Page last updated at 09:48 GMT, Tuesday, 1 September 2009 10:48 UK

War veterans reflect on time in battle

By Ray Furlong
BBC reporter, Radio 4's The World At One

As commemorations take place to mark 70 years since the start of World War II, three men who saw action in the conflict come together to share their memories.

They still have that unmistakable bearing of military men, and even well into their eighties they proudly wear crisp blazers and service ties.

Between them, they had fought in every theatre: from the Arctic Ocean to Dunkirk, from the Western desert to the jungles of Burma.

These are their stories.

Alec Alexander

As a gunner on HMS Sheffield, Alec took part in the sinking of the pocket-battleship Scharnhorst, on Boxing Day 1943, in the Arctic Ocean.

Alex Alexander
Gunner Alec Alexander remembers Churchill being booed

"In the gun turret it ices up like a fridge, and you're stuck there. It's hell but you've just got to keep going," says Alec.

And as the battle raged, he scored a hit.

"We hit a German destroyer. Its whole superstructure was blown away. Then the Scharnhorst turned on us: a full broadside from 11-inch guns. But she didn't hit us. If she had, I wouldn't be here now.

"At that moment I felt fear. I was no hero."

But on one occasion he did come close to death, when the Tirpitz landed a hit on the HMS Sheffield.

"All of a sudden there was an almighty bang and a shudder, and our turret shook. I opened the door of the turret and had a look outside. You could have got two buses in the hole in the bows of the ship."

Churchill booed

Alec claims the hit on the Sheffield was covered up by the Admiralty - along with a mutiny at Scapa Flow.

"The captain was a death-or-glory type, he had no feeling for the men. One man hanged himself in the cable locker. Eventually we downed tools and refused to work.

"The guns of the other British ships were turned on us. When Churchill came on board he was booed."

Alec is also angry about the conditions faced by those serving in Afghanistan.

"These politicians should go out there and see it. The soldiers haven't got the right equipment. It's all wrong."

George Hillman

"Because I was in the Territorials I joined up straight away and was sent to France, and then evacuated from Dunkirk.

George Hillman
George Hillman was evacuated from Dunkirk twice

"For three weeks, we were constantly on the move. The roads were thronged with British soldiers, French soldiers, and refugees, being dive-bombed, and soon we came to some sand dunes and thousands of soldiers were being ferried offshore.

"But there were never enough small boats… you had to keep wading out to try to get on them, and then wading back in again."

After a few days of this, George was picked up and ferried to a destroyer off-shore.

But before it could return, it was hit by a shell - and he found himself back in Dunkirk.

"I was on a jetty, and small motor launches were coming in. Luckily, I managed to get on one.

"So I was evacuated twice! The journey back to England was terrible. I hadn't eaten for two days, and I was sick but had nothing to bring up."

After eight hours, George was welcomed back to England with a cup of tea on the shore in Ramsgate.

Happy ending

Later, he served in North Africa and Italy, also taking part in the battle of Monte Cassino, where he came under fire from German Nebelwerfer mortars.

"It was terrible for two reasons. First, we had these mortar bombs coming down on us. The other thing is they came down with a screaming sound - and there were machine gun bullets coming through too."

George's story though has a happy ending. He met his future wife, Clara, in Italy.

"After the war I took her back to England. Everyone called her Clara from Ferrara!"

George feels the sacrifices he and his comrades made are still appreciated by the public. But he is worried about the conflict in Afghanistan.

"I don't think the cause is just and I don't think we should be in Afghanistan. But if they withdraw, what will they tell the relatives of those who have died?"

George Fagence

George Fagence was a Royal Navy commando who saw action in North Africa, Italy, India and Burma.

As he describes conditions in the jungle, he speaks slowly and deliberately in the present-tense.

George Fageance
George Fageance served as a Royal Navy commando

"The sun blazes down, anything from 120 to 140 degrees…your skin just breaks up. There's every kind of biting thing in the world - the mosquitoes are the worst - and every kind of illness.

"So you wake up in the morning and go through your drill, you take a salt tablet, and they give you a chlorine tablet for the water - which is down a well covered in green slime.

"So you go on and on until you fall over. Then they put you on a bamboo stretcher and carry you out. That's how I came out."


What happened next sends a shudder through the room.

"They put me on a boat down the river. There was an Aussie driver and a Japanese prisoner of war. And the Japanese guy was busy with a safety pin trying to dig his brains out...

"He was trying to commit hari-kiri. He was trying to dig his brains out with a pin - until I alerted the Aussie and he promptly walloped him and threw him over the side."

George says the sacrifices of the war are not appreciated any longer, and feels bitter about Britain today.

"People don't know anything about the war - just like those bloody Members of Parliament. As long as the money's coming in and they can get their hands on it, why worry about tomorrow?"

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