Esbert Eric Heenan 1915-1942
Esbert Eric Heenan was a 27 year old plantation farmer who died in the sands of Egypt during World War 2. He was serving with the 22nd Battalion (also known as the Wellington Battalion) of the New Zealand Infantry, a motorised battalion formed in November 1939. It was populated largely from men in the Wellington region, with recruits coming from Wellington; the west coast, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa and Taranaki.
The battalion saw action in Greece, Crete and North Africa. It subsequently took part in the Second Battle of El Alamein (23 October – 11 November 1942), a battle that proved to be a turning point for the Allied Forces in North Africa.
The circumstances of Esbert Eric’s death are not known.
He was initially reported as having been wounded. And then wounded and missing, prompting an appeal for information to be published on behalf of his family in various New Zealand newspapers.
It was not until September 1943, that he was officially reported to have died from his wounds. The date of his death is recorded as having happened almost a year earlier, on October 24, 1942 – the second day of the Second Battle of El Alamein.
Little is known about this young man.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records only that he was a private, service number 36174, and his death is marked by a grave in El Alamein War Cemetery.
He is described as the son of Garth Eric Vaughan Heenan and Rosalie Ida Grace Heenan (nee Becker), of Nukualofa, Tonga, in the Friendly Islands.
Records show that Esbert Eric Heenan was educated at Wanganui collegiate school, a day and boarding secondary school for boys in the Manawatu-Wanganui region of New Zealand’s North Island. During the three years he was a pupil (1929-1932) he was selected for the rugby team. It’s likely he was a boarder since his residence was given as Hauraki Plains – although this is still a region within the North Island, it’s a considerable distance from Wanganui. The school evidently kept track of its old boys since they note his later occupation as a plantation manager and farmer in Tonga (one of the Friendly Islands. )
Esbert’s father, Garth Vaughan Heenan was also a former pupil of the school, registered there between 1902/5. He was clearly athletic, since the school register show he was selected for school teams in rugby, rowing and shooting. His later occupation is given as a surveyor.
He travelled extensively in that capacity, taking a steam ship from Auckland to Suva, the capital of Fiji or to the Friendly Islands. He travelled to Fiji in 1923 (describing his profession as a “gentleman”), and again in 1929 with his wife and mother-in-law. In 1940, now occupied as a land surveyor, he makes the crossing to Nukualofa, the capital of Tonga, with his wife and a seven year old girl (we can presume this to be a daughter). He does the same trip, though alone this time, in July 1943 and 46 – on both occasions he was described as a ‘planter’. Was he going perhaps to check on his son’s farm while he was overseas or on his own holding?
Garth was a native of New Zealand, having been born in the Wellington registration district in 1884. But his father George Charles John Heenan had been born in Bengal, India, in 1855. He was the son of Robert Heenan, a civil engineer employed by the East India Railway Company, and his wife Kate Mary. The couple had another son a few years later, Robert Alexander Heenan.
I’ve seen a report on one website that George Charles was educated in England and lived for a while in Ireland, but have not been able to verify this personally. What I do know is that he was in New Zealand by 1884 because he married Maude Baddeley Dyer in the Wellington area that year. They had another son a few years later – Brian Esbert Baddeley Heenan – who was a Bombardier during World War 1 and was wounded at Passchendale.
There is some uncertainty about what happened to George Charles Heenan. Some reports indicate he became estranged from his wife and struck up a relationship with Annie Stanley. She gave birth to a son baptised in Burma in 1910 as Patrick Stanley Vaughan Heenan. He was convicted of treason for spying for Japan during the Malayan campaign of World War 2.
But that’s a story for another day…..
- Passenger lists New Zealand 1839-1973, Archives New Zealand (accessed via family search.org)
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- Otago Times, July 1943, September 1943 via Paperspast
- Parish baptisms, Christ Church Bhaugulpore, Bengal, India, British India Collection at FindMyPast.com
- Brian Esbert Baddely Heenan: https://www.poriruawarstories.com/heenan-brian-esbert-baddeley/
Wanganui collegiate school register 1854-1939 (accessed via ancestry.com)