Soldier from Woolavington who met Lawrence of Arabia and was held in Auschwitz dies aged 98 (From Bridgwater Mercury)
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Soldier from Woolavington who met Lawrence of Arabia and was held in Auschwitz dies aged 98
A SOLDIER from Woolavington who once met the legendary Lawrence of Arabia and was held in Auschwitz concentration camp, has died aged 98.
An abridged version of the below obituary will be published in the Bridgwater Mercury on September 10, 2013. The obituary is published in full below.
William Henry (Harry) Finlayson 14 April 1915 – 1 September 2013.
Harry was one of eight children. Born in Rangoon in 1915 he lived in Burma, Singapore, Hong King and then India before moving to Somerset in 1933. He joined the Royal Tank Regiment in 1934, training at Bovington Dorset. One of his many claims to fame was meeting TE Lawrence (of Arabia) at his home Clouds Hill while one of a group of squaddies fighting a woodland fire.
In 1936 Trooper Harry Finlayson was sent to the North West Frontier of India where he fought Pethan Tribesmen in Rolls Royce and Crossley armoured cars. In latter years he told stories of his time in that hot, unyielding and troubled part of the world.
Harry married Ivy Ridout in 1939, soon after he was posted to France with the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force. Outgunned, outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, the BEF retreated to Dunkirk. The RTC formed the ‘ring of steel’, protecting the men on the beaches. It was, he said utter chaos, but in the confusion he managed to escape on a commandeered ferry from St Malo back to England where his regiment was reformed.
In 1940, Harry set off for North Africa, he was at the first siege of Tobruk. Following a case of mistaken identity he was posted ‘killed in action’ and his wife received the dreaded telegram from the War Office only to receive a postcard from him some months later from a prison camp courtesy of the Red Cross. He has a grave in Tobruk.
Harry was captured during the fierce battle of Sidi Rezegh when his radio failed and he didn’t hear the order to retreat. A further claim to fame was being addressed by Field Marshal Irwin Rommel; Harry claimed that the ‘Desert Fox’ really did say “for you gentlemen the war is over”.
En route from North Africa to Greece the commandeered Dutch ship ‘Jason’ with 2000 allied prisoners aboard was torpedoed by the British Submarine HMS Porpoise. The Admiralty knew it was carrying Allied POWs but wouldn’t intervene as to do so would have alerted the Germans to the fact it had cracked the ‘Ultra’ code. Five-hundred men, mainly ANZACs died. Harry was aboard, he escaped by swimming ashore in a fierce December storm only to be met by Italian rifle butts, freezing conditions and no food or shelter; many more died ashore of cold and hunger.
The next four years were spent in prison camps between Greece and Poland, including a visit to Auschwitz; at one time he ate grass to stay alive. He tried to escape on a number of occasions and shared a camp with men from the ill-fated Dieppe raid.
Liberated in 1945, Harry returned to Somerset and demobilisation. He became a mechanic and then a telephone engineer. Like so may of his generation, his war experiences went largely unmentioned but they shaped his life. In 2010 by chance he was reunited with his old comrade Gerry Solomon, also a ‘Tankie’ in North Africa; Gerry believed him to have been killed seventy years earlier. The reunion led to national and local press coverage and Harry’s experiences were chronicled in a TV documentary on ‘The Filthy Fifth’ (Fifth Division the Royal Tank Regiment) and in books on the conflict.
His first wife Ivy died in 1988. He married Joan Woodward ten years ago and lived quietly in Woolavington since.
As a member of the ROAB, ‘Buff’ Harry worked for many years in support of the children of Selworthy School. He had a sharp wit, wicked sense of humour and was a serial reciter of poetry from Burns to Kipling. He was proud of his Scottish roots and would occasionally don tartan trews and a glengarry.
In true old soldier-fashion Harry didn’t die, he just faded away. He will be remembered with love and a wry smile by the many people whose lives he touched. He is survived by his three children and his wife Joan. RIP old soldier.