Victor Gregg: An Eternal Sentinel

Words by Alec Wilson, Terry Lowe and Rick Stroud, –– and the late Vic Gregg.

[With special thanks to Rick Stroud, co-author of Victor Gregg’s autobiography ‘Rifleman’ (Bloomsbury Press) and to photographer Andy Lewis for the use of his photographs of the burial ceremony.]

Early in 2020, when he found himself the last known survivor of the wartime 10th Parachute Battalion after the deaths of Frederick Deane RP and William Courcha, Victor Gregg emailed his friends Terry Lowe and Alec Wilson:

“I’ve been thinking, a dangerous occupation, I know.  Being the last man standing brings certain obligations. I’m thinking about parking up for good, I want to keep those boys company on this lonely hill. I don’t have a date sorted yet, but – you do the rest; dig the hole and I’ll supply the corpse. I want no glory – just mark my place with a simple stone inscribed: ‘An Arnhem Paratrooper’.”.

Terry Lowe recalled: “Those words were written by Vic in an email early last year to myself and Alec. The date that he didn’t have was 20th November 2021. Alec and our padre Brian immediately started planning and seeking permission and within a few weeks we were able to tell Vic his ‘cunning plan’ was set. It was a sad but very special day at the memorial where Vic will now be an eternal sentinel.”.

Terry Lowe had served in the postwar 10th Battalion (V), The Parachute Regiment and Alec Wilson, whose father had fought at Arnhem with The Tenth, was one of the driving forces behind the building of the memorial to the wartime battalion, unveiled in 2019.

And so it was, on a a beautifully bright but bitterly cold autumn morning, to the tune of ‘High on a Hill’, Victor James Gregg, Rifleman and Last Man Standing of the 10th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, was carried to his final resting place at the 10th Battalion Memorial, Burrough on the Hill, by a party of Parachute Regiment pall bearers led by Regimental Sergeant Major Scott Evans.

By kind permission of Andy Lewis

Major General Ranald Munro, Lieutenant Colonel Andy Wareing and Majors Adam Jowett and Sandy Rowell laid wreaths at the Memorial, a few yards from Vic’s grave. So did Major (Ret’d) Paul Raison, Secretary of the Parachute Regimental Association, Mike Gleeson and Lieutenant Colonel (Ret’d) Philip Schofield of The Rifles.

By kind permission of Andy Lewis

Vic – who was born on 15th October 1919 and died just a few days short of his 102nd birthday on 12th October 2021 – was sent off on his final journey by Friends of The Tenth Padre Brian McAvoy, with Vic’s family and friends as well as senior officers and representatives of the Rifles and Parachute Regiment looking on. Jennifer, Lady Gretton, President of Friends of The Tenth, read the lesson.

A bugler from The Rifles played the Last Post as Royal British Legion and Parachute Regimental Association standard bearers dipped their standards with Parachute Regimental and Rifles veterans, including a large contingent of former 10 PARA members, stood to attention.

By kind permission of Andy Lewis

The eldest of three children, Victor James Gregg was born into poverty in King’s Cross, London in 1919. After running wild among the criminal fringes of Soho for a few years, Vic decided, on his 18th birthday in 1937, that a life in the army would be preferable to a life of crime. He joined the Rifle Brigade, signing on for 21 years.

Vic served in Palestine with the 2nd Battalion, Rifle Brigade before the outbreak of war in 1939. 2nd Rifles were posted to North Africa. Vic’s first taste of combat was at the Battle of Beda Fomm in Libya in February 1941. Vic recalled: “it was at Beda Fomm that I learned the dark art of killing a man with my bare hands.”.

Vic, who was in the Machine Gun Platoon, armed with water-cooled Vickers machine guns, told military historian and writer Rick Stroud: “Look, Rick, when you kill a man with a machine gun, it’s easy. You see him there, three hundred yards away and you just fire away, and they fall like dogs. If you kill a man close up you can smell his breath, you can look him straight in the eye, and you see him die right in front of you.”.

