Former soldier, 99, gets his veterans badge

Adam GrettonHe joined the army to escape the dole queues caused by the Great Depression.But nine years after signing up, Charles Saunders found himself fighting for freedom in northern France during the Nazi western advance in 1940.Adam Gretton

He joined the army to escape the dole queues caused by the Great Depression.

But nine years after signing up, Charles Saunders found himself fighting for freedom in northern France during the Nazi western advance in 1940.

The gunner, who became cut-off from the evacuation beaches of Dunkirk, was forced to head south where he and his unit commandeered a coal freighter in Marseille to avoid capture.

Almost 70 years after his miracle escape, the 99-year-old was officially honoured for his contribution to his country yesterday after receiving the Armed Forces Veterans Badge.


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The widower, from Diss, who is set to turn 100 in January, joined other veterans at the House of Lords to help mark his centenary year.

Mr Saunders, who served with the army for 27 years, spoke of his surprise yesterday before heading to London to receive his medal from the veterans' minister Kevan Jones.

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The former serviceman, who was brought up in Weybread, near Harleston, signed up in 1931 after struggling to find a job as a result of the recession.

'My mother had four boys and she said she could not keep all her boys working the land and keep us in clothes. I went to Norwich to look for a job and I saw a bloke in a soldier's uniform and I thought I could get employment. It was somewhere to go and something to do,' he said.

Mr Saunders served as a gunner with the Royal Regiment of Artillery, based in Shoeburyness, Essex, before being posted to the British Expeditionary Force in northern France on New Year's Day in 1940.

The sergeant was stationed as an anti-aircraft gunner in Rheims, near Paris, during the Nazi surge of May and June that year and was unable to join the thousands of British and Allied troops that managed to flee the country from Dunkirk.

Instead, he headed south where he and his comrades escaped on a freighter unloading coal from south Wales and made their way to Gibraltar, where they protected the Rock from air attack until 1942.

Mr Saunders, who became a Territorial Army instructor and rose to the rank of acting warrant officer, left the forces in 1958. After the army, he ran a pub in south Wales with his late wife Marion and later became a London bus driver.

He said he did not like some of his superior officers, but enjoyed the camaraderie with his fellow soldiers.

'There was always someone there to make you laugh. You might have been down sometimes, but you did not let people know it. 'We were short of a good anti aircraft gun and used ex-naval guns, but we put up with it. You only thought about your own life and stuck together just the same,' he said.

Mr Saunders, who moved to Diss in 1968, was put forward for the veterans badge by the Hoxne and District branch of the Royal British Legion, where he is the oldest member.

'It has surprised me. I thought I was forgotten,' he said.

Veterans' minister Kevan Jones yesterday said: 'Everyone who serves in the Armed Forces deserves recognition for the sacrifices they've made and our full support both during their service and in later life. The role played by the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency is crucial in repaying the debt of gratitude we owe them.'

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