The Taxi Charity has been talking with WWII veteran Harry Rawlins who took part in patrols during the liberation of France and Belgium, two of which owed their success to his personal courage and leadership.
In October 1945, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm, and seventy years later, he received the Légion d'honneur, France’s highest order of merit.
What are your early memories of the war?
When I was a child, I was fascinated by my father and uncles talking about the First World War and their experiences. I left elementary school at the age of 14 and worked in a local factory, which I couldn’t stand. This was during the height of the Blitz and I must admit I sometimes hoped the German pilots would bomb the place so I wouldn’t have to work there anymore… but they always let me down!
When did you join the Army?
I enlisted in March 1943 when I was 17 but told them I was older. After six weeks training in York, I joined the Rifle Brigade at Retford in Nottinghamshire. The training was hard and there was rivalry between platoons. We regularly competed to see who could march the furthest and fastest. We trained on weapons, repeatedly stripping and reassembling them, until it became second nature.
What was your biggest fear during WWII?
My greatest concern was my hearing being affected. I’ve always been deaf in my right ear, but my left ear was good. On one occasion I was in a trench when a shell plunged into the ground above me. It was fizzing out at the back, so I thought I’d best duck and dive. I shut my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and thought it was going to be my last moment. Luckily, it just fizzled out.
What did you do after WWII?
After the war, I was restless and couldn’t settle down, so I travelled to Australia. I worked on sheep stations, construction sites and mines, and then moved to North Queensland and drove a bulldozer on the Burdekin River Irrigation Scheme.
One weekend I took a long break with a couple of friends. During the trip, we needed to cross a river, so we wrapped our kit in a waterproof sheet, swam across and camped for the night. We only realised how lucky we had been when we stood at the bank later that evening and saw seven crocodiles in the river.
Later I went to Melbourne and for a short period became part-owner of a 68-foot motorboat. My plan was to go crocodile hunting and fishing but there were too many owners, so I withdrew my cash and headed back to Mt. Isa, Queensland. There I became friendly with a chap called Arthur Tansley, who was a Judo instructor and taught me and others the art. We decided to return to England, but first wanted to see New Zealand, so we worked on the docks in Wellington, before getting jobs on a ship which was our ticket home.
How did you hear about the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans?
I was at a Kings Royal Rifle Corps reunion dinner and WWII veteran Dickie Forrester, a collector for the Taxi Charity, told me about them. My first trip with them was to Normandy in June 2017 which I thoroughly enjoyed and have returned to Normandy with them twice more. I’ve visited the Netherlands with the charity on three occasions, as well as attending several events they’ve organised over here. I’ve been stuck on my own for several years and the Taxi Charity has changed my life. I’ve met so many people in the last three years and experienced so much goodwill. It’s a lovely thing to be part of.
How has the Taxi Charity supported you during the pandemic?
The Taxi Charity has been amazing during the pandemic. I live on my own and have some mobility issues, but the charity has been a huge support to me and kept in touch throughout.
I do not have any family who live near me, so when the country locked down in March 2020, the Taxi Charity chairman, Ian Parsons, and his wife Anne, became my support bubble. Since then, they have organised my shopping, visit me every fortnight and contact me every day.
They have also taken me for lunch on my birthday, for hospital appointments and to my sister’s funeral. They even visited me on Christmas Day and brought me a delicious plated Christmas dinner.
I have also had visits from volunteer cabbies Austin Levens and Seb Philp. Seb sent me postcards from his holidays and Austin did some gardening and dropped off a couple of meals and a Christmas hamper.
And I look forward to getting a haircut from cabbie Karl James, when restrictions allow, as my hair is getting very long.
The Taxi Charity has changed my life and kept me going and I certainly hope we will be able to return to the Netherlands and Normandy in 2021.
These small acts of kindness make such a difference when you live on your own and I can never thank the charity enough for the difference they have made to my life.
Do you see any parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and WWII?
There were similarities at the beginning. Fear and uncertainty of what we were facing; the artificial shortages caused by panic buying which resulted in certain items being rationed by supermarkets and shops. In the 1940s, the spirit was good. Today there is some of that spirit, but people seem more inclined to criticise and find fault when many are doing their best. However, there is a lot of goodwill for the NHS which is fully deserved.
For a time, the pandemic seemed to have shut down just about everything. That was never the case during the war. Whilst the virus has been a disaster, I don’t think it bears any comparison to war.
With the vaccine will come victory and the economic recovery will be much faster than it was after the war.