Posts Tagged ‘Britain’s’

‘The young generation should know’: Britain’s forgotten Merchant Navy heroes

November 6th, 2015

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that seamen who flew the ‘Red Duster’ – the MN ensign – were granted the right to march as an official body in the Cenotaph commemorations. The veterans marching on Sunday 8 November will be representing those civilian seafarers who have perished in defence of the country: 16,000 in the First World War, at least 35,000 between 1939 and 1945 (the proportion of dead being greater than in any of the fighting services) and a small number in the Falklands war.

“I thought of the men who have been forgotten, wiped off the map”

Donald Hunter

More than 140,000 merchant seamen are reckoned to have been at sea at any one time in the Second World War. They transported food, raw materials and fuel to Britain, and carried troops, equipment and explosives to fighting fronts. These ships – not those of the Royal Navy – were generally the targets of enemy mines, torpedoes and shells. As Hunter says of the Normandy landings, ‘If you sink the transports and drown the troops you don’t have a problem, do you?’

One aspect of Merchant Navy history that is still neglected is the contribution of foreign seamen. Many thousands from India, Hong Kong, the Caribbean, west Africa and elsewhere served on Second World War ships.

These are a few of the facts. What follows is something of the reality. It was gloriously sunny autumn weather the week I met the men who appear in these pages. Britain looked like a country you would put your life on the line for a thousand times over, and that is what each of them did.

Ronald Quested, Radio officer, Second World War

Ronald Quested, now (left) and as a young radio officer during the Second World War (right)

Birkenhead, October 1944. Ron Quested, a newly qualified radio officer, is watching stevedores loading cargo into the hold of the SS Samnebra, a Baltimore-built Liberty ship. ‘When I looked, they’d got sacking round their hobnailed boots. The bosun was standing next to me.

I said, “Why have they got the sacking there?”, and he said, “They’re loading up TNT. It’s to stop sparks flying.’’’ Quested was 17 years old. He had a twin brother, Len, who was about to serve on the Arctic convoys, and a 16-year-old sweetheart back in Essex. ‘We loaded up and I thought, “Oh my.”

But I never took any notice of it after that. I’m one of these blokes that doesn’t get upset very quickly.’

“After three months you’re thinking, where is my home?”

Ronald Quested

From this moment till the end of the war, he and the Samnebra were inseparable and, on his own admission, lucky. They travelled, in a series of convoys, through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to Baltimore, back through the Suez Canal to Bombay and Colombo and on to South Africa without once facing direct attack (though a tanker in one of his Atlantic convoys was blown up).

‘But every second of every minute of every day, you could have had a torpedo in you. Nobody could tell you how many U-boats were around.’

Fear apart, for a teenager who had never been abroad before it was an interminable, disorientating experience. ‘For the first three months, it’s an adventure; everything is new to you. After three months you’re thinking, where is my home? You’re going from one port to another port, one country to another country. And from six months to 12 months you’re beginning to say to yourself, I don’t think I’ve got a ruddy home!’

He is a cheery yet phlegmatic character (88, ‘fighting fit’, and the standard bearer for his local Merchant Navy Association), but some, he says, didn’t cope so well with the experience. People drank heavily.

Relationships broke up. The captain of a ship Quested was on after the war, a veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic, blew his brains out in his cabin. ‘This is the effect war can have on a merchant seaman,’ he says.

But Quested was made stronger by wartime service. ‘I really felt as if I’d been educated in geography and meeting people from all over the world,’ he says. ‘I felt confident in going anywhere and doing anything. You went away a boy and you came back a man.’

He left the Merchant Navy in 1950 and had a successful career as an electronics engineer. And he made his own ruddy home, marrying that childhood sweetheart, Betty, in 1953 and settling in an Essex village. Five children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren later, they are still together.

Martyn ‘Zak’ Coombs: Assistant purser/stretcher bearer/ward orderly, Falklands war

Martyn 'Zak' Coombs, now (left) and during the Falklands war (right)

By the surreal disposition of war, the music room of the ship on which Zak Coombs served during the Falklands campaign was converted into an intensive-care unit.

