Presentation of the Cockerel

Gerry told me recently that his grandfather was known as ‘Character’, he owned and ran a laundry in North London. With 3 or 4 year old Gerry at his side on the seat of the horse drawn laundry cart, he would often pull up outside the local pub, disappearing inside. After some considerable time and no sign of ‘Character’, the horse (whose name I do not know, but undoubtedly another character!) would move off, carefully returning little Gerry home without Granddad who would stagger back later.

Genes run deep and long and I’m sure you will all agree that Gerry is probably the most charismatic and greatest ‘character’ that any of us have ever met. My connection with Gerry goes back over 70 years, to my dad who served with him in HQ Company in the Tenth Battalion, but I only met Gerry for the first time about five years ago. However the impression that he has made on my family and me has been immense. It feels like we have known him for much longer. He has made us howl and cry with tears of laughter. We had a regular dinner date at the Chinese Restaurant in Oosterbeek on Sunday night after the annual Arnhem Commemorations when Gerry would perform his ‘one man show’. There was always a new story, ‘Have I told you about.......’ He would begin, already laughing so much himself that tears would start rolling down his face, then he would protest that with the girls there, he couldn’t possibly carry on, it was too filthy, but of course, with much encouragement…. He would! He would end by always saying ‘it’s true, it’s all true’. By now, not only our table, but the entire restaurant (mainly Dutch) and the waiters would be in fits of laughter. He was relentless, one gag turned into another, anecdotes, yarns and stories came tumbling out. His repertoire was huge, his delivery and timing faultless, professional.

There was, of course another side to ‘Gerry the showman, the entertainer’, which we would also see in Arnhem. The quiet sad contemplation, the bowed head and silent tears of grief for his fallen comrades and the terrible events Gerry witnessed in the 8 days he spent in the hellhole now famously known as The Battle of Arnhem. Like my own father, Gerry had seen action previously, The Battle of El Alamein was certainly no picnic but it was Arnhem that damaged, scarred and haunted these brave young men for the remainder of their days.

In 1939, Gerry lied about his age, he was actually only 17 when he volunteered and was enlisted into the Royal Tank Regiment.

Typically, in true, Dad’s Army style, Gerry described his initial training thus; ‘I was given an air rifle and sat in a plywood mock up of a tank turret from where I would fire pellets at toy tanks on the ground in front of me’. Soon he found himself in a real tank as part of the British Expeditionary Force supporting French forces overrun by Hitler’s blitzkrieg. Gerry now at the ripe old age of 18 was evacuated from Dunkirk with more than three hundred thousand of his comrades. This was not only the first of Gerry’s survivals (somewhat like the proverbial cat’s nine lives) but also the first of the three major events in WW2, which had huge global consequences and in which Gerry was involved.

By 1942, Gerry was now a fully-fledged ‘Tanky’ and his regiment as part of Montgomery’s 8th Army inflicted Britain’s first major defeat on Rommel’s Afrika Corps, event number two, the hugely important Battle of El Alamein. A turning point and victory described by Churchill; ‘this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.’

It was also the second of Gerry’s ‘nine lives’. He was wounded when a German mine exploded beneath his tank, although the remainder of the crew was uninjured, they were to tragically die together during the later stages of the campaign, suffering a direct hit from a high explosive shell.

In early 1943, recruiters for the new-fangled parachute regiments caught Gerry’s eye, especially the extra pay of ‘two bob’ per day!

He joined the new 10th Battalion, which was comprised mainly of the remnants of El Alamein battle savaged 2nd Royal Sussex (including my own father).

As part of 1st Airborne Division, 4th Parachute Brigade, the Battalion was trained and honed into an elite fighting force, Gerry was one of the ‘originals’, completing his jump training and earning his red beret (and extra pay) as early as March 1943.

In September, the Battalion was called into action as part of the seaborne invasion of Italy. In later years Gerry would call this a ‘picnic’ compared to Arnhem, the truth is that the Brigade came up against a very competent German Parachute Division who inflicted many casualties, some fatal.

Gerry was caught by the Germans foraging for ripe fruit in an Italian tomato field and taken prisoner. Even at his still young age, his irrepressible character must have already been forming as he tells that before his escape two weeks later he was invited by a star-struck German officer to accompany him to the opera!

As 1943 drew to a close the Battalion returned to England, to a sleepy, bucolic Leicestershire / Rutland village called Somerby. This was to be their home and scene of their many antics, loves and lives for 9 months. Gerry’s experience as a tank driver had singled him out to be in the MT section and he was duly given the job of driver to Captain Lionel Queripel. Gerry and the captain formed a strong friendly relationship, way beyond officer and serving man. One of Gerry’s personal tragedies was that after leaving for Arnhem he never again saw the friend whose extreme courage earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross, one of the first ever awarded to a member of the Parachute Regiment.

Operation Market Garden commenced and on the 18th September 1944. Whilst the majority of the Battalion’s 582 men parachuted in, Gerry, his jeep and the rest of the MT section were flown in by glider. Despite predictions to the contrary, they landed in the middle of a full-blown battle, a very HOT zone. As a fully trained parachutist, Gerry hated landing by glider, coming under heavy enemy fire, it was highly likely that a crash landing would result in the crew being crushed by the jeeps and guns behind them even if they were not killed by bullets, flak or fire. Once again Gerry survived but as he told, a comrade at his side was killed unloading the jeeps.

