Thursday, September 28

El Alamein, Dresden and a cold war spy: the incredible life of Victor Gregg | Second World War

I met Victor Gregg on a frosty afternoon in 2009 when we were going to talk about his experiences in WWII.

He was 90 years old and he had emailed me saying he would pick me up at Winchester station. When I arrived there was no sign of him. After 10 minutes, a car parked on the road turned its lights on. It was Vic practicing a routine he had learned more than 50 years earlier in the western desert, when Rifleman Gregg was assigned to Vladimir Peniakoff, the founder of “Popski’s Private Army,” a British special forces unit. Vic’s job was to drive thousands of miles, alone, through the dunes, bringing supplies and intelligence to Popski’s contacts. Vic said Popski had told him, “Before you go in, find out how you’re going to get out.” This was a life lesson for Vic, he had just “taken me out” before going any further.

That meeting led to a friendship that lasted the rest of Vic’s life, who passed away last Monday at the age of 101, three days before his 102nd birthday. Together we co-write his memoirs in three volumes: Rifleman: A Front-Line Life, King’s Cross Kid and Soldier, spy plus an e-book, Dresden: the story of a survivor.

Vic, his brother and sister were raised by their mother in a two-room slum in King’s Cross. He dropped out of school at 14 and spent the next four years hanging out in Soho. He joined a boxing club, formed a jazz band, and got recruited as a fat monkey on the Brooklands race track. He loved speed and was a fast and skilled driver until he was 99 years old. Vic ran errands for the Soho gangs, watched over “working girls”, warning them when the police were about to raid, and also got into violent fights with Mosley’s black shirts, taking advantage of danger and adrenaline.

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On his 18th birthday, broke and wondering what to do, Vic was approached by a recruiting sergeant from the Rifle Brigade. The next day he was at the regiment’s headquarters in Winchester, a rifleman. In World War II, Vic was sent to the Western Desert. After his time with Popski, he was transferred to the Long Range Desert Group, driving wounded soldiers hundreds of miles. Traveling alone in an old beat-up Bedford pickup, he had an uncanny ability to know where he was. He told me: “It was simple, you have the Mediterranean to the north, the sun to the south and, at night, the Southern Cross above. How can you go wrong?

The destroyed historic center of Dresden, after the bombing of the Allied forces on 13/14 February 1945.
The destroyed historic center of Dresden, after the bombing of the Allied forces on 13/14 February 1945. Photograph: BROCHURE / AFP via Getty Images

Returning to his regiment in time for the attack at El Alamein, he saw a truck driven by his close friend Franky Batt exploded in a mine. Vic opened the truck door and Franky’s upper body fell into the desert, split in half by the explosion. For the next three days, Vic had to be physically prevented from seizing an arms bearer Bren to attack the Germans and avenge his friend.

After El Alamein, Vic was transferred to the Parachute Regiment and was thrown into Arnhem. He fought for 10 days until he was captured. He could never understand how he survived. He was a machine gunner and all the other men assigned to the gun were killed. “Twelve of them Rick, I have more lives than a cat.” As a prisoner of war, Vic sabotaged a soap factory and was sentenced to death for this “crime against the Reich”. They took him to Dresden and kept him in a huge makeshift prison with 500 other convicted men. That night the allies bombed the city. A 1,000 pound bomb exploded on one of the walls and a stunned Vic stumbled into the hell of the firestorm.

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He was in town for over a week. During the raid, he saw women, men and children trying to escape the flames in huge water tanks installed by firefighters and that were boiling to death; he saw others burning on the melted asphalt and still others sucked into the air with their heads on fire, their bodies exploding in the heat. Vic told me that he was used to killing, that he had held men in his arms as he thrust his bayonet into their stomachs, smelling their breath and staring into their dying eyes. “Nothing Rick, nothing, I had prepared myself for what I saw in that raid. It was a war crime, ”he said.

He never got over Dresden and trauma destroyed his first marriage. Happily, his second marriage to Bett was long and happy. Vic came to hate war and knew that sometimes it was necessary, but it was never the solution.

After the war, Vic drove to the Narodny Bank in Moscow. It led to what he realized were Russian agents, including some who were British. He was detained by British intelligence and was soon working as a double agent. He loved motorcycles and would ride behind the Iron Curtain to rallies, sometimes carrying secret documents hidden in their skins and risking his life, fueling his need for danger and adrenaline.

When he was 70 years old, he was invited as a guest of honor by the Hungarian Democratic Forum to make the first cut in the barbed wire that separated east from west, the beginning of the end of the Berlin Wall, which fell four months later.

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Working with Vic has been an adventure. He taught me two lessons: “Never get into something if you don’t know how you’re going to get out” from Popski and the lesson Vic had learned in the military: “Rick, when things go wrong, put the kettle on and have a beer. Everything. it will come out in the wash. ” Perhaps the best lesson of all.

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