Gunner Bernard is also a senior Rook: Dripping Yarns with David Arnold

AT 93 years of age Bernard Brind must surely be the most senior fan of Lewes FC.

My wife Barbara and I met him for the first time in 2008 when we discovered he was celebrating his 90th birthday at a football match at the Dripping Pan.

We got chatting, initially about football but then about anything and everything – and very quickly it became clear that Bernard had led a very interesting life, not least when being evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940 before later serving with the famous Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy in World War II.

At El Alamein he went into action with the 25-pounder guns of the Royal Artillery.His role was to recce new locations for the battery, a task that took him forward of the guns and sometimes found him in the uncomfortable position of having ‘friendly’ shells whizzing over his head en route to the enemy. Nevertheless Bernard is proud of the fact that his Eighth Army unit never once retreated but were always advancing right up until the end of the war in Italy in 1945.

During this time he witnessed the German surrender in Tunis in May 1943 and the controversial bombing of the venerable abbey of Monte Cassino in February 1944.

Bernard had several close shaves while in action, the closest coming when, in March 1945, an enemy shell hit the Italian farmhouse he was sheltering in. Three signalers in the room next to Bernard’s were killed instantly and a fourth died on the way to hospital in Rimini. Bernard told me: “It was such tough luck on those men what with the war being nearly over. As for me, I got some shrapnel in my hand but I knew I had been incredibly lucky.”

Football loomed large in his life even in the war years, when he had the distinction of playing for the Army at his barracks in Yorkshire, on sun-baked grounds in Egypt and verdant fields in Italy. In fact Bernard’s most serious ‘war wound’ was sustained in a football game organised by a Regimental Sports Officer.

On leave in Cairo at the time, Bernard’s right elbow was severely injured in a heavy fall. Though he was patched up and soon returned to active duties, the accident left him with a lifelong problem with the elbow, a problem that was only finally acknowledged by a medical tribunal some dozen years ago, meaning that Bernard now receives a war disability allowance.

It was ironic that post-war this particular gunner should meet his wife-to-be while playing in a mixed gender cricket match on the Royal Arsenal sports field. Mollie and Bernard went on to have two sons. Today there are also four grandchildren plus four great grandchildren.

Bernard’s life in Civvy Street saw him join the building firm Longleys where he rose to become a director in 1968. For 10 years until his retirement in 1978 he managed the company’s football team. Mollie sadly passed away in 2005. Bernard himself has not enjoyed the best of health over the past year but still likes to get to as many Lewes games as possible.

He lives in Greyfriars Court near the Railwayland so it is not too far for him to walk to the ground, although he has to be wary of the weather conditions. He welcomed the return of Steve King as Lewes manager and though the team has taken time to settle in, Bernard believes they are play-off contenders at the very least.

An Anzio coincidence

Bernard’s fascinating story is recounted at length in my book Seventy Years On, a collection of wartime tales featuring the memories of scores of former service personnel, civilians and people who grew up in those extraordinary times.

The stories appear against the backdrop of a day-by-day diary of events between 1939 and 1945 and the book concludes with a timeline of Britain’s smaller but often very deadly and dangerous conflicts since the post-war years of austerity right up until the present day in Afghanistan.

My book was inspired by a visit Barbara and I made to Anzio in Italy back in 1988. We went to visit the grave of her Uncle, Geordie Kane, a Royal Scots Fusilier who was killed in the desperate fighting around the Allied beachhead there in April 1944.

It was a poignant trip that enabled Barbara to bring home photographs for her mum that showed the headstone and cemetery. We know it gave her peace of mind to see how Geordie’s memory was preserved in such a tranquil setting in that far-off corner of a foreign land. She died a few months later.

I was quite taken aback when I learnt that Bernard also went ashore at Anzio. His wartime diary records: ‘Very heavy fighting. Air activity terrific on both sides.’ He told me that his unit (part of the 56th London ‘Black Cats’ Division) lost a lot of men and guns at Anzio.

They re-embarked under shellfire on 16 March 1944 and went to Naples for rest and refitting. I never cease to be amazed by the power of coincidence. That’s why my book has the sub-title A Tapestry in Time.