El Alamein, Dresden and a chilly warfare spy: the unbelievable lifetime of Victor Gregg | Second world warfare

I first met Victor Gregg on a freezing afternoon in 2009 after we have been to speak about his experiences within the second world warfare.

He was 90 and had despatched me an e-mail saying he would choose me up at Winchester station. Once I arrived there was no signal of him. After 10 minutes a automotive parked up the highway flashed its lights. It was Vic practising a routine he had realized greater than 50 years earlier within the Western Desert, when Rifleman Gregg was assigned to Vladimir Peniakoff, the founding father of “Popski’s Non-public Military”, a unit of British particular forces. Vic’s job was to drive hundreds of miles, alone, by the dunes, carrying shops and intelligence to Popski’s contacts. Vic stated Popski had advised him: “Earlier than you go in, suss out how you’ll get out.” This was a life lesson for Vic, I had simply been “sussed out” by him earlier than going additional.

That assembly led to a friendship that lasted for the remainder of Vic’s life, he died final Monday aged 101, three days wanting his 102nd birthday. Collectively, we co-wrote his three-volume memoir: Rifleman: A Entrance-Line Life, King’s Cross Child and Soldier, Spy plus an eBook, Dresden: A Survivor’s Story.

Vic and his brother and sister have been introduced up by their mom in a two-room slum in King’s Cross. He left faculty at 14 and spent the following 4 years kicking spherical Soho. He joined a boxing membership, fashioned a jazz band and obtained himself recruited as a grease monkey at Brooklands race monitor. He liked pace and was a quick, skilful driver proper up till his 99th birthday. Vic ran errands for Soho gangs, stored look ahead to the “working women”, warning them when the police have been about to raid and in addition obtained into violent fights with Mosley’s blackshirts, thriving on hazard and adrenaline.

On his 18th birthday, broke and questioning what to do, Vic was approached by a Rifle Brigade recruiting sergeant. The following day he was on the regiment’s headquarters in Winchester, a rifleman. Within the second world warfare, Vic was despatched to the Western Desert. After his time with Popski he was transferred to the Lengthy Vary Desert Group, driving wounded troopers lots of of miles. Travelling alone in a beat-up outdated Bedford truck he had an uncanny knack for understanding the place he was. He advised me: “It was easy, you’ve obtained the Mediterranean to the north, the solar within the south and, at evening, the Southern Cross overhead. How are you going to go fallacious?”

The destroyed historic centre of Dresden, after the allied forces bombing of 13/14 February 1945. {Photograph}: HANDOUT/AFP by way of Getty Photographs

Returning to his regiment in time for the assault at El Alamein, he noticed a truck pushed by his shut buddy Franky Batt blown up on a mine. Vic pulled open the lorry door and Franky’s higher physique fell onto the desert, torn in half by the blast. For the following three days, Vic needed to be bodily prevented from commandeering a Bren gun provider to assault the Germans and avenge his buddy.

After El Alamein, Vic transferred to the Parachute Regiment and was dropped into Arnhem. He fought for 10 days till he was captured. He may by no means perceive how he survived. He was a machine gunner and each different man assigned to the weapon was killed. “Twelve of them, Rick, I’ve obtained extra lives than a cat.” As a prisoner of warfare, Vic sabotaged a cleaning soap manufacturing facility and for this “crime in opposition to the Reich” was condemned to dying. He was taken to Dresden and held in an enormous makeshift jail with 500 different doomed males. That evening the allies bombed the town. A 1,000lb bomb blew in one of many partitions and a shocked Vic stumbled into the hell of the firestorm.

He was within the metropolis for over every week. Throughout the raid, he noticed ladies, males and youngsters attempting to flee the flames in enormous water tanks arrange by the hearth brigade and boiling to dying; he noticed others burning in molten tarmac and but others sucked into the air with their heads on fireplace, their our bodies exploding within the warmth. Vic advised me that he was used to killing, had held males in his arms as he pushed his bayonet into their stomachs, smelling their breath and staring into their dying eyes. “Nothing Rick, nothing, had ready me for what I noticed in that raid. It was a warfare crime,” he stated.

He by no means obtained over Dresden and the trauma destroyed his first marriage. Fortunately, his second marriage to Bett was lengthy and joyful. Vic got here to hate warfare and knew it was typically vital however was by no means the answer.

After the warfare Vic drove for the Moscow Narodny Financial institution. He chauffeured what he realised have been Russian brokers, together with some who have been British. He was picked up by British intelligence and was quickly working as a double agent. He liked motorbikes and travelled behind the iron curtain to rallies, typically carrying secret paperwork hidden in his leathers and risking his life, feeding his want for hazard and adrenaline.

When he was 70, he was invited because the visitor of honour by the Hungarian Democratic Discussion board to make the primary minimize within the barbed wire fencing separating the east from the west, the start of the top of the Berlin wall, which fell 4 months later

Working with Vic has been an journey. He taught me two classes: Popski’s “By no means get into one thing if you happen to don’t understand how you’ll get out,” and the lesson Vic had realized within the military: “Rick, when issues are going fallacious, put the kettle on and have a brew. It’ll all come out within the wash.” Maybe the most effective lesson of all.

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