Town stalwart relives wartime event

NOVEMBER is the month of remembrance for Britons, this year being especially poignant because it marked the 90th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the so-called Great War in which millions died or were maimed between 1914 and 1918.

NOVEMBER is the month of remembrance for Britons, this year being especially poignant because it marked the 90th anniversary of the Armistice that ended the so-called Great War in which millions died or were maimed between 1914 and 1918. Scarcely a veteran of that conflict remains, and those who fought in the 1939-45 war are growing fewer.

Recently I devoted this column to one of the most vivid events of that war - the 1940 evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk of 347,131 beleaguered Allied troops by a make-shift rescue fleet of small craft, most of them civilian, hurriedly summoned from their marinas and moorings to cross the English Channel to save these soldiers from death, injury or incarceration for five years as prisoners-of-war.

Reading that feature caused memories to flood back for one of the Borough of Great Yarmouth's leading post-war citizens: Harry McGee, its adopted son, who had the honour to be elected its mayor twice in a local political career spanning half a century. He was one of those 347,131.

At his Bunnewell Avenue home in Gorleston, Harry McGee - who will celebrate his 90th birthday on February 1 and was fighting in France on his 21st - told me: “We were not given a medal for Dunkirk because Churchill said we don't give medals for defeats, but the town of Dunkirk awarded us a medal.

“I wonder how many Dunkirk veterans there are still about. We're getting a bit scarce now. There used to be a Norfolk branch of the Dunkirk Veterans Association but it transferred somewhere else, but there is still a Lowestoft branch.

“I was in the Territorials and bluffed my way into the army because I had a lazy eye, but I joined an artillery regiment, the 4th West Lancashire Medium Regiment Royal Artillery Territorial Army.

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“At Dunkirk, as the mole on the beach being used by the Royal Navy for evacuating troops was constantly being bombed, we were on the shore at a small place five or seven miles to the north, and it was quite an experience for a young chap.

“We were all lined up on the beach and kept moving up 20 or 30 yards at a time. When we asked the reason, we were told it was because people ahead of us were being killed in the bombardment!

“The Royal Navy sent whalers to the shore to pick us up. The sailors asked if anyone knew how to row a boat, and I said I did...although it was only on a boating lake in a park in Liverpool, my home. When we reached the warship anchored offshore, we clambered up scrambling nets to get on board, and they got us home safely. It was as easy as that.”

Later, Harry spotted a notice inviting applications to train for the Military Police as a Blue Cap, and was accepted. Red Caps are responsible for discipline, but the Blue Caps help to guard important places, he explained. For example, “when Winston Churchill visited Brussels, I was at the embassy door.”

Blue caps were also responsible for the security of vulnerable points, static locations and establishments; White Caps controlled traffic; Green Caps were in charge of field security and evolved into the Intelligence Corps.

While serving as a Blue Cap stationed in Scotland, guarding oil terminals and the tankers bringing oil into the River Clyde, Harry met a WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) and their friendship blossomed into marriage. She was Peggy Nichols, from Northgate Street in Yarmouth.

Her father, Abel, ran a tea stall on the beach before the war and was to add two more when peace returned. In summer Peggy used to help him on the tea stalls. His first was near the Jetty, and the locations of the pair to which he expanded after the war were near the old Marina and, on North Drive, close to the site of the 150ft Revolving Tower that was dismantled in 1941 after 44 years as a feature of Yarmouth seafront.

Harry and Peggy moved to the borough and are still residents today, living in retirement.

Henry Duncan McGee, always known as Harry, a dominant figure in the Labour Party and local government, had various jobs after his move to Yarmouth. First he helped to demolish the old workhouse on Northgate Street, then was with timber merchant Jewson's, worked on the construction of the South Denes Power Station and the Magdalen College Estate, commuted to Cantley for winter sugar beet campaigns, and was a general hand with the General Post Office until his retirement 24 years ago.

But it is his renowned career in politics and local administration for which he was best known and will be long remembered: it lasted from 1954 until 2004.

His mayoral years were 1964 and 1984, with his beloved Peggy, a magistrate, at his side, supporting him as his mayoress. Also, he was an alderman of the old Yarmouth county borough council and then a councillor when that position was axed, leader of the council, Labour group leader, Norfolk County councillor, freeman of the borough...

“The 'four' years have always been special to me,” says Harry. “In 1954 I started in local government, in 1964 I was mayor, in 1974 I was elected to Norfolk County Council on local government reorganisation when Yarmouth became part of Norfolk, ten years later (1984) I was mayor again, in 1994 I became an honorary freeman of the borough, and in 2004 I retired.

“I still have people come to see me about council matters even though it is four years since I was involved, but I listen to what they have to say and try to pass them to people who can help.”