El Alamein, Dresden and a Cold War Spy: The Incredible Life of Victor Gregg | World War II
I first met Victor Gregg on a freezing afternoon in 2009 when we were to talk about his experiences during World War II.
He was 90 years old and had emailed me saying he would pick me up from Winchester station. When I arrived there was no sign of him. After 10 minutes, a car parked in the road flashed its headlights. It was Vic practicing a routine he had learned over 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 travel thousands of miles, alone, across the dunes, carrying stores and intelligence to Popski’s contacts. Vic said Popski told him, “Before you go in, think about how you’re going to get out.” It was a life lesson for Vic, I had just been “boosted” by him before going any further.
This encounter led to a friendship that lasted Vic’s life. He died last Monday at the age of 101, three days before his 102nd birthday. Together we co-wrote his memoirs in three volumes: Fusilier: a life on the front line, King’s Cross Kid and soldier, spy plus an e-book, Dresden: A Survivor’s Story.
Vic, his brother and sister were raised by their mother in a two-room slum in King’s Cross. He left school at 14 and spent the next four years touring Soho. He joined a boxing club, formed a jazz band and got hired as a greaser at Brooklands Racecourse. He loved speed and was a quick and skilled driver until his 99th birthday. Vic ran errands for the Soho gangs, watched the “working girls”, warned them when the police were about to raid and also engaged in violent fights with Mosley’s blackshirts, thriving on the danger and the adrenaline.
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 regimental headquarters in Winchester, rifleman. During World War II, Vic was sent to the Western Desert. After his time with Popski, he was transferred to the Long Range Desert Group, leading wounded soldiers hundreds of miles. Traveling alone in a run-down old Bedford truck, he had an uncanny knack for knowing where he was. He said to me: “It was simple, you have the Mediterranean to the north, the sun to the south and, at night, the Southern Cross above our heads. How can you be wrong? »
Returning to his regiment in time for the attack on El Alamein, he saw a truck driven by his close friend Franky Batt explode on a mine. Vic opened the truck door and Franky’s upper body fell into the desert, ripped in two by the explosion. For the next three days Vic had to be physically restrained from commandeering a Bren gun carrier to attack the Germans and avenge his friend.
After El Alamein, Vic transferred to the Parachute Regiment and was dropped at Arnhem. He fought for 10 days until he was captured. He could never figure out how he survived. He was a machine gunner and all the other men assigned to the weapon were killed. “Twelve of them, Rick, I have more lives than a cat.” As a prisoner of war, Vic sabotaged a soap factory and for this “crime against the Reich” was sentenced to death. He was taken to Dresden and held in a huge makeshift prison with 500 other convicted men. That night, the allies bombarded the city. A 1,000 pound bomb exploded in one of the walls and a stunned Vic fell into the firestorm hell.
He had been in town for over a week. During the raid, he saw women, men and children trying to escape the flames in huge water tanks set up by firefighters and boiling to death; he saw others burning in the molten tarmac and still others sucked into the air, their heads on fire, their bodies exploding in the heat. Vic told me he used to kill, that he 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, had prepared me for what I saw on this raid. It was a war crime,” he said.
He never recovered from Dresden, and the trauma destroyed his first marriage. Fortunately, her second marriage to Bett was long and happy. Vic came to hate war and knew it was sometimes necessary but was never the solution.
After the war, Vic drove for the Narodny Bank of Moscow. He led what he realized were Russian agents, some of whom were British. He was picked up by British intelligence and soon worked as a double agent. He loved motorcycles and traveled behind the iron curtain to get to rallies, sometimes carrying secret documents hidden in his leathers and risking his life, feeding his need for danger and adrenaline.
At 70, he was invited of honor by the Hungarian Democratic Forum to make the first cut in the barbed wire separating east from west, the beginning of the end of the Berlin Wall, which fell four months later.
Working with Vic has been an adventure. He taught me two lessons: “Never get into anything if you don’t know how you’re going to get out of it” by Popski and the lesson Vic had learned in the army: “Rick, when things go wrong, turn on the kettle. and take an infusion. Everything will wash out. Perhaps the best lesson of all.