Obituary: CSM George Finch

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Company Sergeant Major George Finch, the oldest Royal Marine, has died at the age of 103. There is now no Royal Marine alive who served, as Finch did, before the First World War. There is, in fact, only one surviving Royal Marine from that war.

On the death of his mother in 1907 Finch had to leave school and work as an errand boy in a boot shop in Devonport, where he earned four shillings (20p) a week. One afternoon he saw an old schoolfriend in a Royal Marine uniform. He asked him what he was up to. "I've joined the Drums," he replied. "How much do you get?" asked Finch. "Seven shillings and three ha'pence and I get the weekend off." That was all Finch needed to hear. When he told his father, an ex-Royal Marine, that he was joining up, his father reluctantly handed over his birth certificate. "As you make your bed," he said, "so you lie on it."

In 1908, at the age of 14 years and 11 months, Finch joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry at Stonehouse Barracks, Plymouth. Here he did have to make his own bed. On his first night he had to fill his mattress full of straw and then sew it up. He soon qualified on drum, fife and bugle and took his place in the Drummer's Pit. He had learnt to play the bugle in the Church Lads Brigade. When I asked him why he had chosen the bugle, he said, "The bugle was my first love. You see, I'm an isolationist, happy alone to play Sunset, First Post and Last Post. You have to know what it is to be alone."

His first ship was HMS Argyll, which was to take part in the Argentinian Centennial celebrations. On the way across he saw Halley's Comet. When they were two-thirds of the way there, King Edward VII died. The ship altered course and, after re-coaling, returned to England. Finch was chosen as duty bugler to stand in front of the Royal Box for the coronation of King George V.

His next ship formed part of the escort of SS Medina on which George V sailed to India for the 1911 Delhi Durbar. While in India he was rated a "Man" and his pay rose to 11 shillings.

Eager for promotion, on his return to Plymouth, he paid sixpence every Friday to a drill instructor in order to improve his skills. He was promoted corporal and on the outbreak of war was drafted to HMS Oropesa. The ship patrolled between Scapa Flow and Greenland, three weeks out and six days in. During one patrol, Finch with naked eye spotted a periscope of a U- boat. He reported it to the bridge. Finch recognised how urgent it was to get his guns into action, but the ship could only engage with its after guns, so time was lost in manoeuvring. Finch was in despair as the first salvo failed to strike home. He then firmly removed the gun's number two and took aim and struck the U-boat. Debris floated to the surface, but no survivors. For this action Finch was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

His next ship, HMS Drake, was involved in convoy duties in the Atlantic until U-79 sank it off the Irish coast. As it was a coal-burning ship, once the fuel had been used up, there was plenty of space for water to flood in. Finch was luckily picked up. He was then drafted to HMS Cordelia and from there to Deal as an instructor. On 11 November 1918 he hoisted the flags to show the end of war.

In 1927 he was the detachment Sergeant Major on HMS Emerald during the China troubles. The ship was ordered up to Nanking, 180 miles up the Yangtse, where his detachment, billeted at the Consul General's Quarters, were under heavy fire. With the situation deteriorating, Finch took control. He went ashore, found the British Consul and his Military Adviser both seriously wounded. He galvanised his detachment and organised the transport of the wounded to the shore where he semaphored the ship, "Marines", and all were safely picked up.

George Finch retired from the Royal Marines in 1932. After being on the dole (10 shillings a week) for several months, he joined the Royal Marine Police. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was in charge of training dockyard employees in fire-fighting. With the docks constantly attacked, Finch's ability to control situations under stress was much in evidence. On his retirement in 1958 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal and Police Long Service and Good Conduct Medal.

Although short in stature, with his ramrod-straight back Finch was a powerful military presence with a no-nonsense attitude. At the same time he cared deeply for the men in his command. He had a happy marriage, was an active Freemason, and enjoyed a pipe until his death.

Max Arthur

George Finch, marine: born Devonport 23 October 1893; DSM 1915; married 1922 Ruby Pearl (one daughter); died Gillingham, Kent 24 July 1997.