Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Remembering Wally Nixon

From facing some of World War Two’s bloodiest battles to becoming a union organiser and opposing austerity in his retirement, Walter Nixon — who has died aged 101 — spent his whole life fighting injustice.

Walter Nixon (1922-2024)

Our granddad Walter Nixon, who died on Sunday 21 April at the age of 101, has always been seen as a fixed point on the lane in Suffolk where he was born and lived for over a century. His apple trees would stand proud in his garden as he offered carrier bags full of them to passers-by, flying the red flag from his flagpole over the Suffolk countryside.

Most people in his village of East Bergholt know the Nixon name as a result of his illustrious past – from fighting fascism across Italy and North Africa in the Second World War, to becoming a stalwart of the trade union movement after organising in the local factory.

Born in 1922, Walter was raised as the youngest of six children by his parents, Arthur and Lily. Like many others at that time, they were very poor; if the children had a temperature, Lily would pick cabbage leaves from the garden and place them on their forehead to cool them down. Before the NHS, no cheap over-the-counter drugs were available, and very few could afford to call a doctor.

This life was not eased by the fact that Arthur was a pioneering trade unionist and socialist ‘in the times when you had to be brave to be those things,’ Walter remembered in a Tribune interview. Arthur faced regular victimisation from employers for his organising activity.

After some time spent working in a local garage, the village shop, and a local plastics factory, Walter received his conscription letter in November 1941, aged nineteen. Against the advice of others who assured him he would be protected from active service due to working in a reserved occupation, his conscience implored him to serve his bit in the destruction of fascism and help in the most direct way possible.

After training in Norfolk as a dispatch rider in the 81st Anti-Tank Regiment of the Royal Artillery, Walter was sent with his regiment to be part of the invasion of North Africa, where he experienced intense military action until the Axis surrender of Tunis in 1943. From there, he was sent to serve in Italy, where he retrained as a wireless operator in order to serve in what became known as the Battle of Anzio.

As one of the first men to land on the beach in the early morning of 22 January 1944, he remembered landing, a barrage of tracer bullets landing near him, and seeing two men lying dead next to him. Above them was a soldier standing under the trees, repeatedly urging the men forward – a man he later discovered was the future Labour MP Denis Healey.

Walter experienced the months-long battle in its entirety. ‘There was no comfort,’ he would say. ‘The snow was three or four foot deep. Mud everywhere. Everyone lived underground. You couldn’t live above ground because you would have either got done by anti-personnel bombs or mortars or shellfire.’ He had once read that it was like Passchendaele in the First World War; ‘I don’t know what Passchendaele was like, but I do know what it was like on Anzio.’

From there, Walter and his comrades fought until the Liberation of Rome and carried on the fight through Italy before being retired after nearly a year of permanent action. There, he was posted to Palestine, where he spent the remainder of the war until he was demobbed in 1947.

But the war had defined his life and cemented his outlook. So much of his future life was forged in the hardship of the trenches, and the comradeship generated in the struggle against Hitler. He was able to vote for Labour while in uniform in the 1945 general election, the result of which he remembered as an ‘excellent feeling.’ For Walter, Attlee’s 1945 government ‘was what we, the people, had been fighting for our entire lives.’

In civilian life in Suffolk after the war, Walter married his wife Eileen and returned to work at the local ICI plastics factory. He soon became the plant’s TGWU convenor and could recount his organising victories as if they happened yesterday – from procuring better wages and conditions and creating a closed shop to single-handedly taking on ICI in court, where he won a shock victory for a fellow worker against the firm’s top London barristers.

His dedication to British trade unionism did not go unrewarded; Walter served on the TGWU’s national executive and was awarded the Slate Man and Gold Medals – the latter being the highest award of the union. When the ‘T&G’ merged with Amicus to become Unite, he was awarded a lifetime membership of that union.

Retirement didn’t halt his work, either, as he took up the role of chairman in his local village hall. Not one to shy away from a challenge, he successfully secured lottery grants to renovate the building, making it a hub for the local community.

Sadly, he had to step away from this role when his wife’s health declined in the early 2000s, being the sole carer for her up until her passing at the age of 94. Recently, he had returned to Anzio, and sang in the Blind Veterans Choir. He was also an avid supporter of Ipswich Town Football Club (he had been closely following this season’s promotion push).

It is a huge testament to Walter that he lived a healthy, independent life until February this year, when his health began to decline. Moving into care – where the help he received was phenomenal – he still showed the spirit to encourage his carers to join a union, despite his seriously deteriorating health.

We’ve been told that ‘a Nixon would argue with a lamppost,’ but we are only too glad to have our Granddad Walter’s fight in us. His presence will be dearly missed by us all – his two sons, eight grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren – but his fight, tenacity, and unwavering morals will stay with us forever.