Remembering Dennis Donnini (1925-1945)

10 Nov 2019

GMB is the product of the most extraordinary, ordinary people. Dennis Donnini sums up all that is best within the union.

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The son of an Italian father and an English mother, he was born and brought up in the mining community of Easington, County Durham, where his parents owned an ice cream shop on the main street.

For a high spirited and cheerful lad, raised in the shadow of the pit-props and within the vibrant political culture of the Durham miners, it was natural for Dennis to think of joining the union after leaving school.

As a fifteen year old, he went to work as a junior packer in the Durham Cable Company's factory and was an active member of the Birtley branch of the union.


Well-liked by his workmates, he was not afraid to stand-up for his rights with the bosses and was a firm Socialist.

Indeed, his entire family were remarkable, within the context of the inter-war Italian immigrant community, for the strength of their opposition to Mussolini, and for their determination to fight against the terror and hatred of fascism.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Dennis’ older brothers and sisters all joined the services; with Alfred being captured at Dunkirk and spending the rest of the war in a German prison camp and Lewis being mortally wounded in action and dying on 1 May 1944. Despite this, their father – in a savage and unjust twist of fate – was interned as an “enemy alien”, by authorities afraid that as an Italian citizen he might use the Northumberland cliffs to signal to Italian submarines.

There is a tradition that the miners from Easington Colliery attempted to prevent the police from talking him away to the internment camp. He was regarded as “one of their own” and besides, as the local newspaper had it, “he made jolly good ice cream!”

Dennis’ pride was hurt. His family had always spoken out against fascism, even when it had brought them into conflict with the rest of the Italian community, and now his father was being treated as though he was a prisoner of way. Jokes about his diminutive size – Dennis stood at only 4 foot 10 – and the alleged cowardice of Italian soldiers, served to further fire his blood.

He tried to enlist, again and again, but was knocked back on account of both his youth and slight build. Finally, he was successful in volunteering for active service and, in May 1944, he joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers. He spent the Winter fighting his way through mud and frost, through the French countryside to Holland and the German border.

Despite conditions more reminiscent of the first rather than the Second World War, the postcards he sent back home, written in slip trenches and on the march, were always cheerful and upbeat.

He recalled the delicious fruit pies his mother made and the pretty young Wren he’d met, and then lost sight of, on the troopship bound for France. Yet, at the same time, he was well aware of the human cost of war and that a soldier he’d been chatting to just seconds before had suddenly fallen to an enemy bullet; a life snuffed-out in an instant.

On 18th January 1945, Donnini found himself in the thick of firefight for control of the little village of Stein, on the border between Holland and Germany. Atrocious weather conditions had ensured that there would be no tank or artillery support, and so the infantry carried on alone.

When the advance stalled, Dennis led a fresh charge covering thirty yards of open ground under heavy fire, and clearing a farmhouse of the enemy, before returning to rescue a wounded comrade. Though wounded, himself, he refused to leave the fight and continued to man his Bren gun until an incoming round exploded one of the grenades that he was carrying in his belt.

At just 19 years and 2 months, he was to be the youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, in the Second World War, and his citation recalled "the dash, determination, and magnificent courage of Fusilier Donnini (which) enabled his companions to overcome an entrenched enemy twice their own strength."

Back in County Durham, his union comrades lamented “that we would rather he had lived for England and the English, a working citizen, than that he had died for her and us”.

With typical modesty, his father was reluctant to push himself forward when he received Dennis’ posthumous Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace. Flustered, he offered the policeman at the gates his identity card rather than the invitation from the king.

Today, Dennis Donnini is remembered through books and folksongs, in the collective memory of the people of the North-East, and in the roads and Care Centre named after him.

In Easington, his family still keep his memory fresh and proud, his portrait hanging for all to see in the Fish and Chip shop that stands on the site of his parents’ business. His youth, his valour, and his commitment to humanity and the fight against fascism are not forgotten by GMB.

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