Harry Garett, 99, lives in Sevenoaks, Kent. He joined the Territorial Army (Royal Artillery, 61st Anti Tank Regiment) with his brother Kenny in Brixton in 1938 and is a veteran of Dunkirk and El Alamein. SSAFA has assisted Harry in getting a mobility scooter enabling him to get out and about.
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He said: “Kenny and I were brought up in children’s homes. My brother was under five at the time and he was sent down to Devon while I stayed at a home in London. I was in homes until I was 16 and I didn’t see my brother for four years but we got back together. Although he came back with a west country accent!
“I said to Kenny, war’s coming, I think we should join up so we went to the TA unit in Brixton and joined up in 1938. Ebby Lee joined my battery - 61st Anti Tank Regt of the Royal Artillery - and he became my dearest friend. We were all very close and very strong, we even broke the record for coming into action with a 6lb gun – 22 seconds when it had been 23. We were Territorials but we did better than the regulars! After the war was declared we went down to Kempton Park and were issued with battle dress, rifles and bayonets.
“In 1940 I was in Belgium and I could tell things were going to get hot so I sent a letter to my dear Ethel saying I was going to ask permission to come back and get married. I spoke to my officer. He said ‘when do you want to go Harry?’ And I said, ‘as soon as possible!’ So he booked me out. I left on the 1st and we got married on the 2nd. We went to the registry office at Lewisham and then over the road to the pub! We had a wonderful marriage.”
Back in Belgium, Harry moved forward to the Albert Canal under continual enemy bombardment and strafing from the Luftwaffe, there were many civilian and animal casualties. The fighting was very hard but then the Belgians capitulated and Harry’s unit was ordered back to Arras and the Canadian Memorial. Here his battery knocked out a lot of German armour, but was eventually overwhelmed.
He said: “I saw a lot of troops coming up and we were told to retreat back to Lille because the Germans were about a mile away. My officer said he hadn’t had any orders so we would stay but suddenly orders came to make our way to Dunkirk.”
Harry was deeply affected by the massacre of 97 British Prisoners of War at Le Paradis where the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolks, along with the 8th Lancashire Fusiliers had been holding the Allied line in order to give the rest of the British Expeditionary Force time to evacuate from Dunkirk. He said: “There were only two survivors. The local people buried the bodies of our British soldiers. All the Dunkirk veterans every year used to go to France and Belgium to pay their respects. We used to take sweets for the children there.”
Harry’s own regiment also suffered losses during the retreat. He said: “We had been told if any tanks came through with the gun pointing forward they are definitely German so when these two tanks appeared we were attacking - but it was the French. They thought we were the enemy and we definitely thought they were the enemy. We were fighting for about half an hour, my shells were just bouncing off them. Suddenly the firing stopped. We had 17 casualties and the French said ‘we are sorry, we thought you were the Germans’.
“We found a French horse just outside Dunkirk and I told Ken to get up on it but we soon decided to leave it behind as we thought it would be killed. We were so glad to be there making our way home. We got right on the beach but every day was bombing and shelling. They bombed at night time and shelled during the day. We had no water so we went on the scrounge and walked up back into town. Right in front of us was a big store house despite all the fighting going on and the flattened houses surrounding it. I got the old 303 and shot the door open. We found bottles of carnation milk and Jamaica rum! We put rum in the milk. At the back of the store were brand new motor bikes.”
Harry, Kenny and Ebby were eventually rescued by the HMS Wolsey. He said: “We heard someone shouting ‘Next stop Dover’. We dropped everything we didn’t need – although we took some of the rum and milk and our rifles and bayonets - and climbed on the front of this ship which was full up. I think it was one of the last big ships to leave Dunkirk.
“All around were burning ships. It was hell. I have never seen so much murderous fire in all my life. There was a bloke trying to swim out on a door. A hospital ship got hit. We were frightened for our lives. It affects me just as much today as it did then.
“When we finally got to Dover, Spitfires and Hurricanes were all around the harbour. It was a fantastic sight. They had been told to defend British shores. The whole sea was full of boats big and small. Everywhere you looked was packed with soldiers.”
Harry’s unit ended up in Staffordshire from where he called Ethel to let her know he had made it home. He said: “We found 1914-18 war huts in the woods still there from the First World War. They were in decent condition so we stayed there for a while. It was the most wonderful thing after what we had been through.”
From there Harry joined the Royal Artillery, 51st Highland Division and spent nine months in Dundee. Harry and Ebby were posted to OBAN G troop 242 anti tank battery, where Harry was in charge of a 6 pounder gun team. It was dangerous work as the anti tank units were stationed in front of the infantry during offensives and Harry was knocked unconscious and concussed more than once. During the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 Ebby was hit by a shell and received a terrible shrapnel wound to his back. Harry said: “I picked him up and I carried him the 150 yards back to the first aid post but he didn’t survive.”
Harry’s unit was part of the pursuit of Rommel across North Africa covering 2,000 miles in seven months. From Africa, Harry and Kenny sailed to Sicily where Harry lost his store of war memorabilia when their truck was destroyed. They returned to Catterick to join the D-Day preparations but Harry’s war came to an abrupt end when he collapsed on the parade ground at Catterick with a burst ulcer.
Harry has since raised more than £60,000 for the Poppy Appeal and was still collecting at the age of 98. SSAFA was able to ensure Harry could still get out and about by helping him to get a mobility scooter. Neil Crabtree, Secretary of SSAFA’s Sevenoaks Division, said: “SSAFA have been privileged to work with Harry and provide him some assistance over the last few years.”
Harry said: “SSAFA is there to help us old soldiers and they do a great job of it.”