He remembers a badly burnt soldier being stretchered in, a victim of the bombing of the supply ships Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad. The man’s hands were in plastic bags. When he asked for a cigarette, Coombs put one in his mouth. ‘Then I realised I was going to strike a flame in front of him, and I said, “I’m going to make a flame, is that OK?” And he said, “Yeah, well, you’re not going to light a cigarette otherwise are you?’’’

This is just one of many moments that Coombs recalls (with a sort of ferocious tenderness) from the 113 days in 1982 in which his civilised civilian world was turned on its head. In April of that year he was 32 and working as the assistant purser on the SS Uganda, a P&O passenger ship that specialised in educational cruises for children. ‘I sat on the desk selling stamps and arranging phone calls and sorting problems. I was a receptionist. In a hotel.’

“It’s funny. I didn’t know how serious it all was. Do you shut it away? I don’t know”

Martyn ‘Zak’ Coombs

The Uganda was docked in Alexandria in Egypt when war was declared. She was requisitioned as a hospital ship, and after a three-day refit in Gibraltar took about 100 medical staff and Royal Marines bandsmen (who worked as stretcher bearers) aboard and sailed for the South Atlantic.

In addition to his duties as assistant purser, Coombs volunteered to be a stretcher bearer and ward orderly. The Uganda took on 730 casualties. These included 150 Argentinians, one of whom, a teenage conscript, sticks in Coombs’s mind because he washed the blood and filth from his face. ‘He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish in those days. It was quite difficult. They were very grateful for what you did for them.’

He saw some terrible lower-limb injuries and witnessed great suffering and bravery but does not recall breaking down at any point while the fighting was going on and the casualties were coming in.

Argentine tanks move down a street on the Falkland Islands

‘It’s funny. I didn’t know how serious it all was. Do you shut it away? I don’t know. Because it wasn’t happening to you. You were outside looking in.’ But the floodgates opened afterwards when he was reunited with his girlfriend, Tracey (who became, and remains, his wife).

Coombs continued to work for P&O, retiring two years ago after 37 years’ service. He and his wife live in a village near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. For some time after the war he was reluctant to wear his South Atlantic Medal (awarded to military personnel and civilians for service in the Falklands), believing that what he went through could not compare with the suffering of the young men who passed through his ship (though now, he says, ‘I’m very proud of wearing it’).

His mind constantly returns to those injured men. As they left the Uganda he would ask each of them, when they reached their military hospitals back in Britain, to call Tracey and tell her he was OK. And, invariably, they did. ‘That’s the abiding memory I carry with me of those times, that so many men who had so much else on their minds would take the time to do that for me.’

Donald Hunter: Radio officer, Second World War

Donald Hunter, now (left) and as a teenage radio officer (right)

During the D-Day landings, from June 6 through to early August 1944, Don Hunter (now 89) made nearly 40 runs between London Docks, Tilbury, and Juno Beach, braving the German guns through the Strait of Dover, which pounded the convoys to ‘smithereens’. Hunter was an 18-year-old radio officer (‘and gunnery officer and fire control officer’) on the Empire Pickwick, an LSI (landing ship, infantry) that ferried troops and equipment to the Normandy beaches.

Those big guns aside, his hairiest moment came when the convoy he was on was attacked by German E-boats (fast torpedo boats). ‘This torpedo missed us; you could see the track of it in the fluorescence on the water. It missed our stern and hit the [nearby] tanker, which went up in flames.

“You’d see some of our troops who had landed that morning coming back at midday in black bags”

Donald Hunter

‘We weren’t allowed to pick up survivors, the theory being that if you stop you also become a target, and the cargo is more important than lives, I’m afraid. It’s a sorry truth of war. I was looking down from the bridge, horrified to see these men struggling in the water and we weren’t picking them up.’

The beach itself was another hell. ‘They had big guns along the clifftops. They were aiming at us, not the Royal Navy.’ But it was his own side that inflicted lasting damage. HMS Belfast was lying alongside the Pickwick at one point, bombarding the German positions. ‘It blew my hearing away [he indicates the hearing aid in his right ear]. My ears bled. We didn’t have earplugs. We didn’t even have steel helmets. Badly equipped.’

Hunter chuckles a fair bit when he talks about his war. There are silences too. D-Day wasn’t the half of it. ‘I spent more time in the Battle of the Atlantic than I did in Normandy. I was attacked by mines, U-boats, bombers. We had the bloody lot.’

