Victor Gregg, rifleman with a rebellious streak who was captured at Arnhem and searched for survivors in the rubble following the Dresden firestorm – obituary

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Victor Gregg
Victor Gregg

Victor Gregg, who has died aged 101, was a rifleman, paratrooper and spy who survived capture at Arnhem and the bombing of Dresden.

With two failed attempts to escape from PoW camps on their records and accused of sabotage, Gregg and a comrade, “Mad Harry”, were taken to a prison in the centre of Dresden. There they joined about 250 prisoners who had been condemned to death for crimes against the German state and were awaiting execution.

The building was circular in shape with a large glass roof. In the middle there were large oil drums overflowing with excrement; the stench was appalling. The prisoners were crammed so closely together that it was impossible to sit down. Two inmates, who had been incarcerated for a few days and had been sentenced to be shot, told Gregg that every day 30 prisoners were taken out and never seen again.

On the morning of February 13 1945 the air raid sirens in the city began to wail. Then came the rumble of an approaching air armada. Through the panes of the glass roof, marker flares dropped by the pathfinders could be seen drifting down to the ground.

The whole building began to shake with the reverberation of the bombers passing overhead. Many of the prisoners were screaming and banging on the doors, begging to be let out. Two incendiaries came through the roof; huge shards of glass and globules of burning sulphur fell on the prisoners packed underneath.

Rifleman Gregg
Rifleman Gregg

Gregg and Harry were crouching against the side of the building when, with a tremendous crash, the wall opposite them was blown inwards. Gregg was thrown some 40 feet by the force of the blast and heavily concussed. He recovered consciousness to find himself half-buried in fallen glass and masonry. Harry was dead.

Gregg and a small number of survivors made a dash for the opening – and freedom. Outside, the heat was like a furnace and he was engulfed in smoke, dust and flames. Everywhere buildings were crashing to the ground. People, some clutching children, were emerging from the rubble of what had once been their homes and finding themselves trapped in a ring of fire.

He joined hundreds of PoWs and foreign workers assembled around the perimeter of the devastated city. Equipped with picks and shovels, moving through heaps of smouldering rubble, they searched for survivors as well as retrieving bodies from cellars and shelters and laying them out for the often impossible task of identification.

Road surfaces had melted and water mains had burst, flooding wide areas with boiling water. People caught looting were hanged or shot out of hand.

Gregg worked with his team for several days – at night he slept in a wagon on the railway sidings. He was worried that as things returned to a semblance of normality he would be taken back to prison to face execution, and he slipped away from the group.

After three days moving eastwards against the tide of refugees – unshaven, his clothes in rags, scrounging scraps of food along the way – he met up with leading elements of the Russian forces.

Victor James Thomas Gregg, the eldest of three children, was born at King’s Cross, London, on October 15 1919; his father vanished when the third child arrived. His mother was a seamstress and the family was so poor that young Victor was sent out to scrounge for food at Covent Garden, Smithfield and Billingsgate.

He had to dodge the gangs in Hackney or Shoreditch, but there were forays into the West End, where he enjoyed teasing the doormen in their uniforms and shiny top hats at the big hotels. On Saturdays, threepence would get him into one of the fleapit cinemas. He played cricket and football in the streets and learned to box, though with little regard for the Queensberry rules.

His mother was so overworked that he and his brother went to live with his grandparents in Bloomsbury. Victor earned sixpence a week warning the street girls and their pimps of the approach of a policeman.

Aged 14, he left Cromer Street School in St Pancras. He had gained a scholarship to the London School of Music, but he had to earn his living. He worked for a firm of opticians and, in his spare time, washed cars for pocket money. Sometimes he was taken to Brooklands to watch the racing cars.

Gregg joined the Rifle Brigade when he was 18 and signed on for 21 years. After basic training at Winchester and Tidworth, in December 1938 he embarked for India with the 2nd Battalion (2 RB). The troopship berthed at Karachi and he and his comrades entrained to Meerut. Big blocks of ice in the carriages served as primitive air conditioning.

Nine months later, they moved to Haifa in Palestine on internal security duties, and then to the motor training base at Sarafand. In early 1940, 2 RB, a fully mechanised battalion, was in a tented camp at Mersa Matruh, Egypt, a forward military base.

