The story of a Suffolk boxer, who died in the Second World War, has been highlighted in a new magazine, The Old Timer.
Don Theobald from Sudbury was killed in summer, 1940, in an explosion in the Bay of Biscay, which claimed the lives of more than 4,000 servicemen.
Don, who was born in Sudbury, in July, 1913, and lived all his life in the town, was the only son of Herbert and Lydia Theobald, who also had four daughters.
Miles Templeton, who edits The Old Timer, came across Don’s name while researching boxing in East Anglia during the 1930s.
In his article he writes: “One of the names that continually caught my eye was Don Theobald of Sudbury. I noticed his last contest took place just before the Second World War. I telephoned all the Theobalds living in Sudbury and on the sixth call I found myself talking to Jim Theobald, Don’s cousin. Thanks to him and other members of the family, I can now tell Don’s tale.”
Boxing boomed in the 1930s, with important contests in Suffolk staged at the baths hall in Ipswich, but promotions also took place in small towns and villages.
Don’s father encouraged him in his career and in 1937 Herbert took out a British Boxing Board of Control licence. Records are far from perfect and the first contest of Don’s that could be traced was in 1932. There was a gap until 1935 when his career really got going.
He won contests in Chelmsford, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Colchester. Two opponents with whom he had frequent clashes were Buster Wilsher (Chelmsford) and Herbie Beckett (Ipswich).
One contest took place in King’s Lynn. As The Old Timer records, Don and Herbert travelled up by horse and cart, sleeping rough in fields along the route.
Don’s last fight took place a month before war was declared, when he beat Soldier Jim Green in the ninth round at Bury Corn Exchange.
He died, aged 26, less than a year later. A military policeman, serving with the British Expeditionary Force, he was being evacuated from St. Nazaire on the Lancastria when it was hit by bombs from a Junkers 88. His name is on the Dunkirk and Great Cornard war memorials.
With acknowledgements to Miles Templeton at www.prewarboxing.co.uk
Pride as Sudbury Lancastria hero is honoured after 68 years
Published Date: 21 August 2008
By Jonathan Schofield
A war hero and boxing legend who died in the greatest maritime disaster in British history has finally received a medal for his bravery.
Sudbury-born Don Theobald was killed along with thousands of comrades when a German bomb hit the Lancastria in the Bay of Biscay, as the British Expeditionary Force retreated from France on June 17, 1940.
The story of the boxer was published in the Free Press in May following an article in The Old Timer magazine on East Anglia’s boxing legends.
Just two months later Don’s nephew, Melvyn Theobald, of Humphrey Road, Sudbury, has finally received a medal and a letter from Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond.
Mr Theobald said: “He died a hero, trying to get men off the boat after it had been hit by Luftwaffe bombs. It’s is only right that he should be honoured, even though it has taken 68 years.
“The British authorities placed a 100-year embargo on the incident so it has taken the Scottish to finally recognise my uncle.”
The embargo means specific detail about the disaster, which is said to have claimed between 2,500 and 6,000 lives, will not be made public until 2040.
Don was touted as a future international boxing champion before he was called up to the Royal Military Police.
Melvyn said: “He was being evacuated from France when he managed to board the Lancastria. He would have come home to Sudbury and carried on with his life if he hadn’t gone back to save more men.”
The bomb that killed Don, aged 26, went straight down the funnel and into the engine room before exploding. The Lancastria sank within minutes.
In 1945 his mother, Lilly, received a letter from one of Don’s friends who was with him moments before he died.
The letter said: “Don got me out 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 ever met and I know that I owe my life to him.”