I first met Victor Gregg on a freezing cold afternoon in 2009 when we were to talk about his experiences during WWII.
He was 90 years old and had emailed me saying he would pick me up from Winchester station. When I arrived there was no sign of him. After 10 minutes, a car parked on the road flashed its lights. It was Vic practicing a routine he had learned over 50 years earlier in the Western Desert, when Rifleman Gregg was assigned to Vladimir Peniakoff, the founder of “Popski’s Private Army”, a unit of British special forces. Vic’s job was to trek thousands of miles alone through the dunes, carrying stores and information to Popski’s contacts. Vic said Popski told him, “Before you come in, determine how you are going to exit.” It was a lesson in life for Vic, I had just been “suspended” by him before going any further.
This meeting led to a friendship that lasted Vic’s life, he passed away last Monday at the age of 101, three days before his 102nd birthday. Together, we co-wrote his three-volume memoir: Fusilier: a life on the front line, King’s Cross Kid and Soldier, Spy plus an eBook, Dresden: the story of a survivor.
Vic, his brother and sister were raised by their mother in a King’s Cross slum. He left school at age 14 and spent the next four years kicking Soho’s back. He joined a boxing club, formed a jazz band, and got recruited as a fat monkey on the Brooklands race track. He loved speed and was a quick and skillful driver until his 99th birthday. Vic was running errands for the Soho gangs, watching out for ‘working girls’, warning them when the police were about to raid and also engaged in heavy fighting with Mosley’s black shirts, feeding himself danger and adrenaline.
On his 18th birthday, broke and wondering what to do, Vic was approached by a recruiting sergeant from the Rifle Brigade. The next day he was at regimental headquarters in Winchester, a rifleman. During World War II, Vic was sent to the Western Desert. After his stint with Popski, he was transferred to the Long Range Desert Group, leading wounded soldiers hundreds of miles. Traveling alone in an old dilapidated Bedford truck, he had the strange gift of knowing where he was. He said to me: “It was simple, you have the Mediterranean to the north, the sun to the south and, at night, the Southern Cross above you. How can you go wrong? “
Returning to his regiment in time for the attack on El Alamein, he saw a truck driven by his close friend Franky Batt explode into a mine. Vic opened the truck door and Franky’s upper body fell into the desert, torn in two by the explosion. For the next three days, Vic must have been physically prevented from requisitioning an aircraft carrier Bren to attack the Germans and avenge his friend.
After El Alamein, Vic was transferred to the Parachute Regiment and was dropped in Arnhem. He fought for 10 days until he was captured. He could never understand how he survived. He was a machine gunner and all the other men assigned to the weapon were killed. “Twelve of them, Rick, I have more lives than a cat. Prisoner of war, Vic sabotaged a soap factory and was sentenced to death for this “crime against the Reich”. He was taken to Dresden and held in a huge makeshift prison with 500 other death row inmates. That night the allies bombed the city. A 1,000 pound bomb blew into one of the walls and a stunned Vic stumbled into the firestorm hell.
He was in town for over a week. During the raid, he saw women, men and children trying to escape the flames in huge water tanks set up by firefighters and boiling to death; he saw others burn in the molten tarmac and still others sucked into the air with their heads on fire, their bodies exploding in the heat. Vic told me that he used to kill, that he had held men in his arms as he thrust his bayonet through their stomachs, smelling their breath and staring into their dying eyes. “Nothing, Rick, nothing prepared me for what I saw in this raid. It was a war crime,” he said.
He never recovered from Dresden and the trauma destroyed his first marriage. Fortunately, her second marriage to Bett was a long and happy one. Vic came to hate war and knew it was sometimes necessary but was never the solution.
After the war, Vic drove for the Narodny Bank in Moscow. He led what he realized to be Russian agents, some of them British. He was picked up by the British Secret Service and quickly worked as a double agent. He loved motorcycles and traveled behind the Iron Curtain to gatherings, sometimes carrying secret documents hidden in his leathers and risking his life, fueling his need for danger and adrenaline.
At 70, he was invited as guest of honor by the Hungarian Democratic Forum to make the first cut in the barbed wire separating East from West, the beginning of the end of the Berlin Wall, which falls four months later.
Working with Vic has been an adventure. He taught me two lessons: “Never get into something if you don’t know how you’re going to get out” from Popski and the lesson Vic had learned in the military: “Rick, when things go wrong. , turn on the kettle and take an infusion. Everything will come out in the wash. Perhaps the best lesson of all.