The 2nd Battalion U.S. Army Rangers march to their landing craft in Weymouth, England, on June 5, 1944

Hanging in the hallway of Hunter’s house in Kent is the certificate confirming him as a Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneur, awarded in 2004 for his participation in the Normandy landings. He married his wife, Jean, in 1947 (when she brings tea and biscuits, he hugs her and says, as if he still can’t believe his luck, ‘We’ve been married 68 years!’), left the Merchant Navy in 1950 and worked for British Aerospace as an electronics engineer.

But Juno Beach is never far from his mind. He has one memory in particular: a ‘coffin ship’ would anchor alongside his boat during the landings. ‘You’d see some of our troops who had landed that morning coming back at midday in black bags. They’d lay them on the deck while they identified them. That was a reminder of the reality of war. It’s hard to talk about.’ He falls silent, then adds, ‘The younger generation should know really.’

Leonard Dibb-Western: Deckhand, Second World War

Leonard Dibb-Western, now (left) and as a mess boy, aged 15 (right)

Len Dibb-Western says the neighbours in his Somerset village haven’t a clue about his past. ‘I never tell them; they never ask me.’ So here’s telling them. The old chap (just turned 90) with what can only be described as a twinkle in his eye had lived a hundred lives before many lads’ voices break.

His first ship, which he joined as a mess boy in June 1941, at the age of 15, was a Norwegian tanker on the Atlantic convoys between Britain and north America. He chose a Norwegian ship because the money was so good – ‘£30 a month. I gave my mother £10. She cried. She’d never had £10 before in her life.’ In 1942 he was on the bridge of another Norwegian ship in the Gulf of Mexico when she was hit, but not sunk, by a torpedo.

‘I was thrown across the bridge and knocked my head,’ he recalls. ‘No damage though. Too thick, I think.’

“They’re gone. That’s life, isn’t it? No heroes. Only survivors”

Leonard Dibb-Western

After contracting malaria in west Africa, he joined his first British ship in 1944 – a shock to the system. ‘There were no sheets or pillowcases, just blankets. A donkey’s breakfast to lie on. Know what that is? Straw mattress. But they gave us an extra blanket to go up to Russia.’

This ship, the SS Fort McMurray, was part of Convoy JW 57, which sailed from Loch Ewe to Murmansk, fending off U-boats attacks, and on to Bakaritsa. The Russians, he says, were very suspicious of the British. ‘They put a notice up in our mess room. If you associate with any women you get five years in the salt mines. I wish I’d kept that.’

The ‘poor devils’ who unloaded the cargo were female political prisoners. The ‘water’ on the dining table at Bakaritsa was vodka. ‘It nearly killed us! The Russians laughed. It was great times really.’

British men, women and children celebrating 'Victory in Europe Day' in the street

His war finished on a picaresque note when he found himself in the clink in Singapore (for some light pilfering of cargo) and was set to work splicing hangman’s nooses for Japanese war criminals being held in cages there. Since then he has worked in a jam factory and as a cabinetmaker, and was a retained fireman for 17 years. But the four teenage years he spent in mortal danger remain ‘the best times of my life’.

He has stayed in touch with shipmates but the pool of memories is drying up. Poring over his photos of veterans’ gatherings, each man shipshape in his white beret, he points out the ones who have died since the pictures were taken. ‘They’re gone. That’s life, isn’t it? No heroes. Only survivors. That’s what I always say.’

A history of the British Merchant Navy

17th century

The British Merchant Navy can be dated back as far as this century, when the Royal Navy attempted to register all seafarers as a source of labour in wartime. The fleet grew considerably over the following decades, benefiting from trade opportunities in India and the Far East.

First World War

Following the British merchant shipping fleets’ services in the First World War, King George V officially names the service the Merchant Navy. Approximately 14,661 merchant seafarers were killed during the war.


George V names Edward, Prince of Wales, ‘Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets’, a title he relinquished on abdicating the throne in December 1936. The title has since been held by George VI and Elizabeth II.

Second World War

In 1939, the British Merchant Navy was the largest in the world. During the war the Merchant Navy lost 54% of their fleet and 32,000 seafarers.

Falklands War

A total of 52 merchant ships from 33 different companies are taken from trade; 72 men served during the war.


Following years of lobbying, Merchant Navy Day becomes an official day of remembrance on 3 September.


