Voices of Croydon’s veterans

By - Tuesday 24th July, 2018

These are the stories of some of Croydon’s unsung heroes: the men and women of the borough who served their country so admirably

Veterans Emily Patterson (left) and her companion relax in the De Vere Selsdon Estate lobby.
Photo by Brad Merrett, used with permission.

“It just fills me with pride… to be recognised, for people to say thank you.”

Chris Morbey, a British Transport Police officer and former guardsman in the army, still doesn’t see himself as a veteran. He’s not retired, he didn’t fight in the Second World War, but he has been involved in the military since he was sixteen.

“To me, serving my country has been something very, very special to me. I’m the only one in my family who’s ever done it… since as long as I can remember, I’ve always worn a uniform and been proud of what I do.”

Morbey was one of around 100 veterans at the Armed Forces Veterans Celebratory Lunch on Monday 25th June. Croydon Commitment and the 1596 Club hosted the lunch at the De Vere Selsdon Estate, to honour the veterans of Croydon and recognise them for their service to the nation. Veterans young and old, men and women, differing in race and branch of service, were celebrated by citizens of Croydon. Each person unique and with a connection to the borough, and all in attendance had memories to share. These are their stories.

Croydon’s Royal British Legion president Stella Leahy (left), and chairman Thomas Stevens.
Photo by Brad Merrett, used with permission.

Earning just six pence per day in 1947, Thomas Stevens of the Royal Air Force told me of his time served in the Second World War. He was an Aircraftman 1st Class by rank who joined the military like his father did, a Marine who died in battle the First World War. Stevens is now chairman of Croydon’s Royal British Legion and was joined at the lunch by the Croydon RBL secretary and the president, Stella Leahy.

John Nicholls, a ninety-three-year-old former sailor aboard the HMS Argonaut, had the responsibility of taking out enemy German bunkers. His hearing was permanently damaged from the explosions he witnessed. Nicholls was awarded a medal by the deputy president of France for his service, continuing his life post-war as an employee for British Rail.

Perhaps the eldest veteran in attendance, ninety-seven-year-old Sydney Simmons, spent a winter in northern Russia in 1940 onboard the HMS Edinburgh. He was awarded the Russian Star for his work delivering supplies to troops in the country, but his most vivid memory was sailing with Canadian troops on D-Day to transport tanks to Juno Beach in Normandy and bringing home the wounded.

“I can remember electricity coming to Croydon”

“We’ve both been in the services, but never have we [had] a chance to do anything like this”, said Emily Patterson, an army veteran. Her close friend from a local women’s club chimed in. “Nobody even wants to recognise us. It’s different for men, because of battles.”

The pair of friendly, talkative women were grateful for the veteran’s lunch. It was the first time they as women had the opportunity to be congratulated for their service. Servicewomen have had an official role in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces for over 100 years, but are typically an underrepresented group among veterans. At the celebratory lunch, there were dozens of female veterans in attendance who were willing to share their stories and be recognised for their service.

‘Teddy’ Marley with a photo of herself in the Women’s Royal Air Force.
Photo by Brad Merrett, used with permission.

Mrs ‘Teddy’ Marley is a veteran of the Women’s Royal Air Force and has called Thornton Heath her home for ninety-five years. “I can remember electricity coming to Croydon”, she told me with a smile. She says she could talk about Croydon, “’til the cows come home”.

Sergeant Tracy Ferguson has been Chief Clark at Reserve Center 1541 London Transport Regimen for twelve years. Ferguson previously had a one-year tour of duty as border patrol in Cyprus with the Adjutant General Corps.

Lydia Palmer chats with other guests in the lobby.
Photo by Brad Merrett, used with permission.

Another remarkable female veteran at the lunch was Lydia Palmer. A member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, a seventeen-year-old Palmer volunteered to be sent abroad in the Second World War. Her unit was head of artillery in Belgium and was there for the Battle of the Bulge in 1943. She earned the Defence Medal and the France and Germany Star for her efforts during the war.

Just as the lunch concluded, I had the pleasure of meeting a veteran who reminded me that not all heroes fight in battles. Albert Patterson, wife of Emily Patterson, served in the Royal Signals as a radio mechanic during the Second World War. He was responsible for sending electric signals between Great Britain and Germany for just over a year, including critical messages between troops. He said of the troops in battle, “They were doing the hard stuff out there… sometimes you think, ‘oh, I wish I was out there doing some of that’, then when you see what happens, you think ‘thank God I wasn’t there’”.

Chris Morbey has been a police officer for over twelve years.
Photo by Brad Merrett, used with permission.

“If something happens, I want to run toward it, not away from it.” Morbey’s words seemed to perfectly encapsulate the character of all veterans in attendance. Fight before flight, because the cause is always worth the cost. The veterans were incredibly grateful for an opportunity to come together and share their experiences and memories with each other, and be celebrated, some of them for the first time, for their service to their country.

Morbey said his work as a guardsman was something that took “extreme discipline”. He spoke of his experiences in Iraq and Northern Ireland in the army, and said that, “You don’t ever get used to things like that, but you become a bit stronger, more resilient. Someone’s got to do it”.

Overall, the celebratory lunch was an extraordinary event that brought together men and women of all branches of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. It was an opportunity to remember and to recognise the sacrifices made by veterans across the nation, most especially those who hail from and who protect Croydon.

Myra Rademacher

Myra Rademacher

Myra is interning at the Croydon Citizen as part of her university degree in Agricultural Communication. Originally from Oregon, she is spending two months in London studying journalism. She's a fan of travelling abroad and practicing Spanish, and while at home she helps on her family farm raising show pigs.

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  • Michael Swadling

    Wonderful article and a great thing to highlight their service.