Orpington veteran, 97, to march at the Cenotaph this Sunday - read his remarkable Second World War story of survival here
PUBLISHED: 13:33 09 November 2017
He will be marching with 100 other blind veterans supported by Blind Veterans UK
A blind veteran who “narrowly and miraculously avoided death” during the Second World War will march at the Cenotaph this weekend.
Frank Unwin from Orpington will join more than 100 other blind veterans supported by Blind Veterans UK on Remembrance Sunday.
Ahead of the ceremony this Sunday, the 97-year-old has revealed his story of the war, which saw him deployed in Egypt, survive eight hours of consistent bombing, escape as a prisoner of war only to be recaptured and eventually come home weighing less than six stone.
The veteran said: “For me, remembrance means looking back at the Second World War and all the fellows who didn’t make it back alive. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on all the times that I myself narrowly and miraculously avoided death.
“It’s an occasion that features strongly in our family, given the number of losses we’ve sadly experienced as a result of war. My own sister, Betty, at the age of 12, was lost aboard the City of Benares in September 1940.”
The evacuee ship, was struck by a German torpedo and
Mr Unwin enlisted in the Territorial Army in April 1939 and was mobilised a year later.
He recalls: “I was deployed out to Egypt in November 1940 as part of the 234 Battery, 68th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery. After a month’s acclimatisation in Cairo, we went into the western Desert where we fought and defeated the Italian forces.”
Mr Unwin then sailed to Greece to support the Greek army, but was forced to retreat from Athens due to advancing German forces.
Hitching a ride from merchantmen and Royal Navy ships, he soon arrived at Crete, before a German parachute attack saw Allied forces evacuate once again.
In a subsequent convoy of two cruises and five destroyers headed for Egypt, in which Frank was aboard HMS Orion, eight hours of constant bombing resulted in the loss of nearly 400 lives.
Remarkably, the HMS Orion made it to Alexandria safely.
Mr Unwin’s luck looked to have run out when, in June 1942, he was captured by German forces as a prisoner of war and handed over to Italian army.
He said: “I was held for a year at prisoner of war camp No PG 82, which was in Laterina, Tuscany.
“In spring 1943 I managed my first escape, only to be recaptured within one week. Upon my return, however, I joined an escape tunnel team, though just days before we were finished, the Italians signed an Armistice. This time, therefore, I was able to escape by simply cutting the barbed wire fence.”
The escaped POW spent five months in the hills of Tuscany, when, in what he calls “a wonderful show of bravery and kindness”, the villagers of nearby Montebenichi sheltered him from the Nazis.
Desperate to speak to his family, and with no sign of an Allied advance, the 22-year-old soldier set off to find his comrades, but was ultimately captured and spent a year at a work camp in a German stone quarry.
At the start of 1945, an order came to move the captured soldier to a salt mine, but with the Allied advance underway, the German’s announced there would be no further movement of prisoner.
Instead he was put through “The March”, which saw around 3,500 POWs die during forced marches under the order of Adolf Hitler.
Mr Unwin was finally released in April 1945.
When he returned to his family in Liverpool, he weighed less than six stone.
Despite the horrors, the retired Foreign Office worker returned home and pursued a life of travel with his wife Marjorie and two children when he joined the government department in 1958.
In 2002, the veteran was told he had age-related macular degeneration, and joined Blind Veterans UK in 2013, after seeing a leaflet on the charity at the 70th anniversary for the Italian Armistice.
He said: “Since then charity has done a great deal for me. I’ve enjoyed three or four visits to their Brighton centre which includes respite care - a massive relief from the pressure of living at home alone.
“There are so many social events to take part in as well, including the prisoner of war reunions at the Brighton centre and the respite holidays. Just two years ago I was able to attend both a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace and special service at Westminster Abbey.
“Aside from the social events, they’ve looked after me at home in various practical ways. I’ve received a personal alarm, stair rails in my garden, a talking clock and a talking watch. And they are currently negotiating a discount for me in the purchase of a stair lift, for which I’m really grateful.”
Despite losing his sight, the globetrotter will march with fellow veterans on Sunday, and is currently putting the finishing touches on his own book, capturing the story of his Second World War service.
The book, Escaping has Ceased to be a Sport, is due for release in April next year.