A DUNKIRK veteran who escaped an Italian prisoner of war camp has celebrated his 100th birthday.

Fredrick Willans, born in Darlington on August 12, 1919, has many stories to tell from his time in as a soldier in the Second World War.

He joined the 50th Northumbrian motorised division based in Darlington in 1937 aged 17 – the start of a journey that would take him to many places and life and death situations.

The division was mobilised as soon as war was declared in September 1939. Mr Willans trained in Oxfordshire and his division was soon sent to help those on the continent.

Taking part in the Battle of Belgium and the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, he was on the last boat out of the coastal city with his machine gun and was told: “If anything from the land or sea or air starts shooting fire back – because it’s not ours.”

When back in the UK he was put on a train back to Darlington for a few weeks leave.

Mr Willans was then sent to Egypt, to fight in both Cyprus and Iraq as well as taking part in the North Africa campaign.

The Northern Echo:

He became a prisoner of war after his truck was hit by artillery in Africa. The captive was taken to Benghazi by the Germans and then onto a POW camp in Arezzo Italy where he was made to do labour.

While at the camp, he got food rations and was labouring in the sun all day.

“I think that is the fittest I’ve ever felt,” said Mr Willans.

After Benito Mussolini fell from power in Italy, Mr Willans feared he would be taken to Germany, so he and a few prisoners made their escape.

Fearing recapture the group made their way to Southern Italy at night, but after nearly falling down a 50ft drop they decided to risk travelling by day, finally rejoining the allies. He returned to Britain in 1943.

He said the saddest sight of the war was “the horrific wounds to the farm animals before the Dunkirk evacuation”.

After the war he became a postman and retired 40 years ago, only to become a hospital porter.

Mr Willans is the last of five children – Bill Julia, Edie, Stan and himself – all born in Darlington.

He has kept himself active in his later years with his running – managing to run the 26 mile long London Marathon twice and representing Mowden over 60s in the late 1980s. He also completed the Great North Run on several occasions and did not give up on running until his mid 80s.

Mr Willans has received a card from the Queen to mark his 100th birthday, His family said he had been "really looking forward" to reaching the milestone

To mark his birthday Mr Williams spent the evening surrounded by his family, who had made a cake for the special occasion.