Gregg in the desert: he served throughout North Africa, including the Battle of El Alamein
Gregg in the desert: he served throughout North Africa, including the Battle of El Alamein

Gregg saw heavy fighting at Beda Fomm in Libya in February 1941 before being ordered to escort Italian PoWs to Durban in South Africa. He rejoined his unit in October and took part in the battle of Sidi Rezegh, Libya. The tanks, he said afterwards, were ordered to charge the German 88 mm anti-tank guns, a futile and costly operation.

A few days’ leave took him to the night clubs in Cairo: whisky was served in pint glasses and bands playing Western music were protected by wire mesh from the beer bottles that were thrown at them every time they played a wrong note.

Lodgings were easy to find. On arrival in the city, they would be surrounded by natives shouting, “Best bed in Cairo, Johnnie!”

Gregg was fast making a name for himself leading reconnaissance patrols, sometimes several hundred miles behind enemy lines. He was ordered to report to Major (later Lt Col) Vladimir Peniakoff at Fort Maddalena in Libya. A patrol of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) acted as escorts.

He was seconded to a secret unit called the Libyan Arab Force Commando, led by Peniakoff (who was known as “Popski”). The Force toured the outer reaches of the desert visiting small groups of Bedouin and gathering information about enemy formations, ammunition and fuel dumps. In return, they handed over sugar, salt, tea and equipment. Gregg’s task was to deliver these supplies to the Bedouin, pick up information and relay it to the LRDG, who would use it to harass the Axis units.

In the course of a month, he covered some 4,000 miles in his pick-up truck; had he been captured wearing Arab dress he would have been shot as a spy. On one occasion he became stuck in a traffic jam of enemy vehicles on the Benghazi-to-Tripoli coastal road. Fortunately, he was wearing general-issue khaki uniform and was not recognised.

Gregg joined the Rifle Brigade aged 18, signing up for 21 years
Gregg joined the Rifle Brigade aged 18, signing up for 21 years

From May to October 1942, driving an old American Chevrolet, he collected wounded members of the LRDG and took them back to base at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt. Sometimes the men were so badly injured that he had to risk travelling by day, and he had several narrow escapes from confrontations with enemy aircraft.

Gregg rejoined 2 RB in time for the battle of El Alamein. During the advance his carrier hit a mine and one of the tracks was blown off; he and his crew were unharmed but they had to repair the vehicle while under constant shell and mortar fire. During the battle itself he took part in further fierce fighting around Kidney Ridge and Outpost Snipe. Lt Col Vic Turner was awarded a VC in that action.

After 2 RB were pulled out of the line, Gregg volunteered to return to Palestine, where a new Parachute Battalion was being formed. Based at Sarafand, he trained jumping from Hudsons and Dakotas. On one cold night he used his parachute as an extra blanket, but next morning, when he jumped, the shrouds of the parachute had stuck together. He was down to 250 feet when he finally forced it open, and he landed heavily.

Following a move to a camp near Tunis, 10th Bn The Parachute Regiment (10 Para) boarded the British cruiser Penelope and landed at Taranto in southern Italy. In November 1943, after a short campaign, the Bn arrived back in England to train for D-Day.

Gregg met up with Freda Donovan, whom he had only known for a few days before going overseas almost five years earlier. They got married, but he overstayed his leave and was sentenced to 28 days’ detention. He was, however, released early because 10 Para was “warned” for Normandy shortly after D-Day.

In September 1944, he took part in Operation Market Garden, the ill-fated attempt to shorten the war by creating a large salient into Germany with a bridgehead over the Rhine. Gregg and his comrades formed part of the rearguard of 10 Para after many of the survivors had withdrawn across the river, and he was taken prisoner.

Gregg was shortlisted for the Empire Games cycling team until a shoulder injury put paid to his plans
Gregg was shortlisted for the Empire Games cycling team until a shoulder injury put paid to his plans

He was sent to Stalag VI-B, north-west Germany, but after volunteering for work, he and a few others were moved to a camp in a suburb of Dresden, where he shovelled coal or picked potatoes. One day, he and three others left a working party that was clearing snow. It was freezing cold and they followed a disused railway line, heading for the border with Czechoslovakia. Within a few miles of the frontier, they stumbled into an army checkpoint and were recaptured.