The fleet consists of 1,504 ships and is still one of the largest in the world.

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Churchill embodied Britain’s greatness

January 23rd, 2015

When the airplane was in its infancy – barely 10 years after Wilbur and Orville Wright had taken off from Kitty Hawk – he was repeatedly going aloft in these hair-raising contraptions. And when his instructors were killed, and when his family and friends were begging him to desist, he continued to fly. He got lost in a storm over France in 1919, and almost perished. He had a serious crash in Buc aerodrome in France, when the plane’s skis hit the edge of a concealed road at the end of the runway, and the machine did a somersault – like a shot rabbit, he said – and he found himself hanging upside down in his harness. The following month he had an even worse crash at Croydon – smashing into the ground so hard that the propeller was buried, his co-pilot knocked out.

You read these accounts of disaster and you wonder what was going on in his head, that made him continue with something so obviously risky. Why did he push it? Why, when he served in the trenches in the First War, did he go out into No Man’s Land not once but 36 times, going so close as to be able to hear the Germans talking? Yes, he wanted to be thought brave, and yes, to some extent he was a self-invented person. But in the end the man he created was the real Churchill.

He dared to say things that no one would dare say today, and to behave in ways that would terrify the milquetoast politicians of the 21st century. When Bessie Braddock, the Socialist MP, told him he was drunk, he really did retort that she was ugly, but he would be sober in the morning. On being told that the Lord Privy Seal was waiting to see him, it seems that he really did growl out – from his position on the lavatory – that he was sealed in the privy and could only deal with one shit at a time. During one of his many infuriating conversations with Gen de Gaulle, in the depths of the war, he really does appear to have used his superb and menacing franglais: “Et marquez mes mots, mon ami, si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai.”

He imposed his own exuberant and uninhibited style on events. Who else could have wandered naked round the White House, or appeared before the US press corps wearing a bizarre purple romper suit of his own design, tailored by Turnbull and Asser? He truly did begin the day with champagne, or a glass of whisky and water, and then go on all day to consume quantities of booze that would have felled a bullock. He could have a three course dinner accompanied by champagne, white wine, red wine and brandy – and then go into his office at 10 pm, and start dictating vast periods of prose, much of it brilliant and original.

He didn’t just pose with cigars, or wave them around for Freudian effect. He smoked with a gusto that would today be unforgiveable – perhaps 250,000 in his lifetime, mainly Romeo y Julietas. The stubs were collected and given to the gardener at Chartwell (the poor chap died of cancer).

He seemed to be running, in other words, on a type of high-octane hydrocarbon that was available to no one else; and it was this energy, combined with his boldness, that produced his astonishing political fertility.

Our children are taught roughly what he did in the Second World War – but we have been in danger of forgetting his crucial role in helping to win the First. It is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the fathers of the tank – whose battlefield breakthroughs were eventually of critical importance; and it was his sedulous preparation of the Fleet, as First Lord of the Admiralty – not least the historic geo-strategic decision to convert the dreadnoughts from coal to oil – that meant England never lost control of the Channel.

His legacy is everywhere in the modern world. He helped to found the modern welfare state, pioneering unemployment insurance and other social protections in the years before the First World War. He was instrumental in the creation of modern Ireland, of Israel, of the map of much of the Middle East. He was one of the very first, in the Thirties, to adumbrate the idea of a “United States of Europe” – though he was ultimately ambiguous about exactly what role Britain should play.

It is Churchill’s shaping mind that still dominates our thinking about the world role of Britain – at the centre of three interconnecting circles: the Atlantic alliance, the relationship with Europe, and the relationship with the former Empire and Commonwealth.

Yes, of course he made catastrophic mistakes. He cannot be entirely exculpated for Gallipoli; he misread the public mood over the Abdication; it is hard to read some of his remarks about Indian independence without a shudder of embarrassment. But in these very disasters we see his boldness and determination to stick with the course he had embarked on, even if everyone was saying he was wrong.

And it was precisely that stubbornness and that bravery which was required in 1940. Think yourself into that smoke-filled room in May, that fateful meeting of the seven-strong War Cabinet. France had fallen; Europe had been engulfed by the Nazis; the Russians had done a nauseating deal with Hitler; the Americans were standing on the sidelines. Britain was alone, and the pressure to do a deal was overwhelming. The City wanted it; much of the media wanted it; Halifax wanted it; Chamberlain wanted it; Labour would have gone along.