Such was the chaos on the ground that much of the battle plan and orders were being constantly changed and even discarded. As I said, Gerry was never united with Captain Queripel or even his Battalion. Instead he and his jeep were pressed into service as a makeshift ambulance under a white flag carrying the wounded (both British and German) from the battlefield to the various dressing stations and St Elizabeth Hospital.

For four harrowing and relentless days Gerry ran the gauntlet in what had become a bitter struggle of attrition between desperate forces. But on Thursday, his jeep was hit and disabled by a mortar. He now returned to the role for which he had been trained, finding himself amongst a mixed group of airborne forces dug in and defending the ever shrinking British perimeter or ‘cauldron’ as the Germans called it.

Another four horrendous days passed before the order was given to withdraw to the Rhine. Gerry was late to reach the river, it was breaking dawn and the boats had gone. He launched into the mighty river, swollen by heavy overnight rain, a strong swimmer but showered by tracer and mortar he just managed to make the other bank. As he was helped ashore a mortar exploded, killing one of his helpers and wounding Gerry.

Gerry’s war effectively now ended, orders were issued that the beleaguered Arnhem survivors were not to be returned to combat and Gerry was sent up to Scotland to the former SAS training school at Loch Ailort Castle for rest and recuperation. This was the start of his salmon fishing career, not however with rod and line but with hand grenades!

In 1945, a year after the battle, Gerry was amongst a small group of volunteers who returned to Oosterbeek and took part in the making of ‘Theirs is the Glory’. What we would now call a ‘docudrama’ of the battle. Although he got to drive a German Tiger tank as well as receiving a huge £3 per day from The Rank Organisation, his abiding memory was of great sadness. Especially seeing the large number of ‘our boys being dug up from their temporary graves to be re-interred in the new airborne cemetery…all you could see was a mass of feet sticking out of the back of lorries transporting the dead’.

In 1946 Gerry was demobilised and settled down with his new wife, Joan and before long, daughters, Susie and Jackie arrived. From the stories he told life, although less dangerous than his war years, was hardly less exciting. The list of personalities that he came to know is no less than eclectic and extraordinary; from The Duke of Windsor, The Earl of Dudley, The Goons, in particular Peter Sellers, whose children Gerry taught to ride, to the Kray Twins.

Gerry was the celebrated landlord of the Windmill pub in Chipperfield together with his pet fox often seen atop the bar supping at a pint!

Gerry came up to Scotland in the mid 1960’s and from very meagre resources began, with his second wife, Rene, his very successful fish smoking and restaurant business. This was a period of great happiness and contentment for Gerry and Rene and their young son, David.

In recent years Gerry has once more turned his attention back to those memorable days in 1944. He returned to Arnhem and also back to Somerby for many commemorations always aided and accompanied by his great friend Major Chris Goddard, who at times also had to fulfil the role of ‘straight man’ as well as batman and driver, how Lionel Queripel would have laughed to see the irony of Private Dimmock with an officer (one decorated with an MBE and Queens Gallantry Medal) as his driver!

Just after the war, the country was still rationed and chicken not the ubiquitous dish it is today but a rare and wonderful thing. Gerry lived close to the Ovaltine farm in Kings Langley, unbelievably employing 1400 people and housing 50,000 chickens that produced eggs for the famous drink. The laying chickens were housed in long wooden sheds. Gerry, the ex Para and accomplished countryman, figured out that during a dark moonless night he could prise off one of the timber boards and release his pet ferret (on the end of a long leash) into the shed and retrieve a plump hen. All went according to plan until the ferret made it into the pitch black shed; all hell broke loose, chickens squawking and flying about, hitting the sides and roof with great thumps and artless flapping of wings, feathers everywhere. Gerry rapidly pulled the ferret back to him with no bird and scarpered very quickly back home. It suddenly occurred to him, the reason for the pandemonium, in the pitch darkness of the shed, the ferret was pure white! Arriving back home he and Joan wife hatched a cunning plan; she would knit the animal a little jet-black woollen suit. A few nights later Gerry returned and the SAS black camouflaged ferret was fed through the crack in the board. Within seconds the little assassin had secured it prey and Gerry returned home with Sunday dinner. Gerry told that it was his duty as a husband and father to place a decent Sunday meal on the table and for a long time afterwards he never failed in his duty.

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Finally, we have received a number of messages from the Netherlands. Two years ago whilst in Oosterbeek, Gerry, still, of course, able to charm the birds from the trees, met Joanne Belgrave, singer with the Arnhem Police Band. The two took an instant shine to one another and Jo, sang beautifully to Gerry, ‘My Sunny Valentine’. Jo emailed this week expressing her sadness and said ‘After I met Gerry, ‘My Sunny Valentine’ took on a special and different meaning, every time I sing it I think about that special time we met. I hope he listens to it from a nicer and more peaceful place’.

Alec Wilson November 2015