Teesdale loses one of its last Second World War veterans
Teesdale said farewell to one of its last Second World War veterans last week when a private funeral service was held for Reg Hunter at St Mary’s Parish Church. The 98-year-old, from Barnard Castle, jointed the Durham Light Infantry under age. Several years ago he gave this unpublished interview to local historian Hazel Yeadon.
REG Hunter was born and brought up in Barnard Castle. He had four brothers and a sister. When he left school, he trained as a moulder at Downs Foundry, in Newgate.
“I volunteered with one of my brothers and said I was 18, not 17, so I would be accepted. My brother was a year and a month older than me, so I was found out when they checked our dates of birth as there was only a month between us. As a result of this I was put in an “immature battalion” and messed about doing nothing very serious for a while. My military service really began on February 11, 1941, when I joined up for seven years at the Regimental Headquarters of Durham Light Infantry at Brancepeth.
“After doing basic training I was sent abroad and left Greenock at the mouth of the Clyde on the liner Stratheden.
“We crossed to Nova Scotia, travelled down the east coast of America to the West Indies and then back across the Atlantic to Cape Town. I loved the sea and fortunately wasn’t sick. We only got off at Halifax and Cape Town. We then continued up the Red Sea to The Great Bitter Lake between the north and south parts of the Suez Canal.
“We joined the 1st Battalion of the Durhams, as they had just come out of Tobruk. We camped while the battalion was made back to full strength and occupied our time doing ‘schemes’ (exercises).
“We then went to Malta and were there during the siege. At first food wasn’t a problem and I remember having delicious bread, but then food was rationed and very scarce and we would have hard tack and a tin of bully would be shared by 16 men. Ours was a signal platoon and I was a regimental signaller. The battalion’s job was to go to aerodromes and fill bomb craters. We also built sangars. We all lost a lot of weight and a few men were picked out and weighed weekly to see how much they were losing. We weren’t allowed to go into shelters during raids, so as to keep up the moral of the islanders and if you were found in one you were “put inside”. Thinking back to my time in Malta I remember riding bikes, playing cards in a cemetery and meeting a nun who came from Barnard Castle in the grounds of the governor’s palace in Rabat.
“Her name was Wiseman and she was related to the dentist in Galgate. I was there for a year and then I volunteered to join the Commandos. I took part in one raid, but it was “nothing special”. We were not allowed to retaliate when bombed, as we couldn’t spare the ammunition.
“I was moved to the Middle East, stopping at a remote railway junction at a place called Ammeria and were served ‘Ammeria soup’ by a New Zealander with a monkey on his shoulder.
“We were making the battalion up to strength again, doing schemes and getting fit in the Sinai desert. Then we were in the Dodecanese islands and I flew down to Kos by Dakota. A lot was happening there.
“Churchill’s pet thing was to attack Germany through Italy, ‘the soft underbelly of Europe’, rather than directly through France. There were battalions on two other islands, but there was no air support. I was on patrol one night with a Captain Sievewright from Hartlepool.
“We were in jeeps looking out on a sandy beach when German invasion craft came in. We backed up as we weren’t able to do anything but his jeep was attacked and he was killed. We were bombed all day and pushed back into the town and the battalion was decimated.
“A man ran from headquarters and said: ‘Everyman for himself’. We knew Turkey was a stone’s throw away and we saw an RAF rescue launch being repaired in the harbour. We got on hoping it would get going, but half-way out of the harbour it broke down again. It eventually got us to a town in Turkey. The Turks wouldn’t inter us so 20 of us got fixed up with a kayak, which had a Turkish captain who was wearing a red bandanna and looked like a pirate.
“We were given black bread, goats’ cheese, raisins, figs and dates to eat. Rhodes was a major German military and aerial base, so we sailed down the Turkish coast at night and hid during the day. It took a week before we got to where we were picked up and taken to Syria. It was interesting seeing places like Syria and Palestine.
“Again the battalion was made up to full strength and we went to Italy where we were front line fighting our way up to Trieste. I was still a signaller, a corporal now, with two blokes below me. We were in Northern Italy at the end of the war and we all got drunk and the officers just let us get on with it.
“I got leave for a month in England, having served abroad for two-and-a-half years. This was known as LIAP – leave in advance of python.
“Python was the code name for going home for good and when I received this later I came back in a Lancaster bomber from Naples, which was beautiful.
When I returned from leave I was at Sappers Corner at Hartlepool, before being sent to Germany to join the 9th Battalion, where I was a sergeant and platoon commander looking after civilians. My military career ended when I was serving with the 6th Battalion at Bishop Auckland and also at Farnborough Light Infantry Training Centre where I did some physical instructing.”
After leaving the army, Reg worked as a signaller for the railways, and then Glaxo for 25 years. He married Dorothy and they had a son, Geoffrey and two grand-daughters. Having played football for Barnard Castle, he had a love of the sport, supporting Sunderland and also cricket and golf. Reg Hunter died peacefully at home on January 7. His wife passed away in November 2018. They had been married for 68 years.