It was Churchill and Churchill alone who was decisive in ensuring that Britain continued to fight. It was Churchill who was crucial to bringing America in – more than two years later. If Churchill had not been Prime Minister in 1940, there seems little doubt that Britain would have made an accommodation with evil – letting Hitler have his way and plunging Europe into darkness and barbarism. No one else round that table had the guts to do what he did; and it is to him, therefore, that the world owes thanks for the eventual victory over Nazism, and the 70 years of peace that have followed.

The more you study Churchill, the more I hope you will share my conviction that there has been no one remotely like him before or since.

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Britain’s hidden heroes

November 5th, 2014

Commissioned as a second lieutenant into the 6th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, he was awarded the Military Cross in 1940 for rescuing three men, including one who was seriously wounded, from a burning house during the retreat to Dunkirk. He was then tasked with holding a bridge over the Canal des Moëres at Téteghem, which he did for three days before taking one of the last boats – a paddle steamer called the Medway Queen – back to Britain.

Garland then volunteered for service with the newly formed No?11 (Scottish) Commando, members of which would later join the fledgling SAS. After rigorous training in the Scottish Highlands, he flew with the rest of his unit to Palestine to take part in the invasion of Vichy-controlled Syria and Lebanon. The plan was for the commandos to carry out an amphibious assault landing on an enemy position on the Litani River.

Garland distinguished himself in this famous operation by drawing the fire of a sniper who was picking off Allied soldiers. He deliberately revealed himself to ascertain the sniper’s position, then manned a Bren gun, shot him dead, climbed into a boat and became the first man to cross the river – a display of bravery that earned him a bar to his Military Cross.

Land, sea and air: Lt. Eric Garland (Photo: Christopher Cox)

After this, not content with his efforts on land, Garland applied to the RAF to become a fighter pilot and, in March 1942, was posted for pilot training in Southern Rhodesia. He carried out numerous sorties over the Western Desert and was promoted to flight lieutenant in November 1943, before moving to Italy to fly Spitfires.

Shot down behind enemy lines in May 1944, he was taken prisoner. For lesser men, being a prisoner of war would have been a respectable end to their part in the conflict, but Garland – despite splintering his shinbone and receiving burns to his hands and face when his fighter plane caught fire – simply saw it as a new challenge. In a letter to his parents in August 1944, he explained: “I was taken prisoner immediately on reaching the ground and spent seven weeks in hospital at Mantova. I made three unsuccessful attempts to escape from there, but finally managed to escape from the hospital train to Germany on June 17 by jumping out of the window at night.”

Garland evaded capture, fought alongside the Italian partisans and eventually secretly returned to Allied lines in January 1945. Finally, more than a year after the war ended, he was awarded his third and final decoration, an MBE.

Bill Pickering

Bill Pickering, who is still alive, still married and goes to the gym every day at the age of 91, was a Special Operations Executive (SOE) wireless operator who, after being parachuted into northern Italy in February 1945, spent almost three months fighting with the partisans towards the end of the Second World War.

Bill Pickering, a Special Operations Executive (SOE) wireless operator during WWII. (Photo: Lord Ashcroft)

Despite the death of two officers who were with him, he took part in an epic episode of clandestine warfare. In his memoir, The Bandits of Cisterna, Pickering describes in vivid detail an ambush by an estimated 60 German soldiers on one of his team’s hideouts.

“[Capt John] Keany said: ‘Don’t be silly, Bill. They couldn’t creep up a hill like this without us seeing or hearing them.’ To the best of my recollection, those were Keany’s last words. I had been standing by his side as we spoke, with my radio transmitter in a pack on my back and my Marlin slung over my shoulder. For no reason I could ever explain, I suddenly felt frightened, vulnerable and exposed. I moved two or three paces away from Keany’s left side. As I did so the German submachine-guns opened up. I flung myself to the ground and saw Keany’s chest neatly stitched with a row of bullets.

“Four other partisans had been cut down by the initial burst from another submachine-gun to our right. The rest of us hurled ourselves full length on to our stomachs as the bullets whistled inches overhead.

