IslingtonTribune

The independent London newspaper

Virus sees veterans marking VE Day from their armchairs

Islington heroes share wartime memories as coronavirus pandemic puts a halt to gatherings on 75th anniversary

08 May, 2020 — By Calum Fraser

Ken Watts, who was part of the invading force that landed at Gold Beach on D-Day

TWO Islington veterans have spoken about their memories of the conflict as they prepare to mark Victory in Europe (VE) Day from their homes for the first time.

George Watkins, 96, and Ken Watts, 95, both served in the armed forces during the Second World War and they are used to remembering VE Day with a parade through the borough and laying a wreath at the war memorial in Islington Green, Upper Street.

But the coronavirus pandemic has put a halt to mass gatherings so today (Friday) the Islington Veteran Association (IVA) will be celebrating the 75th anniversary of the day the Germans surrendered to the allies with a “virtual service” conducted over Zoom.

Remembering the day victory was announced in 1945, Mr Watkins, of Sutterton Street in Barnsbury, told the Tribune: “I was in Greece, but we had no cele­brations or anything. We were still on stand-by because you never knew what was going to happen.

“If you were abroad, the war was never over and you had to still cover your back. Peace never happens everywhere all over the world.”

George Watkins

Mr Watkins, who grew up around Chapel Market where his mother had a flower stall, joined the King’s Dragoon Guards in 1944.

He said: “I got called up at 18. Before that I spent a long time with the Home Guard. Our family home was actually bombed out twice.

“It was a terrible time during the Blitz, you could never relax, so I thought it might be a bit more restful if I joined the forces.”

He made close friends during his time in training but the lifelong Arsenal fan broke his leg while playing football and so he was held back while they went to the frontline.

“A lot of them died,” he said. “It’s a very sad thing. After the war I tried to find some of them but I couldn’t.”

When he was fit again he was sent to Europe where he drove armoured vehicles.

“We were always riding about on something,” he said. “One time in Italy I was driving ahead of the squadron. We saw that the road had been knocked about so we had a look around for mines.

Mr Watkins in uniform

“When we finally found something, it was just a bag of door knobs. The Germans must have had a sense of humour, which we didn’t find very funny. Then when we were looking for anything else, the car coming behind us blew up. They hit a mine. They were unlucky. We were lucky.”

Asked what he thinks of the coronavirus and the current lockdown, the grandfather-of-three and father-of-two said: “Of all the bloomin’ bad luck, could you believe it? We’ve had all these wars and God knows what, then nature decides to take a big hand in it. It’s almost a come back for how we have ruined Earth.”

Mr Watts, of Lofting Road in Barnsbury, was part of the invading force who landed on Gold Beach on D-Day and he has previously told the Tribune how he saw his friends shot dead yards from where he was standing.

He said: “In normal circumstances I would be out on the Green, but because of the current circumstances they tell me not to go out because I’m 95. So this year I’m going to stand by my window. This is an important day to remember my friends.”

He added: “I think the coronavirus is bloody awful. But our neighbours have helped us. I give them a list of shopping and leave it outside. They go and pick it up and bring what we need back to us. It’s very kind of them.”

A minute’s silence will be held at 11am today and the Queen is set to address the nation in a pre-recorded broadcast at 9pm.

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