The Last Heroes: Voices of British and Commonwealth Veterans

The Last Heroes: Voices of British and Commonwealth Veterans

by Gary Bridson-Daley

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The Second World War is famed for being the conflict that changed the face of warfare, and it is the last that changed the face of the world. In addition to remembering those that passed away in those dark days of war, a sincere debt of gratitude is owed to all those now in their twilight years who gave all that they had for King and Country.Here Gary Bridson-Daley presents forty-two of over a hundred interviews he conducted with veterans over recent years, adding to the history books the words and the original poetry of those that fought and supported the war effort to ensure freedom, peace and prosperity for generations to come. From each corner of the British Isles and every armed service, from Dam Buster George ‘Johnny’ Johnson through to riveter Susan Jones: heroes, all.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750994347
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 12/01/2020
Edition description: Second Edition,New edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gary Bridson-Daley hails from Manchester and has always had a keen interest in world history, especially the Second World War. Working as a tour manager in travel and tourism for over fifteen years led him to extensive worldwide travel and exposure to many countries and cultures. This, along with a deep respect for the freedom bought for us by the efforts and service of Second World War veterans, inspired him to begin the ‘Debt of Gratitude’ project and to publish it in the form of The Last Heroes in order to honour those who served and to capture their precious stories for posterity.

Read an Excerpt


Army and the War on Land

Having looked at the bigger picture and the sheer scale of the war, the countries that took part and the diversity of those who served, we now feature each of the services, Army, Navy and Air Force, plus intelligence and the home front, in their own sections. We start with the Army, which has always existed in one form or another under the kings, queens and rulers of our isle but can quite legitimately trace its roots back to the first professional army in the field, Oliver Cromwell's 'New Model Army' in 1645 and a later standing army of King Charles ll in 1661. From then until the present day, the Army has served and defended the interests of Great Britain all over the world, and was responsible for policing the British Empire, which in its day covered a third of the Earth's surface.

During the Second World War, every branch of its services were at some point fully engaged on all fronts and in all terrains. This brought about the expansion of many varied types of existing units and the creation of new ones as a reaction to the challenges and complexities that arose.

This was reflected in the men being prepared, supplied and fitted out with the best the country could manage at any given time. This did, of course, vary quite considerably at various stages of the war and depended on many factors as the Army tried to provide for the massive variations in the regions in which it was engaged, from fighting in the desert to war in mountainous terrain to amphibious and jungle warfare, all of which required very different approaches, adaptations, tactics and kit.

Within this, as in all professional standing armies, were needed many varied units such as engineer, infantry, artillery, mechanised, signals, medical, intelligence, supply and logistics, catering and clerical, and amongst the many roles there were gunners, sappers, infantrymen, guardsmen, military police, tank crew, drivers, clerks, cooks, nurses, paratroopers and the newly formed special forces, complete with the essential command structure of officers and NCOs.

They made up every unit from company to divisional strength, came from every part of the United Kingdom and Empire, and served in well-known units such as the Lancashire Fusiliers, Yeomanry, Scots Guards, Welch Regiment, Irish Guards, and the Gurkha, Indian, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian regiments, to name but a few, all with their own proud history and heritage. Legends were born through battle such as the famous Desert Rats, Chindits and the Long Range Desert Group. The veterans of some of these units are featured in this section and their stories make very interesting reading.

Sergeant John Clarke MBE

Served with: 6th Battalion, Black Watch & 1st Battalion, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

Service number 2761256

Interviewed: Manchester, Lancashire, 10 July 2014

Service History and Personal Stories

* Born: 19 April 1924, Manchester, England, UK.

* As a soldier in the famous Black Watch, John saw fierce front-line action and service in many places, starting with Tunisia and Algeria in North Africa in 1943.

* John was at Monte Cassino, Italy, where he was involved in all phases of that difficult battle throughout 1944.

* Later on in Greece against ELAS Communist fighters 1944–45, he was involved in guerrilla-style warfare.

* Present as additional security during an attempt on the life of Winston Churchill in Athens, Greece, in December 1944.

* Served in Palestine, Middle East, with the 6th Airborne Division and was at the British HQ, King David Hotel in Jerusalem, when it was bombed on 22 July 1946.

* In 2004 John was awarded an MBE for many years of hard work with various veterans groups, including the Monte Cassino and Polish veterans associations.

In July 2014 I interviewed my first Second World War veteran, John Clarke. This would be the start of many interviews all over the country that formed the basis of my book, and what a great way to start, with a veteran who had experienced and given so much for his country. As I looked and listened to him it was immediately apparent to me that my choice to incorporate 'A Debt of Gratitude' into the concept of the book was the right one, as it truly reflected my sentiments about our veterans and what we owe them for what they have done for us. So to begin, here is John's story, a superb introduction to the many incredibly interesting veterans' stories that follow.