“Everything that happened next did so without any conscious pause for thought or consideration. First, I loosed off several rounds from my Marlin in the general direction of the enemy guns. The Calabrian, Tony and another partisan named Gino on my left followed my example. Then I motioned for the Calabrian to fire a burst while I scampered round on my hands and knees to get behind him. I fired a burst and he crawled at top speed to the other side of Tony. Then the Calabrian gave covering fire while Tony dashed to the far side of Gino.

“In this way, by keeping the Germans’ heads down and running like hell, we retreated off the hill. Whether it was our fear or our geographical advantage that benefited us most was hard to tell, but as we escaped from the immediate danger, we ran into more trouble from an attack on our left flank. Germans with submachine-guns were hiding behind trees as we ran down the slope. They were 200 yards away but well within firing range.

“For a few agonising moments we were pinned down. We knew it was impossible to stay flat on our faces behind what little cover was available. In a few more seconds, the Germans ahead of us would have reached the top of the ridge.

“In the cowboy movies I had watched as a child, this was the time when the 7th Cavalry arrived on the scene with bugles blaring and sabres flashing.

“On this occasion it was Renato who came to the rescue without any fanfare of trumpets, just his usual calm efficiency. He and his men had got across to the shelter of some trees on our hill a minute or two before us, running at full pelt as soon as the first shots were fired. They were now our saviours as they poured a hail of withering fire into the trees where the Germans were hiding…”

Pickering took part in a lot more action, until April 1945, when Allied forces finally reached Turin. He was awarded the Military Medal for “outstanding qualities of courage, determination and resourcefulness”.

Graham Watts

Graham Watts, a former member of the secret 14 Intelligence Company. (Photo: Christopher Cox)

Graham Watts is a pseudonym requested by the individual concerned because of his crucial role in what was almost certainly the most successful surveillance coup during the whole period of “the Troubles”. Watts, who worked for a secretive Army unit called 14 Intelligence Company, was at the heart of an undercover operation that all but wiped out the Provisional IRA command structure in Belfast at the time through the arrest of 17 of its leading members.

Among those seized were the entire hierarchy of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade and arguably the three most wanted men in the city at the time: Gerry Adams (officer commanding), Brendan Hughes (operations officer) and Tom Cahill (finance officer).

Watts’s award was the first DCM to any member of the Special Forces in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year, the undercover operative gave me an astonishing account of the surveillance operation he staged:

“By mid-1973 we were building up the first comprehensive picture of the IRA. But there were still huge gaps in our picture; we had photographs of many suspects but we didn’t know their names. And we had many names, but no photographs to put them to. And there were others who were no more than rumours – no picture, no name.

“When we identified a ‘player’, or even if we just had a name or photo, we gave him a code; C3, B2, D1, etc. The white-haired, stooping old man I was watching this day on the Falls Road was C5.

“He was on foot and I was sitting in my car, a grey Triumph Dolomite, from where I could see him amble up the road in front of the red-bricked terraced housing. The road was wide and busy, I knew I didn’t stick out and was confident that C5 wouldn’t get too close to me. He let himself into a house through a poorly maintained front door.

“It looked promising. Even if we identified some more players, put a couple more pieces in our picture, it would be a success. However, what we all hoped for was a major bust, lifting some of the IRA’s top men.

“The man we really wanted, who was on the top of our list, was just known as A1. We had no other details, but it was believed he was dangerous, ruthless, the heartbeat of the Provisionals. Apparently, no act of terror from the IRA in Belfast went ahead without his express say-so. For a while nothing happened at the house and I reported [via radio] the lack of movement back to my boss, Harry. Then another character arrived. He walked past the house, then walked back again, then past the house again. I could tell something was up, he was checking out the locality before knocking on the door. I sensed an IRA brigade meeting was going ahead. Sure enough, the man returned quickly to the house, knocked on the door and went in.

“Then it happened again, another dodgy-looking, steely faced man walked towards the house. He was tall, thin, bearded and bespectacled, and he certainly wasn’t out for a summer stroll. He followed the same routine as the first visitor.

“I sent the commentary to Harry [over the radio]. Then another suspicious-behaving character arrived and followed the same routine as the first two. I was certain I had a brigade meeting on my hands. It was quite probable that the length of people’s lives was being determined inside the house. They could be drawing up a hit list, arguing about whom to kill, where to plant the bomb and whether to warn the authorities about it.

