Charlton moved on to Java where he was responsible for organising bomb disposal squads. However, in 1942 he was captured by the enemy, in circumstances that are not clear. He was then held as a PoW in Java from 1942 to 1945. Given the brutal treatment of the Japanese to its PoWs, Charlton did well to survive his three years in captivity.
At one point, however, Charlton and 12 others managed to escape and they lived in the jungle for four months before being recaptured. At the end of the Second World War in 1945 he was released and, eventually, reunited with his wife and daughter.
Charlton finally received his GC from George VI in an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 11 December 1945. The event took place more than five years after the actions for which he had been awarded the GC.
Charlton remained in the RAF after the war and, in 1946, he was promoted to temporary squadron leader, working from 1946 to 1948 at Command Bomb Disposal (UK), 5134 Squadron. From 1948 to 1950, he worked as an armament officer with 22 Group.
He was invalided from the RAF, while still in the rank of squadron leader, on 7 October 1952. He and his wife were unable to find somewhere to live, leading to one newspaper headline that read:
“G.C. bomb hero has no home.”
Charlton died in Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, Surrey, on 12 May 1953, aged 46. Along with other decorated bomb disposal officers, he is commemorated at RAF Wittering, Cambridgeshire.
I have had a near-lifelong interest in bravery since I was a small boy and my father, Eric, told me of his experiences as a young lieutenant taking part in the D-Day landings on Sword Beach on June 6 1944.
Gradually, my interest in bravery grew and grew. Courage is a truly wonderful quality yet it is so difficult to understand. You can’t accurately measure it, you can’t bottle it and you can’t buy it, yet those who display it are, quite rightly, looked up to by others and are admired by society.
Wiser – and braver – men than me have struggled to comprehend gallantry and what makes some individuals risk – and sometimes lose – their lives for a comrade, for their monarch, for their country or even to help a complete stranger.
The late Brigadier The Right Honourable Sir John ‘Jackie’ Smyth, Baronet, VC, MC, was the founder, first chairman, and, later, the President of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association.
With typical wisdom, he once wrote:
“Who can say whether it takes more courage to attack an angry bull elephant with a spear, than to disarm a very sensitive mine, or to have your toenails pulled out and still disclose nothing, or to dive into a burning aircraft to try to pull out members of the crew when the rescuer was well aware that the plane was carrying bombs which might explode at any moment.”
I have an admiration for spur of the moment courage, perhaps when a soldier runs into no-man’s land to rescue a wounded friend even though he is aware he might be shot.
Yet, I have an even bigger respect for what I call ‘cold’, or premeditated, courage as displayed by the likes of Squadron Leader Wilson ‘Bombs’ Charlton. Time and again, these bomb disposal experts are sent to deal with suspect devices that will kill or maim if they make the wrong call.