John's war started in 1939 while serving an engineering apprenticeship with Metropolitan Vickers in Trafford Park, working on the Seascan naval radar system. During that time he had the additional duties of a fire fighter on factory fire watch putting out incendiary bombs during air raids in the Blitz. He enlisted in 1941 in Manchester at 17 years of age in the Highland Regiment and at 18 was transferred to the 6th Battalion Black Watch. In 1942 he trained at Perth, Dundee, and at Leigh-on-Sea and Southend on the Essex coast. He then served in many places and in many varied terrains and kinds of battles, always at the 'sharp end' as John called the forefront of battle. This started in 1943 when he was sent to Algeria and Tunisia to take part in the final phases of the North African Campaign where he was in the 4th British Division, First Army. Then in 1944 he was sent with the 4th British Division to fight in Italy as part of the Eighth Army.

As the Italian Campaign raged on throughout 1944 John found himself in many places including the famous battles of Monte Cassino, where he was involved in all stages of the battles from start to finish. In late 1944 he was transferred to Greece with the 4th British Division and ended up fighting in a very different kind of guerrilla warfare situation against the communist ELAS fighters. This went on until halfway through 1945 when his 6th Battalion (Territorial) was stood down in Greece. John was then transferred to the 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He was sent with them as part of the 6th Airborne Division to carry out policing duties in Palestine with the British forces that were tasked with containing the growing Jewish resistance fighter groups such as the Irgun. It was while serving there that on 22 July 1946 John was present at the British military and administrative headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem when an infamous bombing took place. Again John found himself at the heart of vicious guerrilla-style warfare, and would do so for many more months to come. Once back in England he was demobbed in York in May 1947, bringing to an end a military career that had put him right at the frontline of many conflicts, from the deserts of North Africa to the mountains of Italy and Greece to the streets of British Mandate Palestine.

We now return to the campaign in Italy where John was involved in many battles throughout the country. He was engaged in all phases of the particularly hard battles at Monte Cassino, where combat took place against elite German paratrooper units. Lots of the men who fought in Italy had already fought in North Africa and Sicily and in some cases had not been home for years. To many out there it seemed like theirs had become a forgotten campaign. John now shares various recollections from his time at Monte Cassino:

Ferocious Battles of Monte Cassino

Some of the stuff I remember about the Battles at Monte Cassino, well we had to deal with many things including the lack of reinforcements from the UK as most resources were being taken in preparation for D-Day, it felt like we had become a side show. What is still never really mentioned was that in Italy we were opposed by the cream of the German Army, German paratroopers, panzergrenadiers, Hermann Goering Division and Austrian Alpine troops, far superior to those defending the Normandy beaches. As a result of fighting such professional soldiers the battles were hard and nasty with a lot of vicious close quarter hand-to-hand fighting with small arms and bayonets against a tough and ruthless enemy in a very difficult terrain. This, of course, led to many casualties on both sides and the frequent bad weather didn't help. It significantly slowed down our advance, and I remember in some places there was phosphorus in the wet soil so when our troops dug slit trenches they would get this phosphorus on their uniforms, and at night this would illuminate them and made them easy targets for German snipers. We lost quite a few of our boys that way, too many.

Later that year, in December 1944, John found himself with the Black Watch in a different theatre of war in Greece. After being ordered to be additional security and help escort some VIPs in the centre of Athens he was witness to something quite unexpected:

An Assassination Attempt on Winston Churchill

There was stiff resistance from ELAS, many of whom were regular Greek soldiers, but civilians during daylight. On Boxing Day, we had received an order to join a party of VIPs who were gathering to hold a special meeting. I made contact near the town square. The party turned out to be headed by Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden along with the Archbishop of Greece with numerous MPs. As we walked along the business area, a shot rang out, a bullet flashed before my eyes, and I heard the familiar sound of a bullet hitting flesh. The lady behind me fell to the ground, dead; there was nothing I could do. Her name was Erula, an interpreter aged around forty. The shot had been meant for Winston Churchill, he was lying on the ground, surrounded by his escort. Soon afterwards, the sniper was caught; it turned out to be a Bulgarian girl aged about nineteen. The Greek Campaign was the most brutal I had taken part in. Amazingly, the Atlee Government, in order not to offend the Russians after the war, did not issue a campaign medal to those who had taken part. Instead, they officially awarded the Italy Star, which all those who had been involved there had already won before being sent to Greece. This was not a medal for a campaign against the Germans, the Italy Star was!

Two years after first meeting and interviewing John in July 2014, I went back to spend time with him to hear more from this real front-line soldier, who now shares with us various accounts from his extensive experience of what it was really like:

To Be a Soldier at the Sharp End

The first battle I took part in was in Tunisia in 1943 and it was a nasty one, and when people say were you frightened going into your first battle, well you're not frightened, you're apprehensive. It's the second battle you're frightened of 'coz you know what to expect. With the Black Watch being of Scottish origin there were some traditions that were kept in battle. It is difficult to describe this but when you had a bayonet charge, which we did eventually at Cassino, the pipers played and it was walk, trot, charge and somehow or another you felt like a million dollars doing that. It was something unbelievable, the pipes seemed to fill you full of, well courage, I don't know. Strangely you were enjoying it in a way! I think I made four or five charges in my time and if you are charging the enemy who is dug in like on a machine gun you are above him, normally, and he gets frightened when he sees you coming. He doesn't know whether he's going to kill all of you or if you are going to get him kind of thing. It's like a desire to do what you are supposed to do, and not only that but you have got your lads there and you're all shouting. It's the heat of battle after all and in the end it's you or him.

