Feature: Secret missions, D-Day and the horrors of Belsen

William Edgeler as a young man

William Edgeler as a young man

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NOT MANY people can claim to have been at a key moment in history.

But Eastbourne war veteran William Edgeler was at three. Or rather he would have been had he not missed the boat, so to speak.

War veteran William Edgeler

War veteran William Edgeler

The pensioner, who was in the Royal Engineers, had just completed a secret mission and returned to his billeting to hear the rest of the camp was making a mad dash for Dunkirk and the mass Allied evacuation across the Channel.

However, as he explained this week, his commanding officer had other ideas.

“We got back and everyone was saying ‘Quick, we are going to Dunkirk’ but our officer just said ‘Well, we aren’t’.

“We ended up being chased across France by the Nazis and about a week later managed to get on the last boat out of Cherbourg.”

War veteran William Edgeler with his wife and son

War veteran William Edgeler with his wife and son

The mission Mr Edgeler had been on eventually proved key in helping so many troops escape the German war machine.

Not that he would have you believe it. The charming veteran, sat alongside his equally lovely wife May, is as quick to downplay his achievements and heroism as he is to offer a cup of tea and a biscuit.

But the facts speak for themselves. “We were dropped off and left with some incendiary bullets,” he revealed.

“We had to blow up a German fuel depot. It stretched for miles.

War veteran William Edgeler

War veteran William Edgeler

“We managed it, slept in a field that night and then headed off.”

The fact he leaves out was that it was no normal fuel depot.

Mr Edgeler and his comrades blew up 1,000,000 gallons of petrol.

It was, he says in perhaps the biggest understatement of the war, “quite a bang.”

It would not be the last big bang he would experience.

After narrowly missing Dunkirk, Mr Edgeler returned to the continent as part of the Normandy Landings on D-Day.

The following day, on June 7, 1944, he was blown up by a landmine. And he says the only reason he survived was a chance encounter with a dead comrade.

“An officer I was walking next to trod on the mine. I was very lucky. I had been soaked wet through and there was a dead sailor who had a big jacket on.

“I took it and when the landmine went off, the jacket saved my life.”

He went on to play a key role in building bridges across the Rhine – a feat carried out under gunfire and fierce shelling for which he received the Military Medal.

Mr Edgeler was praised for “his coolness under shellfire, his determination to overcome all difficulties and the cheerfulness thoughout,” with the commendation hailing him “an inspiration”.

The still sprightly veteran was eventually sent home with shrapnel in his shoulder – a piece of which he still has at his seafront home – but not before he shared in another slice of history.

His platoon, you see, was among those which liberated the infamous Belsen concentration camp, which had claimed the lives of an estimated 50,000 Jews, Gyspies, Poles and Czechs.

As part of the British force which came across Belsen, Mr Edgeler saw first-hand some of the horrors which had been carried out by the Nazis.

Official figures estimate there were around 60,000 prisoners still at the camp – and 13,000 unburied dead bodies littering the floor.

“It was terrible - unbelievable,” Mr Edgeler remembered, the near permanent glint in his eye momentarily absent.

A slight change in mood which told its own story. “There were hundreds and hundreds of dead’uns everywhere.

“We rounded up the Germans who were still there and made them dig graves and give the dead a proper burial.

“We did not know what had been going on before we got there, but once we arrived it was pretty obvious. It was horrific.”

For someone so keen to make sure the war years are not forgotten – he has two folders bursting with letters, photos, sketches and even the personal effects of a German soldier he killed in hand to hand combat – surely the goings on at Belsen are one episode of the war years Mr Edgeler would rather not dwell on or revisit?

How then, does someone go about coping with having born witness to the evil depths to which man can sink?

The answer, according to Mr Edgeler, is a simple one.

“This lovely, amazing woman,” he says, looking over to his beloved wife. “She helps me cope. Helps me through.”

It seems the age old adage about there being a great woman behind every great man is as true today as it has ever been.