I want to tell you about an amazing gentleman I met yesterday while I was having a delicious cream tea with Nick and Philippa Gasson.
Bill Brown will be 99 later this year and has lived in the village of Harringworth in Northamptonshire for the past 26 years. Before this he was a successful director and manager of furniture factories around the UK. However, what makes Bill so special is the things he can remember (as if they’d happened only yesterday) about his experiences at the start of the Second World War.
With the likelihood of war looming on the horizon, in 1939 Bill became one of just a small number of “Militiaman”, undergoing 6 months of basic Army training. During his training, war was declared and the next group of Militiamen were not trained, as conscription took its place. But Bill was called up in January 1940, starting his war at a holiday chalet complex in Clacton-on-Sea. He recalls that it was so cold, all his bedding froze to the inside wall of the chalet and that he was grateful after only 12 days when he was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) as a 20 year old “Sapper” in the Royal Engineers.
Bill was stationed for around 4 months in Northern France before the Nazi invasion caused the retreat of British Forces to Dunkirk and the coastal ports of France. In some ways, I have misled you because Bill never went to Dunkirk; as they were approaching Dunkirk, his Squadron Commander (a Major) calculated that with the enormous numbers massing on the beaches and confusion about what might happen, the best option was to head south. So, for the next 3 weeks, 300 men then trekked all the way to the port of La Rochelle, a journey of over 400 miles. Bill still recollects that when they reached La Rochelle, the ship allocated to evacuate them on their first day could only take 150 men, so they drew lots, knowing that losing might be the difference between escape and a very uncertain future. Bill was one of the unlucky ones and had to wait another 24 hours before eventually leaving France on 19 June 1940 in a tiny coal transport ship that didn’t look likely to get then across the Bay of Biscay. But despite a lot of seasickness, they got home and Bill spent the remainder of the war serving with the Royal Engineers, mostly in the European “Theatre”.
As with so many men and women who served in the War, Bill never chased after his war medals. However, a very forceful lady in Harringworth (whose husband had been a bomber pilot in the war) took up his case and you can see me proudly displaying Bill’s medals. There are so few people now who can remember those dark days of 1940, before the Battle of Britain stopped any chance of invasion, so to meet someone who actually went through it, and can recall it so vividly is extra special. But there are lot of people with equally exciting stories from different events and periods of our history; and sharing time with them (ideally with a scone and Cornish cream!) is a great privilege.