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Donington to remember its Arnhem fallen on Sunday

Donington will remember Arnhem veterans this weekend with a parade and church service.

In 1944 the village was home for nine months to the 1st Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers.

Two of their number survive to this day, Chelsea pensioner John Humphreys (97) and Tom Hicks (100), a centenarian now living in Barnsley.

John Humphreys. Photo: Copyright Royal Hospital Chelsea 2019 (17428250)
John Humphreys. Photo: Copyright Royal Hospital Chelsea 2019 (17428250)

Tom joined this year’s 75th anniversary commemorations in Arnhem. Fifteen years ago the veteran made national headlines when he parachuted aged 85 into The Netherlands for the 60th anniversary.

John Humphreys’ remarkable wartime story is told on the Royal Hospital Chelsea website (www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk) and reveals he escaped not once but twice from prisoner of war camps.

His second escape came after being taken prisoner at Arnhem and John engineered the flight to freedom via the cookhouse after using his army knife to remove cement from a window that had five bars in it.

John Humphreys and his fellow escapers
John Humphreys and his fellow escapers

John covered his handiwork withpaste made from ash and water, and waited for the right moment to escape with two officers and two soldiers.

The men walked through the night until they were close to the Rhine.

When darkness fell once more, the men found a rowboat.

Speaking to The Royal Hospital Chelsea, John said: “We spent at least 12 hours in the boat and finished up in Neinhagen.

“The British forces were there and so we were home and dry again.”

Earlier John describes four days of intense fighting for the Rhine bridge.

He says: “The battle raged from Sunday evening until Wednesday. By the end we had no ammo and had to surrender. We were sat outside in the ruins and the school was on fire.”

John and his mates tried to evade capture, ending up in a tram depot that turned out to be full of German soldiers.

The veteran continues: “We all ended up hiding under a tram. A soldier came over and said in perfect English: ‘If you don’t come out, I will blow you out.’ So we crawled out.”

Donington was a bustling, lively place when the soldiers were there but the village fell quiet on the day they left for Arnhem.

At least two people who remember the soldiers - and those wartime days - are attending Sunday’s commemorations.

Former Donington resident Bun Smith (93) was in The Land Army and stationed in Swineshead.

Tom Gilks (82) remembers as a small boy marching beside the soldiers with a stick over his shoulder.Ten years later he was in the same unit and became a veteran of Suez and Cyprus.

Bun told us: “The Land Army girls only ever saw the soldiers when we went to the dances at the Dial Hall.

“I wasn’t one that had a boyfriend in the soldiers because I had a boyfriend on the farm where I worked.”

She describes the soldiers as “lovely, lovely boys” and well remembers the moment that her then foreman, Benny Cox, broke the news of their departure.

Bun told us: “He said ‘I don’t know what’s happened up the village, it’s like death. There’s nobody about’.”

Bun explained: “They couldn’t tell anybody they were going because it was a secret - they just literally vanished from our village.”

Not until much later did Donington learn of The Battle of Arnhem and the part played by the soldiers who had lived in their midst.

One of Tom’s sad duties at the annual service is to read out the names of the fallen. Of the 150 soldiers in the village, some 24 died and 80 were captured.

Tom says: “The squadron were decimated at Arnhem.”

Sunday’s remembrance will see the parade form up in Market Place at 10am and march to the church of St Mary and the Holy Rood for a 10.30am service.

The service continues outside where the congregation pay respects at the memorial beneath the Arnhem oak, which grew from a sapling brought back from the battlefield.

Afterwards wartime diaries, photographs and other Arnhem memorabilia will be on display in the church hall.

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