Additional Information and Life After Service

* Rank at end of service: Sergeant.

* Medals and honours: 1939–45 Defence Medal, 1939–45 War Medal, 1939–45 Star, Africa Star, Italy Star, Palestine 1945–48 Medal, Polish Gold Cross of Merit, MBE.

* Post-war years: Returned to Metropolitan Vickers to finish the 'interrupted apprenticeship' and progressed to senior management, then moved on to Ruston Diesels in Newton-le-Willows and finished as a works superintendent. Later the company became part of BAE Systems. John married Olive, who was a Wren during the war. They were together for fifty-seven years from 1948 until 2005, and have two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

* Associations and organisations: Co-founder of the Monte Cassino Veterans Association, which he served from 1968 to 2005, now the Monte Cassino Society. Also worked with various Polish veterans associations, after forming close friendships with Polish servicemen with whom he fought in Italy.

Lance Corporal Jozef Wojciechowski

Served with: 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade

Service number: 2530017

Interviewed: Bradford, West Yorkshire, 9 January 2015

Service History and Personal Stories

* Born: 28 September 1922, Mielnica Podolska, Poland.

* Jozef witnessed the Soviet Invasion of Poland in September 1939; in 1940 he was deported with his family to Stalin's dreaded Siberian work camps in Russia.

* Later he joined the Polish armed forces under British command and came halfway around the world to be trained in the UK and fight for the Allies.

* As a wireless operator he was in the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade as part of the 1st Airborne Division, and was involved in Operation Market Garden in Arnhem, Netherlands, in September 1944.

* After the war he continued to serve as part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) in Germany until 1947.

* Jozef settled in Great Britain after the war as a return to a communist-controlled Poland was not a realistic option throughout the Cold War period.

The story of how Jozef Wojciechowski ended up as a paratrooper in the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade is one of great circucumstance and fate. It saw him deported from his hometown of Mielnicapodolska in eastern Poland after the Soviet invasion in 1939 to one of the infamous Siberian 'Gulags' in Russia in 1940 as forced labour. Then later in 1941, as a result of an agreement between Stalin and the Polish government-in-exile in London after the German invasion of Russia, he and many of his fellow countrymen were released and made an epic journey that in just over a year took them halfway around the world. They travelled from Siberia to Scotland, via Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Persia, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, South Africa, Sierra Leone and finally on to the United Kingdom. At first receiving rehabilitation, then later a range of military training at British Army camps as they went along, Jozef called this his 'amazing journey to freedom'. This is the wartime story of one Polish man, one of the many who came to help us.

After his arrival in the UK in 1942, Jozef volunteered to be a paratrooper and received training at RAF Ringway, Manchester. He chose to specialise as a radio operator, for which he got further training at Lagerhouse near Fife, Scotland. Then, on 21 September 1944, he was dropped as part of the 1st Airborne Division into Driel near Arnhem, as part of Montgomery's Operation Market Garden to try to help relieve the beleaguered British airborne troops as things there began to go terribly wrong. These events brought him full circle back into Europe in the most dramatic way. After this operation he continued to serve in the armed forces and upon his return to England he was stationed at various bases such as Uffington near Stamford and Greyfield near Hull. He later served in Germany in 1945–47 as part of BAOR, stationed at Bersenbruck on the River Hase in Lower Saxony.

Jozef was demobbed in York in August 1947 and like so many other Poles stayed in the UK to make a new life for himself as a return to his beloved Poland was not a realistic option under communist rule. So he had his family in the safety of his adopted country, the United Kingdom, which by his efforts and service he helped keep free and safe for us all.

We now return to September 1944 when the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade under the command of Major General Sosabowski was moved to Stamford in Lincolnshire in preparation for a very special mission. But before they undertook that mission, Jozef remembers there was a bad omen even at the planning stages:

The Ill-fated Operation Market Garden

As part of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade I was involved in operations in a town called Driel near Arnhem. But even before we went there was a bad omen regarding Operation Market Garden which we had heard about. This came from much higher up the chain of command and served as a warning of the bad things which were to come ...


Excerpted from "The Last Heroes"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Gary Bridson-Daley.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Dame Vera Lynn,
Author's Note,
Second World War Timeline,
Scale of the Conflict,
Diversity of Those Who Served,
1 Army and the War on Land,
2 Navy and the War at Sea,
3 Air Force and the War in the Air,
4 Intelligence and the Secret War,
5 Home and the War on the Home Front,
Connecting with History,
Veterans' Poetry and Songs,
Absent Friends,
Casualties of War,
For Those Who Never Returned,
Sacrifices Never Forgotten,
Hope for a Better Future,

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