After a second escape attempt failed he was put to work in a soap factory. Out of sheer devilment, he and “Mad Harry” mixed cement into the soap powder. It set solid overnight and the next day, when the power was switched on, it jammed the machinery, blew the electric circuits and set the factory ablaze. The culprits were quickly traced and the local Gestapo was called in. Gregg and Harry were thrown into a police van and taken to prison in Dresden for sentencing and execution.

After his escape from the city, for the next six weeks he travelled with forward elements of the Red Army, heading for Leipzig. When they met the Canadian forces, he was handed over to them and taken to the British lines. Germany had surrendered and he was flown back to England and re-united with his family.

Gregg reported to Tidworth, Wiltshire, for de-briefing. He wanted to return to 10 Para but the interrogators at the assessment centre were suspicious of the fact that he had escaped eastwards from Dresden and spent several weeks with the Russians. Why, they asked, had he not gone westwards towards the Allied lines?

His explanation that the Russians provided food, shelter and relative safety amid the chaos did not satisfy them and he was posted to a Royal Artillery unit at Tregantle Fort, Cornwall. Two months afterwards, aged 27, he was discharged from the Army.

In later life, Gregg's Eastern European connections led to approaches from shadowy figures on both sides of the Iron Curtain
In later life, Gregg's Eastern European connections led to approaches from shadowy figures on both sides of the Iron Curtain

When Gregg was serving with Major “Popski” he became a temporary sergeant. After that, he returned to the rank of rifleman, refusing promotion several times because he wanted to stay with his mates. He also had a pronounced “anti-authority” side to him and did not like the idea of giving orders to subordinates.

The bombing at Dresden, he said afterwards, had made him feel like a murderer and had altered his whole concept of war.

The comradeship of serving in the same unit as his friends had, he felt, also been taken from him by unfeeling bureaucrats. On his way home, he threw his Army kitbag containing his medals out of the window of the train. He walked out of Paddington Station, he said, with a chip on his shoulder the size of a house and a grievance against authority that was to shape his life as a civilian.

After a job with the Post Office, he worked in the building trade. In his spare time, he trained obsessively as a racing cyclist. He was short-listed for selection for the Empire Games but a shoulder injury put an end to that ambition.

When the fortune of the German steel magnate, Alfried Krupp, which had been confiscated, was returned to him, Gregg joined the Communist Party and took part in marches and protests against German re-armament.

He was convicted of assault and sent to prison for two weeks after laying out a man who was hitting his son. While driving lorries, he started to make trips on an old motorbike to Yugoslavia, behind the Iron Curtain.

In the Army Gregg refused promotion several times because he wanted to stay with his mates
In the Army Gregg refused promotion several times because he wanted to stay with his mates

When the local area committee of the Communist Party was asked to find a politically reliable chauffeur and bodyguard for the chairman of the Moscow Narodny Bank in London, Gregg got the job. Increasingly he drove for the Soviet Embassy and the Russian Trade Delegation while keeping the British Security Service informed of any people or locations that might be of interest to them.

In 1962 he left the Bank and got a job driving buses in London. His long, unexplained absences from home undermined his marriage to Freda and they divorced. He subsequently married Betty, who had become his bus conductress.

They moved to Taunton in Somerset, where he worked for the local bus service. In his spare time he went on motor cycle trips all over Europe, usually staying at campsites. His connections with East Germany and Hungary resulted in approaches from shadowy figures on both sides of the Iron Curtain and undercover courier trips to both countries enlivened his long years of retirement.

With Rick Stroud he wrote Rifleman (2011 and 2019), King’s Cross Kid (2013), Dresden (2013) and Soldier, Spy (2015).

Victor Gregg lived in Winchester for many years before moving into a care home. He married, on New Year’s Day 1944, Freda Donovan. After their divorce, in 1969 he married Elizabeth (Betty) Barnet. She predeceased him and he is survived by a daughter and two sons of his first marriage.

Victor Gregg, born October 15 1919, died October 12 2021

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