In March 1942, Rifleman Gregg was seconded to the Libyan Arab Force Commando as a driver because of his navigational skills. As well as driving men and supplies around in the Western Desert, Vic was entrusted with delivering secret intelligence documents by the LAFC commander, Major Vladimir ‘Popski’ Peniakoff, who would later form Popski’s Private Army. This job taught him lessons about undercover work that he would draw upon in his postwar career.

When the LAFC was disbanded, Vic was moved to the Long Range Desert Group. Often alone, in a battered old two-wheel drive Bedford truck, he drove thousands of miles, ferrying wounded men to rear area medical posts. His technique for dealing with enemy aircraft, he recalled, was to drive his vehicle straight towards their line of flight, inviting them to dive at him and crash or to leave him alone.

By kind permission of Andy Lewis
By kind permission of Andy Lewis

Posted back to 2nd Rifles, Vic participated in the action known as the Defence of Outpost Snipe during the Second Battle of El Alamein. The 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade had moved onto a position at night and woke to find that they were only yards from a mass of German and Italian armour. The battle lasted until well into the night and ended in hand-to-hand fighting. The Rifle Brigade won the day and seriously disrupted Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s counterattack plans.

The following year, Vic joined the 10th Parachute Battalion, newly formed in Egypt as part of 4th Parachute Brigade. Battle-hardened, Vic was made Number One on a Vickers machine gun in the MMG platoon of the Battalion’s Support or ‘S’ Company.

Vic fought with The Tenth in southern Italy in 1943 before the Battalion was withdrawn and posted to England, where it spent almost nine months in the Leicestershire villages of Somerby, Thorpe Satchville and Burrough on the Hill.

On 18th September 1944, Vic parachuted with The Tenth onto Drop Zone Y, eight miles to the west of Arnhem. He recalled: “As we dropped, you could hear all these enormous bangs and the whole area was covered in black smoke.”. The Battalion had landed in the middle of a full-scale battle on a drop zone that was meant to be in British hands. Vic and his Number Two on the gun set up their Vickers and provided covering fire until they ran out of ammunition. Vic was captured on the tenth day of the battle.

Vic and his first wife Freda in 1945

During his time in German captivity, Vic made two unsuccessful attempts to escape and ended up working in a soap factory, which he sabotaged. The building burned to the ground and Vic was sentenced to death ‘for crimes against the Reich’. He was sent to a prison in Dresden to await execution but the night before his date with the firing squad on 14th February 1945, the infamous Allied fire-bombing of the city began.

When a bomb destroyed a wall of the prison, Vic staggered out into the inferno. Vic later said that, as a soldier, he had killed men in hand-to-hand combat but that nothing had prepared him for what he saw in Dresden, both during the raid and in the week after, as part of a rescue squad looking for survivors. Victor Gregg never got over what he had seen in Dresden; it gave him years of nightmares and ruined his first marriage.

After the war, Vic drove lorries and buses and ran a small industrial painting company.  A champion cyclist, he would have taken part in the 1950 Empire Games but broke his shoulder in training. Vic became a communist although he also worked for the British secret servces.

At the age of 70, Vic was the guest of honour of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, cutting the first strands of the barbed wire that separated the east from the west. A short time later the Berlin Wall fell and with it the USSR.

When he left the Army, Victor James Gregg’s military career was summed up in his Discharge Book and what was written all those years ago could serve as his epitaph today: “During an exceedingly colourful career, this Rifleman has served long and continuous periods in active operations with front line units. He is an individual of great courage, capable of applying himself best to a task when the need is greatest.”.

The 10th Battalion Memorial on the lower slopes of Burrough Hill, where Vic is now buried, overlooks the fields that served as The Tenth’s drop zone during the nine months the Battalion spent in High Leicestershire before emplaning for Holland on September 18th 1944. After RSM Scotty Evans and his men raised the flags flanking the memorial from half-mast, Rifleman and paratrooper Victor Gregg began his final watch under the setting sun.

The Eternal Sentinel begins his final watch –– Photograph by Julie Blyth