Dunkirk hero celebrates 100th birthday by reliving memories of WW2 great escapes

Hero of Dunkirk has celebrated his 100th birthday by reliving vivid memories of his own Second World War great escapes. Fred Willans was one of the last British troops to leave when the Allies were driven out of France in 1940. He was then reported missing in action, before breaking free from a prisoner of war camp in 1943.

Eager Fred was just 17 in 1937 when he joined the 50th Northumbrian Motor Division his hometown of Darlington, Co Durham. At the outbreak of war in 1939, he was sent to the front line. Months later, he took part in the Battle of Belgium but then had to join the mass evacuation.

He arrived at Dunkirk with his Bren gun.

Eager Fred was just 17 in 1937 when he joined the 50th Northumbrian Motor Division his hometown of Darlington, Co Durham

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Fred recalled: “The captain told me, ‘This is the last boat out of Dunkirk, if anything from the land, sea or air starts shooting, fire back – because it’s not ours’.” After finally crossing the Channel back to Britain, Fred rested for a few weeks then returned to serve in Cyprus, Iraq and the campaign in North Africa – his war-time mementos include a photo in a fez and in a headdress like Lawrence of Arabia. After his truck was hit by artillery fire in Africa, he was captured and held at Arezzo, Italy.

While at the camp, he received decent rations and was labouring in the sun all day. He said: “I think that is the fittest I’ve ever felt!” But when a guard told him that he was going to be sent to a Nazi camp, defiant Fred told his pals: “I am not bloody going to Germany.”

Dunkirk hero celebrates 100th birthday by reliving memories of WW2 great escapesSome of his war-time mementos include a photo in a fez and in a headdress like Lawrence of Arabia

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He recalled: “Mussolini’s regime collapsed and they were going to ship us out.

There was a door and you could move it about 2ft. I said, ‘I’m going out of here tonight’. When I saw the last prison warder go, I thought, ‘I’m off’.”

His dramatic escape eventually saw him meet Allied troops and return to Britain, where he had time off to marry sweetheart Kathleen. With no children, they remained together until her death in 2003, aged 83. Fred settled down to become a postman and, later, a hospital porter.

He always kept fit, taking part in the London Marathon twice, and the Great North Run – and he didn’t give up jogging until in his mid-80s.

His proud nephew Trevor Willans said: “He has had an amazing life.”

Fred, with his card from the Queen, spent his milestone birthday on Monday surrounded by loved ones in Darlington and celebrated with a special cake.

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