WAR veteran Charles Humphrey looks back at the final months of the Second World War and the joy of VE Day after he made tribute to the saviours of the nation during a historic event.
Mr Humphrey, who served as a gunner with the Royal Navy for three years and saw active service during the Second World War in Italy and Greece, was asked to speak as part of Hartlepool’s VE Day celebrations last week.
He witnessed the sinking of HMS Aldenham – which was the last Royal Navy Destroyer sunk in December 1944 – and helped to save the lives of some of his comrades.
Of those on-board the destroyer, 126 crewmen lost their lives and only 63 were rescued.
But it was just months after the tragedy before victory in the war was secured.
Charles’s efforts during the sinking of HMS Aldenham helped to save the lives of two men, and it is a day he will never forget.
“When HMS Aldenham was sunk, I witnessed it, and helped to save two men,” he added.
“I got the shock of my life when I realised the Aldenham had been completely blown in half, with both parts sinking very rapidly.
“I went over to the starboard side in an attempt to get some of the bobbing swimmers to the side of the ship, and I noticed a big net had been thrown over the side, with a young sailor swimming towards it.
“I assisted him on-board, and after that, I spotted one of our senior crew members, Bill Briden, who was hanging onto someone.
“Even with our combined efforts, we couldn’t pull him up, so Bill went to find a rope to help us, and in that time, I held on to the man to keep him alive before he was yanked to safety.
“The lovely thing about the two people I saved was that I met them 42 years later, and that was a very moving occasion.”
VE Day commemorations were held in Hartlepool at the Town Hall Theatre in Raby Road first and were followed by more events at the war memorial in Victory Square where a civic ceremony took place including a bugle fanfare.
It also included a military and civilian wreath-laying, a tribute read by Mr Humphrey and the lighting of a commemorative beacon by town mayor, Coun Stephen Akers-Belcher.
Mr Humphrey said: “I read the tribute at the VE day celebrations and lots of people came up to me afterwards, shaking my hand.
“When people get to know you and about your experiences, you’re treated like a celebrity, but sometimes it can be hard to talk about.
“It’s important that we never forget, and it’s always fantastic to see the younger generation joining in with events like Remembrance Sunday and VE Day.”
Charles often entertains his family with stories from his days in the Navy, and the tales are predictably well-received.
He has five daughters, and 31 grandchildren and great-grandchildren – “I’ve got enough for an army of my own!” – and they never tire of hearing the heroic and inspirational stories.
While he looks back on his role in the war effort with pride, Charles has mixed feelings, with fallen comrades never forgotten.
He added: “It was a very tough campaign, and we were in Ancona when we received that special message, but we couldn’t go home yet.
“We went from there to Malta, and were in Malta on VE day, which was fantastic.
“We had a feeling of relief that it was over, especially for the Maltese, because they had taken a bit of a pasting.
“It was a great time when the war ended, but you have to look at it with mixed emotions because of all the people who were lost.
“I didn’t get home after that for another six months, when we finished in Trieste.
“I went out there in June 1944 and got home in November 1945, but I count myself as one of the lucky ones.
“I always have mixed emotions looking back, but I am very proud, and the memories of that time are still strong in my mind.
“I often retell the stories to my family, and although they weren’t so interested in all of the stories when they were younger, now they enjoy it and often ask me about it.
“I’m very proud.”
For Charles, a defining moment came on May 2, 1945, when he and the rest of the Allied Forces serving in Italy and the Mediterranean received a special order of the day, telling them the Italian campaign was won. VE Day followed on May 8.
Commander-in-Chief HR Alexander wrote of his pride at the “magnificent triumph”, and said his “gratitude and admiration is unbounded” in the order, which Charles still has.
As the Hartlepool veteran, who turns 89 next week, from the Owton Manor area of town, explains, it is an item he will always cherish.
He said: “A lot of people have lost theirs over the years, so I have sent some copies to them.
“How the orders were distributed at the time, I don’t know, because we had people all over.
“I cherish mine, and the family are really proud of me.”