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Sunday, 23 November 2014

Near-death experience from a bayonet attack

RON Campbell woke from the anaesthetic to find his arms had been crossed and a lily placed on his chest.

To say this caused the young Barrow-born soldier a moment of consternation is, of course, an understatement.

He remembered closing in on the Italian soldier and his panicked foe throwing a rifle at him in desperation.

He remembered the bayonet piercing his flesh and the shock of seeing the rifle embedded in his torso.

But for the life of him he could not remember dying.

Seventy years after that not inconsiderable mistake and on the eve of Remembrance Day retired major Ronald William Campbell has spoken about his wartime experiences.

The sprightly 90-year-old, who lives in Ulverston with his second wife of eight years Enid, spent 21 years in the Army and many more with the Ministry of Defence.

From a military family – his father, George, flew planes in the First World War – Mr Campbell enrolled at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1937 at just 15.

“At that time there seemed no chance of war starting,” he said. “I know Hitler was going on, but everything was pretty quiet in those days.”

That relative peace was shattered though when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany at 11.15am on September 3, 1939.

In 1941, Mr Campbell was deployed as part of the Western Desert Campaign in the North African cities of Tobruk, Libya – where he was briefly captured by the Germans – and El Alamein, Egypt.

He fought Axis forces commanded by the “Desert Fox”, Erwin Rommel, who he still vividly recalls seeing from a distance.

In late 1942, under the command of Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, the Allies achieved a major victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein, which prevented the Germans and Italians from taking control of the vital Suez Canal and the region’s oil fields.

“You couldn’t show people that you were scared of death, of course,” he said. “You’ve got men underneath so you’ve got to be strong, especially behind the lines.”

Upon meeting Mr Campbell, you are immediately struck by his vice-like handshake – the strength of which, despite a stroke in the mid-1990s, would make a man half his age proud.

However, this characteristic is, at least in part, courtesy of an exploding phosphorus grenade that left him without feeling in much of his right hand.

“The Germans were trying to lock us in and I saw it land on the floor and I picked it up and threw it away,” he said.

“But I was too late, it blew up and (the phosphorus fell) on my hand.”

By December, 1942 he had returned on leave to England and married his first wife Gwen, but the honeymoon lasted all of one day before he was recalled to duty and it was three years before they would see each other again.

From the theatre of North Africa, Mr Campbell had a brief stint in Sicily before heading to Scotland to prepare for the defining battle of the conflict – D-Day.

More than 156,000 Allied soldiers, including about 61,000 British troops, landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, in a daring attack designed to force the Germans back and reclaim the continent.

Mr Campbell – by then a captain at just 22 years of age – was one of about 13,000 men given the unthinkable task of jumping out of a plane in the dead of night and parachuting in behind enemy lines.

“You didn’t think of yourself as brave,” he said. “You knew what you had to do and knew you could be killed.

“Take the battle of (El) Alamein, 4,500 were killed and you think you’re going to be one of them obviously as you see (dead soldiers) on the battlefield lying there all over the place.

“So in any war people are scared. But people know they’ve got a job to do so they go and do it.”

Following Germany’s surrender in May, 1945, Mr Campbell served as part of the Allied powers’ occupation and saw first-hand the terrible devastation in Berlin.

The Military Cross recipient left the Army after 21 years of service and started at Vickers in about 1960 where he worked on the Polaris programme, which yielded Britain’s first nuclear missile submarines.

He then joined the Ministry of Defence where he worked for another 21 years before retiring in the late 1980s.

Gwen passed away in 2000 ending 57 years of marriage and in 2004 Mr Campbell met Enid and they married four years later.

Despite serving his country with distinction during its darkest hour, Mr Campbell steadfastly refuses to accept he is a hero.

In his mind, it is his countrymen who never returned from the battlefields that are deserving of that status and those alone.

And it is those people who Mr Campbell’s thoughts turn to each and every Remembrance Day.

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