Every man who fought during World War Two has a tale to tell about his experiences – but not every man has been willing to share them.
Whether through modesty or a disinclination to relive what had been an horrific time in their lives, with every passing year, more and more of the stories are lost as the old servicemen pass on.
Author Ben James spoke to a number of Sussex servicemen about their experiences between 1939 and 1945 and has published them in a new book – Sussex War Heroes.
Among the accounts is that of Jack Lyon, one of the heroes of the Great Escape. He worked alongside Roger Bushell – played in the Hollywood film by Richard Attenborough – in planning the break out. He was next in line to enter the tunnel when a German sentry spotted one of the escapees.
He would have made it out had a New Zealander not jumped the queue. However, it almost certainly saved his life as those who escaped were executed by the SS.
Prior to ending up in Stalag Luft III, Jack had been an RAF crewman. He was shot down on just his second mission and spent four years in prison camps around Europe.
His story is a fantastic personal account of one of the greatest prison escapes in history.
Then we have Bill Lucas, Britain’s oldest living Olympian and one of the best Bomber Command pilots of the war.
Bill was one of the favourites to take gold in the 5,000m at the 1940 Helsinki Olympics.
But when war was declared, the games were cancelled.
He said: “Hitler denied my chance, so I decided to bomb him instead.”
He flew 81 missions including the first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne and the firebombing of Dresden. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery.
After the war he was picked for the 1948 London Olympics but was past his prime and lost to one of the greats, Emil Zátopek.
John Buckeridge was at the heart of one of the most bloody and costly battles of the war: the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy.
Over two nights he led his men in storming the enemy stronghold. On the first night, he was the only officer to return.
But 24 hours later he was ordered to take his men over the top again. This time, John was not as lucky and was badly wounded when a grenade blew up next to him.
He was back in action days later helping the Allies take the position before he led his men through Italy and to Greece.
After the war he remained with the Royal Sussex Regiment and achieved the rank of colonel.
Maurice Macey was one of the RAF’s top Spitfire pilots and flew an incredible 64 missions including a number on D-Day.
He was shot down in 1944 and suffered severe burns when he parachuted from his aircraft.
After some rough treatment by the SS, he was thrown in a prisoner camp before later being forced into the snow on a forced march.
He narrowly survived as he endured the harsh winter with little food and clothing. He died just weeks after being interviewed for the book last year.
John Akehurst was one of the top Bomber Command crew members and as such was signed up to Churchill’s Special Operations Executive.
During which time he played a part in one of the most high profile missions of the war: the assassination of Hitler’s right hand man, Reinhard Heydrich.
Later in the war he was shot down and taken prisoner.
He tried to escape on numerous occasions – once successfully – and for a time was one of the most wanted men in Europe.
His story was only discovered when his son found his war diary following his death.
Sussex War Heroes carries a foreword by Dame Vera Lynn, in which the Forces’ Sweetheart described her days in London, India, Egypt and Burma where she sang for the men who were fighting so far from home.
She said: “I was a young woman at the time, but it is a period of my life I will never forget. I often think back to my experiences in Burma as it has a special place in my heart.
“I have always tried to help out where I can in the years since and I was awarded the Burma Star medal in 1985.
“I attended and performed at the Burma reunion for fifty years at the Albert Hall and they were fantastic events to be part of. The audience would be full of veterans and together we would remember the brave boys who didn’t make it home.
“But as each year passed, I noticed a change. With each concert there would be fewer and fewer veterans and more family members taking their place.
“With most of the veterans of the Second World War now well into their nineties, it will not be long until they are all gone. That is why books such as this are more important than ever.”
Sussex War Heroes is available in all good bookshops, online (amazon.co.uk) and by calling 01235 465500.
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