Robert Wright BEM

Robert Wright BEM was known in Belfast for his long service with the Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum. Bob was a decorated war hero who served in Burma.

Company Sergeant Major

Robert Dawson Wright

Robert Wright BEM was known in Belfast for his long service with the Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum. Bob was a decorated war hero who served in Burma.

Robert Wright to all who met him was Bob. Born Robert Dawson Wright on Hunter Street off Sandy Row, North Belfast, he was a veteran of Dunkirk and Burma. The decorated war hero was a much-loved character in Belfast in particular with visitors to its museums.

War breaks out in Europe

Wright enlisted in the Welch Regiment in 1938 when he was only fifteen years old. When war broke out in 1939 he would have been one of the youngest combatants in Europe.

As a teenager, Wright was one of the 300,000 Allied troops rescued from Dunkirk in 1940. Before the outbreak of war, Wright had served on a military patrol boat called the Sir William Seeger, in the Bristol Channel. During those fraught eight days in June 1940, he found himself reunited with his old vessel.

When we were evacuated I got on a ship and then the next thing I seen was a ship pulling alongside it and it was the Sir William Seeger. So the crew knew me and the Gerries came over dropping bombs on some of the ships and we ended up pulling these people out of the water, dead or not.

Robert Wright interviewed by Mervyn Jess on Radio Ulster – May 2015

Escape from Dunkirk

The name Dunkirk has become synonymous with British disaster. Hundreds of thousands of troops found themselves stranded in Northern France. Undefeated, many returned home thanks in part to the famous “Little Ships”, military tactics, luck, and the changeable Channel weather.

Out from the hell that is Dunkirk, back from the steel thrust that is the German war machine, comes the BEM. They’re worn out and footsore, they’re hungry. For three weeks they have been shelled from three sides. They had to stagger back to the sea to survive. They were betrayed but never defeated or dispirited.

Radio Announcement – May 1940

Ships at Dunkirk

Imperial War Museum Photo: C 1720 (Part of the Air Ministry Second World War Official Collection). British ships arrive off the beaches at Dunkirk around 3rd June 1940. Smoke billows in the air from burning oil storage tanks. Copyright Royal Air Force Official Photographer.

Operation Dynamo saw the evacuation of around 338,000 men from the Dunkirk beaches. The operation lasted from 26th May to 4th June 1940. Alongside the British troops were French, Canadian, and Belgian soldiers driven back by German forces.

Operation Dynamo

Even as a young man, Robert Wright was aware that all was not well in Dunkirk.

It was a shambles you know because they were going down to the shore and if they spotted a boat coming in, anybody would be dashing out. It was a bit of a shambles. There were people there supposed to organise, you know, but half of them just wanted to get out themselves. Most of the regiments that were there tried to keep their men together, but then it got towards the end that – when they saw boats coming from England to pick them up – they weren’t waiting on the boat docking. They were trying to meet it halfway.

Robert Wright interviewed by Mervyn Jess on Radio Ulster – May 2015

In the same interview, he revealed his main fear was to be seen to be a coward. He was one of the lucky ones who made it back to the UK and was once again deployed.

The spirit was quite good. Everybody was saying “Thank God we are out of that lads.”

Robert Wright interviewed by Mervyn Jess on Radio Ulster – May 2015

Robert Wright in the Commandos

Three years later he volunteered to serve in the Commandos. He served with the Special Boat Service in Norway before joining No 5 Commando in Burma in 1943 at the age of 19. There he took part in raids behind Japanese lines battling in India, and Singapore as well. He was one of the first British troops to arrive in Hong Kong to liberate it and was on operations in Malaya when Japan surrendered in August 1945.

The British Army in Burma

Imperial War Museum Photo: IND 4488 (Part of the War Office Second World War Official Collection). British infantry troops make their way along a dust road on the way to Mandalay in February or March 1945. Copyright No. 9 Film and Photographic Unit.

He often thought about those who served alongside him in Asia.

You always remember the one with you who were killed. I can still remember all of their faces. I always remember one great friend who had a watch he carried in his breast pocket. His father was a railwayman and gave him this railway watch before he left, so he doted on that watch. When he was killed, we made sure that the watch was returned to his parents. That was all we could do but it was important that we did it.

Robert Wright interviewed by The Newsletter – November 2014

Ulstermen in Asia

Many from Northern Ireland took part in the war in the Far East. Others were not as fortunate as Bob.

We kept the Japanese out of India. We were sent to Bangladesh for a bit of a break and I met a friend from Belfast called Jackie Creighton. He was in the Inniskilling Fusiliers 1st Battalion. I said to him ‘What about your brother Sammy?’ Jackie said, ‘did you not hear about him? He was taken prisoner in Singapore.’ Half the men taken prisoner were sent to Japan to work in the mines where they were badly treated. The other half were put to work on the Burma railway where they were badly treated.

Sammy and his mate were working on the Burma railway and fed watery rice every day. His mate collapsed because he was so weak. When the Japanese saw him collapsing they hit him with the butt of a rifle and told him to get up. When they drew back, Sammy Creighton beat the head off one of the Japanese. Sammy was a Sandy Row man. They just killed him with a Samurai sword.

Robert Wright interviewed by The Newsletter – November 2014

Military Vehicles in Burma

Imperial War Museum Photo: SE 1048 (Part of the War Office Second World War Official Collection). Jeeps and Sherman tanks of the Allied forces hidden beneath trees by a roadside in north Burma in 1944. Copyright No. 9 Army Film and Photographic Unit.

Staying in the Far East

While the rest of the Commandos returned home, Wright remained in Hong Kong for two years. There, as a Warrant Officer, he formed and trained a Hong Kong Chinese Training Unit.

While serving in the Far East, he met his future wife Joan. She had asked him for a job and told him her name Cheung Sui Ping. The couple went on to have two children. They also established the first Chinese restaurant in Ireland – the Hong Kong and Anglo on Donegall Street, Belfast in 1959.

The return to Belfast

Bob returned to Belfast in 1948. The devastation of the Belfast Blitz shocked him even after all he had seen overseas.

He spent two years with 602 RASC while back in Belfast. In 1950, Bob Wright was discharged after eleven years of distinguished service. He was demobbed at Victoria Barracks, Belfast.

Bob Wright worked for over a quarter of a century as a museum attendant at the Northern Ireland War Memorial on Talbot Street, Belfast and at the old premises on Waring Street. He had already passed retirement age before taking on the job. Before that he held a similar role at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. Before taking up work in the museum sector, he held jobs with Courtaulds, Standard Telephones and Cables, Sirocco, and Wall’s Ice Cream. He retired from his role at the Northern Ireland War Memorial in August 2015.

Outside of work, Wright was a member of the Commando Association and the Burma Star Association.

Every year on Remembrance Day I lay the wreath here (in the Northern Ireland War Memorial Building). I’m the old soldier here, all the rest are much younger than me, but I’ll never forget the sacrifice as long as I live.

Robert Wright interviewed by The Newsletter – November 2014

Remembering Robert Wright BEM

On 16th June 2011, at the age of 89, Wright was awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to museums. At the time he lived in the Ravelston area of Carnmoney, Co. Antrim.

Robert Wright died aged 93 on 20th October 2015. The Northern Ireland War Memorial Museum opened a book of condolence which was presented to his family. Wright’s grave is in Roselawn Cemetery, Belfast. His funeral took place on 24th October 2015. Donations in lieu of flowers were made to the Royal British Legion.