A conversation with WWII veteran Harry Rawlins who took part in patrols during the liberation of France and Belgium, two of which owed their success to his personal courage and leadership. In October 1945, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm and seventy years later received the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest order of merit.
Harry shares some memories from the war, how the Taxi Charity has supported him during the covid-19 pandemic, and more in this interview.
What are your early memories of the War?
When I was a child I was fascinated by my father and uncles talking about the First World War and their experiences. I left elementary school at the age of 14 and worked in a local factory which I couldn’t stand. This was during the height of The Blitz and I must admit I sometimes hoped the German pilots would bomb the place so I wouldn’t have to work there anymore…but they always let me down!
When did you join the Army?
I enlisted in March 1943 when I was 17 but told them I was older. After six weeks training in York, I joined the Rifle Brigade. The training was hard and there was rivalry between platoons. We regularly competed to see who could march the furthest and fastest. We trained on weapons, repeatedly stripping, and reassembling them until it became second nature.
What was your biggest fear during WWII?
My greatest concern was my hearing being affected. I’ve always been deaf in my right ear, but my left ear was good. On one occasion I was in a trench when a shell plunged into the ground above me.
It was fizzing out at the back, so I thought I’d best duck and dive. I shut my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and thought it was going to be my last moment. Luckily, it just fizzled out.
What did you do after WWII?
After the war I was restless and couldn’t settle down, so I travelled to Australia. I worked on sheep stations, construction sites and mines and then moved to North Queensland and drove a bulldozer on the Burdekin River Irrigation Scheme.
One weekend I took a long break with a couple of friends. During the trip we needed to cross a river, so wrapped our kit in a waterproof sheet, swam across and camped for the night. We only realised how lucky we had been when we stood at the bank later that evening and saw seven crocodiles in the river!
How has the Taxi Charity supported you during the pandemic?
I do not have any family living near to me so when the country locked down in March 2020 the charity Chairman and his wife, became my support bubble. They have organised my shopping, visit me every fortnight and contact me every day. They have also taken me for lunch on my birthday, for hospital appointments and to my sister’s funeral. They even visited me on Christmas Day and brought me a delicious plated Christmas Dinner.
The Charity has changed my life and kept me going and their small acts of kindness make such a difference when you live on your own. I can never thank them enough for the difference they have made to my life.
Do you see any parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and WWII?
There were similarities at the beginning – fear and uncertainty of what we were facing. The artificial shortages caused by panic buying which resulted in certain items being rationed by supermarkets and shops. In the 1940s the spirit was good. Today there is some of that spirit, but people seem more inclined to criticise and find fault when many are doing their best. However, there is a lot of goodwill for the NHS which is fully deserved. For a time, the pandemic seemed to have shut down just about everything. That was never the case during the war. Whilst the virus has been a disaster, I don’t think it bears any comparison to war. With the vaccine will come victory and the economic recovery will be much faster than it was after the war.
The Taxi Charity is keen to reach veterans throughout the country who may not be aware of the work they do. Find out more by visiting their website.