“Whatever was going on I knew these were ‘players’ we had to lift. When I felt that all who were going to turn up had arrived, I advised Harry to get the regular Army in and let the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] in on it.

“My adrenalin began to flow as I waited for the raid. But then a man started walking across the road towards me. I’d been clocked by a lookout.

“The man rolling towards me was squat and youngish, a new recruit I guessed. He wore dirty blue jeans and a crinkled shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I didn’t think he was carrying [a gun], but I checked my weapon again. When he got to me, he announced that he was from the ‘Civil Defence Community’ – a synonym for Provisional IRA.

“‘I don’t want anything to do with your f—ing Irish s—,’ I bellowed at him. There was no point in trying to put on an accent to disguise my West Country roots; if he had only half a brain, he would have seen through it.

“‘My boss is doing some business around the corner, I’m waiting for him,’ I explained.

“‘What f—ing business?’ the lookout screamed in my face.

“‘F—ing insurance,’ I returned, with equal volume. ‘I don’t give a s — about your Irish s—, I don’t f—ing want to be here.

“‘F—ing watch it,’ he warned, before storming off. My cover was shot to pieces and I fully expected the lookout to dash to the house and inform those inside of my presence. But, remarkably, he seemed to buy my lie and then wandered off. I assumed he was still watching me, to see what I did.

“Then, within 30 seconds, I saw Bill, one of my team, dressed in shirt, tie and carrying a briefcase, walking towards the passenger door. An insurance salesman. Nice one, Harry.

“Bill opened the door and got in. I drove off quickly.

“‘You’ve got to drop me off and get to the safe house at the edge of the city. Your cover is blown.’

“‘He might have bought the lie,’ I tried.

“‘Got to assume he knows – he will after the raid, anyway.’ I grudgingly admitted what I knew was the truth and dropped off Bill before leaving for a secret address.

“I had never known frustration like it. I had done everything properly and we’d got lucky – then it all went pear-shaped, my cover was blown and I had no idea of knowing how the raid finally went. When I reached the address in a safe, Protestant area of Belfast suburbia, I sat in my car with the radio waiting for news.

“Eventually, it crackled into life. ‘Success, Graham,’ announced Harry. I could almost see his chest puffing up with pride. ‘We’ve basically lifted the IRA’s Army Council. We couldn’t have had a better result.’” Later I got a look at the terrorists from behind one-way glass at the RUC’s Springfield Road barracks.

“’That one there,’ said a Special Branch officer, ‘is Brendan Hughes. Nasty character. He’s a murderer, terrorist and IRA leader. His speciality is bombing. The next is Owen Coogan, Brigade intelligence officer [later the alleged director of operations]. Then there’s Tom Cahill, 38 years old, can’t get much higher than him in the IRA. See his face, the scars: that’s from when the Official IRA tried to assassinate him two years ago.

“‘And the bearded one is Gerry Adams, Brigade Commander. He’s been interned before, even had secret talks with the British Government about a peace prospect. We’ve been after him for over a year. He’s the biggest catch.’

“Harry and I smiled in satisfaction, then Harry said to me: ‘We knew of them all, at least by reputation. Gerry Adams is A1.’”

READ: Special Forces obituaries

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Sir Nicholas Winton: Britain’s Schindler honoured by Czech Republic

October 28th, 2014

An estimated 6,000 children around the world are descendants of ‘Nicky’s Children’.

Speaking at the ceremony, with members of his family looking on, he was typically modest about his role in history. “I thank the British people for making room for them, to accept htem, and of course the enormous help given by so many of the Czechs who at that time were doing what they could to fight the Germans and to try and get the children out,” he said.

“In that respect, I was of some help and this is the result.”

Nicholas Winton with one of the children he rescued from Czechoslovakia

President Zeman said he was ashamed that Winton had waited so long to receive the honour, but added: “Better late than never.”

Sir Nicholas’s actions came to public attention only in 1988, when he was reunited with some of those who owed him their lives on an emotional episode of the BBC programme That’s Life!

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme before the ceremony, Sir Nicholas said he was saddened by the state of the world today.

“We have made a mess of it,” he said. “I don’t think we ever learn from our mistakes of the past. I don’t think we have learned anything.

