An offer of a bun and a cup of hot tea sounded awfully good to Victor Gregg on that raw London day in October 1937—enticing enough to follow a recruiter back to his office and sign up for the British Army. “It was my 18th birthday,” recalls Gregg, now a hundred. “And you know, as far as I recall, I never did get that cup of tea.”
Instead he got a harrowing front-row seat to World War II, from start to finish. After qualifying as a sharpshooter, Gregg was posted briefly to India and was serving in Palestine when the war broke out in September 1939. He spent the next three years in the north African desert, on covert missions behind enemy lines. Later he became a paratrooper and took part in the invasion of Italy. In September 1944 he was dropped into the Battle of Arnhem—a failed Allied attempt to secure a bridge over the Rhine River.
“They told us it would be a walkover,” he recalls. “Instead, we ran into some Panzer divisions nobody seemed to have reckoned on.” The fighting was brutal, hand to hand, and the British paratroopers were overrun. Gregg was captured and sent to a labor camp near Dresden, Germany.
That winter he made two unsuccessful escape attempts and as punishment was sent to work in a soap factory. He and another POW sabotaged the factory, causing it to burn to the ground—an act for which they were sentenced to death. “They transferred us to a prison in Dresden and told us we were to be shot the next morning,” Gregg said.
Fate intervened. That night British and American planes began raining firebombs on Dresden. The prison took a direct hit, and Gregg escaped through a broken wall. He says the horrors he saw over the next few days would haunt him for the rest of his life and fill him with guilt and shame. “Until then my war had been soldiers fighting other soldiers, but these were women and children, civilians,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. We were supposed to be the good guys.”
Gregg escaped from Dresden in the aftermath of the bombing and made his way east to join the advancing Soviet Army. He was with them in Leipzig the day Germany surrendered.
After six years of living on the edge, he found it impossible to settle into postwar civilian life. He says he sought out risk and danger, whether it was riding motorcycles, doing clandestine work for the British intelligence agency MI6, or involving himself with underground pro-democracy movements behind the Iron Curtain.
Memories of Dresden proved to be a particularly heavy burden. But recently Gregg was invited there to give a talk about his experiences. In the audience was a woman in her early 80s who, as a young girl, had survived the Dresden bombing but lost a leg. As they spoke after his lecture, Gregg says, he found the inner peace he’d been seeking for decades. “Somehow, at last, I felt forgiven.”
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