Stories of UK’s disappearing World War II generation
LONDON (AP) — The death of Queen Elizabeth II is a reminder that the World War II generation is aging. Like the queen, even the youngest veterans of the war are now nearing their 100th birthdays, and a steady stream of obituaries tells the story of a disappearing generation.
Here are the stories of a few veterans who died this year.
Aug. 10, 1920- Feb. 19, 2022
Henriette Hanotte began her wartime career ferrying Allied airmen to safety almost by accident.
On May 23, 1940, as British forces retreated toward Dunkirk, two soldiers asked her parents for help crossing the Belgian frontier as they tried to make their way back to England. Hanotte, then 20, volunteered to take them to the French city of Lille, some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) away.
That chance encounter brought her to the attention of British operatives who later asked her to join a network of resistance fighters guiding downed Allied airmen across Belgium, France and Spain to safety in Gibraltar.
Hanotte was especially valuable to the operation, known as the Comet Line, because she grew up traveling between her home in Rumes, on the Belgian side of the border, and the nearby French town of Bachy, where she took music lessons. This gave her an intimate knowledge of the border and helped her guide her “packages” to safety.
“She knew the border like the back of her hand, the patrol schedule, customs officers, the little roads, the barking of dogs, the habits of the neighborhood,” according to a brochure about her exploits published by Rumes and Bachy.
Known by the code name Monique, she is believed to have helped 135 airmen to safety before she was forced to flee to England to avoid capture by the Gestapo. There she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service and trained as a secret operative but was prevented from returning to Europe when she broke her leg in parachute training.
“I was trying to protect my family, and they were trying to protect me,” Hanotte told the Times of London last year on her 100th birthday. “It was our natural instinct to help.”
FLIGHT LT. DOUGLAS NEWHAM:
Nov. 13, 1921-March 14, 2022
Douglas Newham survived 60 bombing raids as a Royal Air Force navigator from 1942 to 1945, but he was haunted for the rest of his long life by those who didn’t return.
Some 55,573 of the men who flew with Bomber Command during World War II — 44% of its air crews — were killed in action, the highest attrition rate of any Allied unit.
For Newham that meant losing his friends in groups of seven, the standard crew complement of the Halifax bombers he flew during the later stages of the war.
“In my darker moments now, I still remember coming back dead tired from perhaps a 10-hour trip … and maybe one or two aircraft were still missing and you’d hope that maybe they’d landed somewhere for fuel, or they’d got battle damage and they’d be along later,” he told the BBC in 2020. “And, of course, then they wouldn’t come.”
When the war began, Newham was a teenage post office engineering trainee who helped install early-warning radar and repair radar stations damaged by German bombers.
In 1941, he joined the RAF. During his first combat tour, Newham dropped mines into U-boat lanes and flew bombing raids over occupied Europe before he was sent to North Africa. Returning to England, he received advance training then returned to combat duty, serving as navigation leader for multiple squadrons on some large-scale raids over Germany.
One night over the English Channel, he realized the responsibility he’d been given.
“My skipper said, `Doug, come back here … put your head up in the astro dome and have a look behind,’” Newham told the International Bomber Command Centre in 2017. “And, of course, there were 350 bloody aircraft following me. I don’t want to know!”
SAPPER HARRY BILLINGE:
Sept. 15, 1925-April 5, 2022
Harry Billinge and his comrades had a single task when they landed on Gold Beach at 6:30 a.m. on D-Day: capture the German radar station at Arromanches.
They succeeded, but only four of the 10 men in the unit survived the day.
“It was hell,” Billinge said in an interview recorded by the British Normandy Memorial Trust. “I never seen anything like it in me life. You had the ships firing over your head and you had the Germans firing from inland — 88 millimeter guns they used, which will blow you off the face of the Earth.”
Billinge was an 18-year-old army commando that day. After surviving the war, the boy from London moved to Cornwall, where he became a barber.
He rejected the idea that he was a hero, always shifting the focus to those who died on June 6, 1944.
In his later years, Billinge dedicated himself to raising funds for the British Normandy Memorial in France, even when age forced him to do so from a comfortable chair at the local market. In 2020, Queen Elizabeth II pinned a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or MBE, to Billinge’s lapel after he raised 50,000 pounds ($57,500) for the project.
“It means more to me than life itself, knowing I’m doing all I can for the memorial and my mates — 22,442 men died on that beach,” he said.
SIGNALLER FRANK BAUGH:
Nov. 26, 1923-June 20, 2022
Frank Baugh was an 18-year-old coal worker when he joined the Royal Navy in 1942. Two years later he was a crewman onboard a landing craft carrying 200 soldiers into battle on D-Day.
As the craft approached Sword beach in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, it suffered a direct hit. The soldiers were able to scramble ashore, but the landing craft was stranded for thee hours as the crew made emergency repairs under enemy fire.
“We couldn’t get off the beach,” Baugh said in a 2018 interview. “We were flooded, we weren’t seaworthy, so we were sat there in a very awkward situation. It wasn’t a place you wanted to be.”
Baugh said he and his crew mates owed their survival to two bits of luck. Advance troops had already killed the German soldiers manning a fort that guarded the beach directly in front of the landing site, and a navy destroyer laid down a smokescreen to shield Baugh’s boat from guns at the other end of the beach.
Repairs made, Baugh and his shipmates turned their boat around and headed back out to sea to pick up another load of soldiers.
He was believed to have been the last surviving British marine to see the Royal Navy’s white ensign raised over Sword Beach as allied forces advanced.
“The men and women of today’s Royal Navy treasure the bonds they have with those who served in World War II, and Frank’s remarkable longevity was testament to a life well-lived serving his country,” First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Ben Key said in a eulogy read at Baugh’s funeral.
By DANICA KIRKA