IT took decades for Darlington war veteran Fred Willans to open up about his wartime experiences, but when he did, a remarkable story of bravery, determination and heroism emerged.

Fred was just 17-years-old when his appetite for adventure led to him joining the British Army.

The Northern Echo: Fred during his time with the ArmyFred during his time with the Army

Three-years-later, the Second World War broke out and Fred was posted to Europe, Asia and Africa to fight for his country.

He endured unimaginable hardship, which included being evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk and later being captured in North Africa and interred in a prisoner of war camp in Northern Italy.

The Northern Echo: Fred WillansFred Willans

Remarkably, Fred managed to escape and walked all the way to Southern Italy, surviving by scavenging from farms and receiving covert handouts from the Italian people.

Once Italy was under Allied control, he was repatriated back to the UK, first living near the Croft airfield and then in Darlington.

In the 1960s He settled on Yiewsley Drive with his childhood sweetheart Kathleen – whom he had married during a brief spell of home leave in April 1941 – and after trying several jobs he became a postman.

After retiring from the Post Office at 60, he went on to work as a porter at Darlington Memorial Hospital for around a decade.

It is testament to his kind nature that whilst working as a porter he did not like the unsentimental way bodies were wheeled to the morgue, so when carrying out that task, he took along a cross and said a prayer for the person in his charge.

The Northern Echo: Fred Willans pictured in later years when he took up running and right, during his time with the ArmyFred Willans pictured in later years when he took up running and right, during his time with the Army

In his sixties Fred became a keen runner, completing the London Marathon twice and several Great North Runs – the last of which he conquered at the age of 74.

Fred lived independently in his Yiewsley Drive home – in his last two decades being cared for by his sister-in law Audrey – right up until the last three weeks before his death last Thursday when he was taken into care.

Fred died aged 100-years-old and sadly coronavirus social distancing measures mean he will not get the funeral his family had hoped for.

The Northern Echo: Fred Willans has died aged 100 and leaves behind a remarkable story or wartime heroismFred Willans has died aged 100 and leaves behind a remarkable story or wartime heroism

Ten of his relatives will be able to attend the ceremony at Darlington Crematorium on Monday afternoon, but it is hoped that residents will safely turn out to pay their respects to him as the cortege passes their homes.

Fred's nephew, Trevor, said that it would be a 'lovely' tribute to his uncle whom he described as a fun-loving man with a keen sense of humour.

"He was very happy," said Trevor. "He was always smiling and was very friendly.

"He would make friends very easily, going around in lots of different social circles and always having a laugh and joke.

"He kept his sense of humour right up to the very end, flirting with the nurses at the Memorial Hospital!"

Trevor said it was only as he entered old age that Fred opened up about his wartime experiences.

He said: "He never spoke about the war for years, it was only when my older brother got married, Fred would have been about 60, he spilled it out sat across a table sharing a bottle of whiskey.

"My dad (Bill) had never heard anything of it before, it was quite moving.

"He then started to talk more about it and my dad sat down with him and started to record what he said."

Bill helped to compile Fred's wartime memoirs into a booklet called "For you Tommy, the war is over" and they will be the focus of Chris Lloyd's Memories feature in Saturday's Northern Echo.

And the Echo is supporting Fred's family in their appeal for residents to wave a flag for this remarkable man as he travels on his final journey on Monday afternoon.