FRED WILLANS, who has died at the age of 100, was a great survivor. He lived to see his century and receive a birthday card from the Queen and he must be one of Darlington’s last men to have survived the whole of the Second World War.

He survived being posted as missing in northern France, he survived Dunkirk, he survived war in the desert and he survived capture – escaping from his prisoner of war camp and fleeing hundreds of miles through the Italian countryside to safety – to return to his beloved Kathleen at home.

His funeral was today, but due to current restrictions it did not have the fanfare that this great survivor deserves, although people did line the route to the crematorium and wave a flag for Fred.

In the 1990s, with the encouragement of his younger brother Bill, he wrote down his wartime memories.

It tells how he joined the 50th Northumbrian Motorised Division, at the age of just 17, in October 1937 and trained at the Larchfield Street Drill Hall as a wireless operator and driver. He was sent to northern Europe in January 1940 with the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force (BEF). These are his words…


The Germans pushed the BEF back towards Dunkirk on the French coast. Fred leapt out of his vehicle moments before it was struck by a shell.

“As we approached a farm, the sight of animals lying dead or horribly injured and twisting and shouting in pain in the surrounding fields was sickening. The shelling had mutilated the livestock and to this day I maintain that this was the most disturbing sight of the whole war for me.”


“We were among the last to arrive at Dunkirk and the beaches were swamped with troops in a seemingly disorganised mass. The chance of any evacuation seemed impossible as there were literally thousands ahead of us.

We spent the night huddled together to keep warm. We were continuously coughing from the thick black smoke blowing across the beaches from burning oil terminals and from our own vehicles which had been set on fire so as not to let the enemy get them - the smoke from those carcasses was toxic.

We were continuously dodging shelling and we thought would not survive the night.

At dawn, things began to move slowly, thousands of men swarming like flies among the dead and the wounded.

We made our way towards a small, damaged jetty close to a burning oil terminal. Some troops tried to swim out to the boats but many did not make it, drowning in their attempt.

The Northern Echo:

The hours rolled on, the shelling continued over our heads. We eventually made it onto the jetty and we were told it was every man for himself. The jetty had taken a direct hit and there were bodies of British and French soldiers strewn along it and in the water. I clambered my way and jumped down onto the front deck of a small boat, and we were off into the choppy waters of the English Channel.

I looked back to the beaches. I could see the devastation of the wreckages and bodies. Only a few men were clambering into the remaining boats and I realised I had been one of the last men off. I reflected on this while watching a dogfight in the distant sky wondering what the hell the world had come to.”


Fred landed at Ramsgate, and eventually reached Darlington for 14 days leave.

“I discovered that my family had been sent a letter from the War Office dated July 8, 1940, in which I was reported missing in action after being attacked in France. I cannot describe the joy they expressed upon my arrival home, not least from my childhood sweetheart Kathleen.”


After training in Somerset, Fred returned home for three days leave in which he married Kathleen on April 7, 1941. He returned a “loved-up soldier” and after a tour of South Africa, Egypt and Cyprus, by January 1942, he was back in north Africa, near Tobruk, at the Battle of Gazala.

The Northern Echo:

“It was a race between us and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who was leading the German offensive, as to who would attack first. Unfortunately, it was always Rommel who went first - aren’t we British polite?”


British reversals culminated in “Black Saturday” on June 13, 1942, after which they were surrounded.

“We were to form a convoy and were to drive straight at the Italian lines. Once we were mobile, it was every man for himself, stop only for casualties and ‘Drive for your life’. I noted the date: June 14, 1942.

By the time darkness fell, we were all pumped up with adrenaline and fear. We drove straight at the Italians and through their undefended lines, past their trucks, guns and light tanks. The Italian soldiers were quite hysterical, most of them panicking and running about screaming with terror. It seemed to take hours to get through and then all of a sudden we were in the clear and heading out into the open desert.”


It was a temporary escape. Fred had to hide his truck in sandy shellholes and make progress when it was safe.

“I awoke at around 6am with first light. I could see vehicles about 200 yards away. One was an open truck with a soldier sitting in the rear. Most of the trucks were wrecked but that one looked in good condition, so I walked across to see if they had any information.

The Northern Echo:

As I approached, I was sickened to find that it had taken a direct hit and that three of the soldiers were dead. The one sitting at the rear had had most of his legs blown away. He was aware of me as I spoke, but I could offer him little comfort.

I turned to vomit and saw a tracked vehicle approaching with a German cross on its side. A voice called out to me. I placed my hands on my head and a German officer said in fairly good English: “For you Tommy, the war is over”. The date was June 29, 1942.”


Fred was held in Campo Concentratomento PG 82 near Laterina in Tuscany, central Italy, for more than a year, existing a basic ‘stodge’ supplemented by Red Cross parcels and very occasional letters from home. On July 25, 1943, the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, was toppled. The Germans moved in, aided by Italian fascists.

“As our guards were still celebrating the downfall of Mussolini, at around midnight, my comrades stood on watch while I levered the bottom of a wooden door out enough to squeeze through and drop into the trench surrounding our camp. I wrenched a pin and pulled the barbed wire to one side, beckoning the others to follow.

The Northern Echo:

We climbed over the high wire mesh fence one at a time and dashed towards a nearby thicket. Once clear of the camp, we carefully made our way, walking in single file, keeping in the woods where possible, at all times below the skyline.”


For many weeks, the party went south towards Sicily, where Allied forces had landed. They lived on brambles and turnips, but also the gifts of friendly Italians, some of whom allowed them a wash and even a bed. One old farmer burned their uniforms and gave them peasants’ clothes. They didn’t know who might be betray them to the fascists, but eventually they were picked up by a resistance organisation which promised to help them through fascist lines to the Allied troops.

“At around midnight, our party of prisoners set off quietly in single file. We crouched in drainage ditches as motorised patrols passed by. We dodged at least three foot patrols and skirted around two troop units – we were getting good at this, but our nerves were in tatters, marvellous for the bowels however and many prisoners had accidents in their clothing.

As dawn approached, we huddled together in a small copse of trees. Our guide told us that we were now through the enemy lines and that the road ahead was patrolled by Allied forces. He told us to split up, wished us well and at that, he was gone.

The Northern Echo:

We took to the road and prayed that what he had told us was correct. After about half a mile, a Jeep came around a bend and stopped beside us. A soldier stood up with a machine gun pointing at us and shouted, “who the hell are you”. We recognised his uniform and accent as Canadian. It was the best feeling in the world. It took us a while to convince them who we were, but once it registered, they showered us with gum and cigarettes. We had made it back into safe hands.”


After a long, slow train journey through northern Africa, he reached Scotland by boat.

“I was afforded seven days leave during which I boarded a train home to Darlington, arriving just in time to celebrate Christmas 1943 with my family and my beloved wife Kathleen.”


As the war neared its end in 1945, he was sent into Germany.

“We were horrified and astonished at the devastation and damage caused to their towns and cities

by the bombing and artillery fire.

“Our only break was a four-day trip to Paris, and I was lucky enough to obtain tickets to the Folies Bergere show. The architecture of the building was amazing and it was the best show I have ever seen. The stage and special effects were sensational, not to mention the rather stunning naked ladies.

Afterwards, I awaited my turn for repatriation which seemed to take forever. I was sent to York where I was to receive my demob suit, and from there I was sent straight home to begin civilian life, which took a lot of getting used to.”