'mad, quite mad'.

So the window of possibility narrowed as a result of his capture and detention in January 1943. There were only 3 or 4 months in which he could have been on the ship. Of course, there would be the question of why he would have been heading back to Britain in the middle of critical operations. From research, he was clearly dedicated to his mission literally led very risky missions from the front and would be unlikely to want to leave his men. We know that his group were always looking for more equipment, but requests would have been submitted to the Middle East Command in Cairo and not in London.

So I continued to search for more links. I open the trunk and saw an old envelope tucked into the corner and I turned it over to discover it was sent by a fellow officer from his posting commanding the British Military Hospital in Jubbulpore, India to A.D. Stirling DSO, RAMC, Royal Herbert Hospital, Woolwich, London on 11th October 1937. The envelope was empty. So I discovered that there were two Col AD Stirlings with DSOs. I started to search for another AD Stirling, this time with links to the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC).

Brigadier A. Dickson Stirling was born in 1886 in Forfar, Angus, Scotland, he studied medicine at University College Dundee and graduated from St Andrews University in 1907. He spent time at Dundee Royal Infirmary as a senior house-surgeon before joining Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in 1909. He spent time in Egypt between 1911-14, being promoted to captain in 1912.

A British medical orderly treats a wounded German soldier, 1916-1918

At the outbreak of WW1 he was sent to France, where he served throughout the war except for a brief period in Italy in 1917. During the war he was mentioned in despatches 4 times and was awarded the DSO in 1918. He spent time in India between the wars when he was posted to India as Deputy Assistant Director Of Medical Services Northern Command 1925-28 and again from 1936-37. In 1937 he was promoted to full colonel. At the outbreak of WW2, he was posted to France as deputy director of medical services. He served from 1940 to 1945 in NW Europe until the end of the war. He was promoted to acting brigadier in 1940 and temporary brigadier in 1941.

RAMC Staff in India

When he retired in 1945 he was granted an honorary rank of brigadier. Dickson Stirling was a member of the War Office committee on shell shock and was a member of the permanent committee of the International Congress of Military Medicine and Pharmacy. He died in 1961.

So I finally discovered the original owner of the wooden trunk. He was not the maverick world-famous SAS founder Sir David Stirling nicknamed 'The Phamtom Major' by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. He was a distinguished army doctor who studied just a few miles from Scaramanga. Col. A. Dickson Stirling DSO MB ChB DPH RAMC went on to become a distinguished senior medical officer who served on the front lines in WW1 and WW2.

See Scaramanga's full collection of vintage and antique trunks.

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