“The world today is in a more dangerous situation than it has ever been, and so long as we have got weapons of mass destruction nothing is safe any more.”

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Could this be Britain’s most patriotic man?

May 21st, 2014

“We will be a part of the Federal State of Europe ruled by Brussels, and we may retain Parliament but it will only be a token body of people, the laws they form are already depleting and Brussels is taking over.”

Mr Abbott started out as a Butcher’s boy before joining the RAF on his 17th birthday, the day before the Second World War was declared.

He fought the Nazi’s, surviving a torpedo attack in the Indian Ocean and typhus he caught in Egypt to carry on and battle the Soviets in East Germany during the Cold War.

Deciding upon his retirement in 1974 at the rank of Warrant Officer that 35 years’ service was not enough, Mr Abbott joined the Beefeaters, leading to his face appearing on postcards and the 1986 London Marathon runner’s medal.

He also doubled as the Queen’s bodyguard in his role as a Yeoman Guard Extraordinary serving Her Majesty at other events and palaces around London.

In his spare time he found the time to serve as a special constable for the Metropolitan Police, become an expert on historical execution techniques, and even earn a Blue Peter badge.

Mr Abbott, who has been decorated for his military service seven times, now lives in Kendal, in the Lake District where he was Mace Bearer for the Mayor of Kendal for 20 years, and says he is proud to be British.

“I’ve served the King and the Queen for 35 years and I’ve been sworn in at St James’s Palace as the Queen’s bodyguard so yes I’m patriotic,” he said.

“I’ve done so much in my life I’m not sure how I’ve fitted it all in.”

But life has also changed beyond recognition in the last 90 years, he said.

“I am not on the internet, I am not joining the Lemmings,” he said.

“Life has changed unbelievably since my days on the milk crate which had two lamps with a candle in each. Since then I have met a man who has walked on the moon. Thinking about how much it has changed terrifies me.”

But he said that there had been advances for the better, especially in the fields of medicine and transport.

His book about his life From Butcher’s Boy to Beefeater – with a foreword from General the Lord Dannatt – was released on Tuesday.

Mr Abbott, who has written 24 books, said that although he has experienced more than most he continues to live by his motto “never allow yourself to be dictated to by your birth certificate”.

“I learnt to fly a helicopter when I was 77. I walked into a place in Morecambe where they train pilots for carrying people out to oil rigs,” he said.

“They asked if I had ever flown a helicopter before and I said ‘no, but I’d been in the RAF for 35 years’ so they said ‘ok then’.

“Planes only go in one direction, they’re bloody boring. My motto is if you don’t go on accepting challenges, you’re old.”

His book also chronicles his time living in the Tower of London with his wife Shelagh, who passed away 20 years ago.

He said: “It was a good address, my wife used to go shopping to Selfridges or Harrods or whatever and they would say ‘where did you want it delivered?’

“You should have seen the shop assistant’s face when she gave them the address.

“Our apartment was against the inner wall of the tower and the walls were eight-feet thick except for an arrow slit where I used to keep my beer cold.”

He continues to be invited by Her Majesty to attend occasions in her honour attending Buckingham Palace garden parties.

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Britain’s Schindler saved my life

May 20th, 2014

One of the children evactuated, Lord Dubs, said he was in no doubt that Sir Nicholas had saved his life.

Lord Dubs said the founder of the Czech Kindertransport was “one of the most incredibly wonderful human beings of the present age. I owe my life to him, so do many others owe our lives to him.”

“I can remember some of it extremely vividly. It’s quite astonishing – people are surprised. I can still see my mother standing in Prague station. A German soldiers with a swastika nearby. Mother looking very anxious to say goodbye. All the mothers and parents looking very anxious to say goodbye to their children, in some cases for the last time,” he said.

Barbara Winton, Sir Nicholas’ daughter, said her father, who turned 105 on 19 May, “doesn’t like looking back into history.”

“People say to him ‘you’ve done a wonderful thing, you’re a hero. What you did was fantastic, you’re a superman. And he says no, I was an ordinary human being. I understood what was going on in the world, and I acted in an ethical way based on my knowledge and my compassion,’” she said.

To honour Sir Nicholas’ achievement, the government of the Czech Republic has informed him he is to be bestowed with the Order of the White Lion, its highest state honour.

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