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'I think he owes me a beer' - War hero from Mill Hill to meet the man he saved 70 years on
Driver Fred Harris looked back to his unit as German bullets fizzed over the bridge at his injured comrade lying motionless on the ground.
Without a thought for his own safety, the young soldier called for covering fire as he and Sergeant Bill Tynan ran to the aid of the stricken lieutenant, before hoisting him onto the back of their armoured car and driving him to safety.
The heroic actions of Driver Harris and Sgt Tynan that afternoon in 1944 saved the life of a man who would go on to become a General Sir in the Army, one of the highest ranks, and receive a knighthood from the Queen.
Driver Harris never again saw or even heard about the man whose life he had saved. But now, 70 years after the gun battle at La Bassee in northern France, the pair will be reunited.
Now aged 91 and living in Featherstone Road, Mill Hill, Driver Harris is preparing to meet General Sir Hugh Beach for the first time since he hauled him, bleeding and temporarily paralysed, on to the back of his vehicle.
The pair have been emailing in recent weeks and Mr Harris said: “I told him he’s a lucky bugger. I’m pleased he made it.
“I said to him that it’s a shame I didn’t know what he had achieved since our last meeting because I could have dined out on this story.
“I said to him: ‘I had to call you Sir back then and I still do now by the looks of it’, but he told me I can call him Hugh.”
The meeting, at the Victory Services Club in Marble Arch, next Wednesday, came after the pair were reunited by a mutual friend in the Normandy Veterans’ Association.
Driver Harris, who went on to have five children with his wife Patricia, still has the letter of thanks sent by the then-Lieutenant Beach’s father after the rescue.
It read: “I write to give you my most heartfelt thanks for what you did for him. I fancy that he probably owes his life to the way Sergeant Tynan and yourself stood by him that night. The deepest thanks to you on behalf of myself and his mother.”
The events of the rescue in 1944 came after Harris, Tynan and Beach, were sent forward in an armoured car on a reconnaissance mission to a canal crossing.
Lieutenant Beach, armed with a sten gun, crept towards the bridge before spotting the grey uniforms of Nazi soldiers. Instead of retreating, he opened fire but was hit himself and temporarily paralysed from the waist down.
Speaking to the Heroes Return Programme in 2012, he recalled: “I tried to crawl back behind the railway line which ran alongside a canal but my backside was too high – a bullet grazed my spine and took a bit of bone away. I was paralysed from the waist down. A staff sergeant got to me and dragged me back, very bravely I might add.”
Following the daring rescue after the Normandy landings in 1944, Driver Harris continued through France and Belgium and on to Berlin, while Lieutenant Beach was flown home for treatment before he went on to serve in India, Ceylon and Java a year later.
Driver Harris never received any medals for his actions, while Lieutenant Beach was handed the Military Cross for bravery – one of the military’s highest honours.
Mr Harris left the army in 1946, having spent almost two years in mainland Europe. He went on to a career in journalism and worked as the sports editor at the Hendon Times during a 40-year stint at the newspaper.
Next week’s reunion has provided Mr Harris’ family with a chance to realise the heroics of their husband, father and grandfather.
Patricia, his wife of 63 years, said: “All of these years we have been together and I knew nothing about this – just vague details. When I found out what he did, I just thought to myself, ‘that’s Fred, that is what he would do’.”
On meeting the man he saved, Mr Harris said: “It will be emotional for me and him. I have tried to find out what became of him over the years but with no success. It was only last year that I found out who he was.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him again - I think he owes me a beer.”
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