COLIN Thackery charmed viewers on Britain’s Got Talent – and now he is poised to wow royalty. The BGT champ and his fellow Chelsea Pensioner backing singers will be performing in front of the Queen at tomorrow night's Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance.
The veterans have served all over the world, and in moving interviews with Mike Ridley here they recall the comrades and relatives they will remember this Armistice weekend.
1. Acting Corporal Trevor John, 88, served two years with the King’s Liverpool Regiment
NATIONAL serviceman Trevor saw his boyhood friend blown up next to him as they manned a Bren gun in the heat of battle in Korea.
Trevor, now 88, is moved to tears as he recalls: “You never forget what happened and I can honestly say I think about him most weeks.”
Trevor and Gwynn Goodfield had grown up together in the South Wales village of Beddau, near Cardiff, and were called up for National Service in 1951. The following year, Trevor celebrated his 21st birthday on a troop ship in the Indian Ocean before landing in Korea.
He remembers: “October 19, 1952, is imprinted on my mind. Thirteen of us were on patrol when we were spotted. Gwynn was right in front of me on the Bren gun when he was killed by a mortar bomb. Four of us, including me, were seriously wounded.
"I had shrapnel in my arms and legs, and a piece cut across my head but didn’t go in. A bit went in my eye which means I have got a blind spot in my left eye.”
Trevor, who had served his apprenticeship as a bricklayer, was airlifted to a naval hospital in Japan and he recovered enough to run a military canteen until he was demobbed. He returned home, retrained as a residential social worker and was married for 62 years. He moved into Royal Chelsea Hospital – home to the Chelsea Pensioners – 18 months ago.
Trevor returned to Korea in 2008 to pay his respects at his friend’s grave in the Busan United Nations Cemetery.
2. Company Sgt Major Brian Connor, 67, served 23 years with the Ordnance Corps
NORTHERN Ireland veteran Brian, currently the youngest Chelsea Pensioner, is from a military family.
He will remember his father, Terry, who endured hell as a prisoner of war on the notorious death railway in Burma during the Second World War.
His thoughts will also be with brother Colin, who won the Military Cross in the Falklands fighting with 2 Para.
Brian says: “My father was a PoW for two and a half years but we didn’t know he had been on the Burma railway until after he died. He never talked about it – but he was proud as punch of his four sons in the military.”
3. Sgt Richard Dows, 70, served 18 years with the Royal Engineers and Intelligence Corps
AMONG those Richard will remember as the poppies fall at London’s Royal Albert Hall is Captain Robert Nairac, murdered by the IRA while undercover in Northern Ireland.
Richard had been seconded to the Intelligence Corps and served 13 months on postings in Northern Ireland.
He says: “We were in Bandit Country at Crossmaglen, which they called the Alamo. I was on duty one Christmas Eve and a voice said, ‘Hello Richard, I’m phoning to wish you a happy Christmas’. When I asked ‘Who are you?’ he replied, ‘Your opposite number in the IRA’.”
Capt Nairac, who was Richard’s commanding officer, was alone when he was abducted by the IRA in a pub car park. He was killed after being violently interrogated.
Richard recalls: “When Captain Nairac disappeared we were taken off ops and sent back to our units. They knew the IRA would have tortured him and they didn’t know whether he had said anything.”
But according to his killers, the 28-year-old officer refused to talk. Richard says: “I always cry at the Festival of Remembrance when the widows and relatives of those who were killed come down the steps because they’re the ones suffering more than anybody else.”
4. Sgt Major Michael Dows, 78, served 25 years in REME
RICHARD’S brother Michael, 78, originally from Gillingham, Kent, says: “I will be remembering our grandfather, who was gassed in the First World War, and my dad, Frederick, who fought in Burma and had an awful time out there.
“He was blown up at one stage and didn’t last long when he came out of the Army. He only lived for months when he came home.
“We also lost an uncle, James Watts, who was on the Murmansk run with the Arctic Convoys.
“He was on an ocean-going tug and they were hit a couple of times. Because he was an engineer he’d be up to his waist in freezing cold water.”
5. Cpl Mike Smith, 70, served 22 years in the Royal Corps of Transport
ULSTER veteran Mike Smith always remembers his grandfather, Percy Smith, a carpenter who ended up helping construct trenches at Passchendaele and Ypres in World War One before being captured.
Although he survived the war, Percy lived the rest of his life unable to hear or smell properly.
Mike, who sang with Colin in the Britain’s Got Talent semi-finals and final, believes tonight’s performance will be even more emotional for the old soldiers.
He says: “Britain’s Got Talent was entertainment. The Albert Hall is part of our history.”
6. Sgt Trevor Rafferty, 72, served 22 years with REME and the Royal Artillery
FAR East veteran Trevor is a second generation Chelsea pensioner.
Trevor, from Folkestone, Kent, says: “My dad, John, was also a Chelsea Pensioner.
"He served ten years in India, came home in 1938 and a year later the Second World War started and he escaped from Dunkirk.
“Then he fought in Sicily, and at the Battle of Monte Cassino, Italy. I like to remember him and his mates in the West Kent Regiment.
“Because of men like them we are free today. It is important to remember their sacrifice.”
7. Warrant Officer Colin Thackery, 89, served 25 years in the Royal Artillery
BGT champion Colin first appeared at the Royal Albert Hall as a 15-year-old boy soldier at the end of the Second World War.
He says: “Dressed in boots, spurs and a Busby hat, I marched out into the middle of the arena in the pitch dark.
"Suddenly four spotlights were on me and I played a fanfare on a cavalry trumpet and quickly ran off.”
Tomorrow, nearly 75 years later, Colin will be in the spotlight again, singing The Old Brigade, the song Chelsea Pensioners traditionally march to at the Albert Hall.
He says: “The most poignant part for me is when all those poppies fall down at the end of the festival. My particular war was the Korean and Malayan conflict where we lost more than a thousand men. That’s when I think about them.”
Colin, who releases his debut album Love Changes Everything next month, followed by a nationwide tour next year, signed up for BGT as a bet during a Friday curry night at the Royal Chelsea Hospital.
For the show’s semi-final and final Colin was joined on stage by a group of fellow pensioners in their scarlet coats as backing singers. Now they are known as the Chelsea Pensioner Singers and they can’t wait to perform in front of the Royal Family.
Colin says: “I served the Queen for 25 years and singing for her will be such an honour for us all.”
8. Co Sgt Major George Reed, 86, served 24 years in the Royal Engineers and Royal Fusiliers
AS a young sapper, George was sent to Korea in 1954 as the war with the communists was ending.
He says: “Korea is the forgotten war but the bodies of more than 1,181 British servicemen are still there in a cemetery at Busan.
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“The Americans lost 10,000 men. I remember them all when the poppies fall.
“During my 20 years as Secretary of the City of London Branch of the Royal Fusiliers Association, 200 veterans have died and I knew most of them.
"They served their country and must not be forgotten.”
- The Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance is on BBC1 at 9pm.
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