Gary Lineker: My Grandad’s War
"Although we were close, my grandad never spoke to me about his wartime experiences… and now he’s passed away, it’s too late for me to ask him.”
Gary Lineker, OBE and former England captain, recently took an emotional and physically demanding journey in his grandfather's footsteps to uncover his untold World War Two story.
Gary is well known as one of England’s greatest ever strikers and his heroic part in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. But he discovered his grandad, Stanley Abbs, is also a national hero for his role in an Italian campaign of his own.
Like so many of his generation, Stanley was not one who spoke much about what happened during the war. However, in the BBC documentary In My Grandad’s War, with the help of historical experts and the official diaries of Stanley’s unit, Gary soon uncovered an everyday tale of bravery, humility and heroism.
While Gary knew little about his grandad’s time in the war, he and his family have always been interested in the history of WW2 - Gary’s middle name even comes from Winston Churchill, with whom he shares a birthday.
“I think we all know what happened to Winston Churchill, but less so about my grandad,” Gary said, although he fondly shared what he remembers: “He was actually a good-looking man, I thought - it’s obviously where I get it from,” he laughed. “He was always sucking on Polos. Every time I think about him I think of the smell of Polos.”
Life as a nursing orderly
When he joined the war, Stanley was a grocer’s assistant and had no background in military or medicine. He started as a nursing orderly (NO), the lowest rank of the medical corps.
Gary’s first stop to finding out more about his grandad was experiencing his medical corps training first-hand. He met with Dicky Townsley, whose grandfather was also in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), and who teaches its history in schools all over the country. He explained that people didn’t always have a choice about what they signed up for: “It was a case of you’re going here.”
Gary discovered how demanding it was to be an NO when he carried a soldier from the battlefield into a safe zone, using a rifle to splint the soldier’s injured leg - a task which Stan would have had to do under fire of artillery and shells, and in no more than a minute. Gary got quite competitive fast-walking the stretcher, struggling to keep up with his fellow orderlies in the sodden training field.
“It’s actually hard work," Gary admitted. "I slipped a bit as well!"
The exercise gave Gary a little inkling of what his grandfather experienced: "What he went through must have been incredibly difficult.”
The D-Day Dodgers
Stanley was deployed in the Allied invasion of continental Italy, pushing up from the south towards Rome. He stepped off a ship straight into a war zone in the first wave of landing in the coastal town of Salerno, Italy, in 1943.
However, the heroics on the Italian front are often overshadowed by battles closer to home, particularly the 1944 D-Day landings at Normandy. Stan’s unit, among others, were nicknamed ‘D-Day Dodgers’, with some suggesting that anyone not in Normandy was ‘dodging’ the main fight. This started as a shameful term but was reclaimed by the Dodgers to show that their battle was just as important.
Stanley’s unit treated an astonishing 1839 casualties in the middle of a combat zone, all without a weapon to defend themselves. “If I’m really honest, that makes me feel really good,” said Gary, as Stan’s brave achievements started to fall into perspective.
A D-Day Dodgers anthem even came about, with the one verse referencing Salerno. “No matter what the Brits are going through, they never lose their sense of humour," said Gary.
Flying the red cross on Murder Mountain
100 miles from Rome, Gary met 104-year-old William Earl, veteran NO (and Arsenal fan). They spoke in front of the ominously nicknamed ‘Murder Mountain’.
William explains that the role of the RAMC was totally different than he expected going in. “You forget the danger… the infantry used to say to me, ‘Cor! we wouldn’t like your job!’. You go into No Man’s Land under fire, with just the red cross.”
But William dismissed any suggestions that he’s a hero. “I just did a normal job. My satisfaction, my thanks, is that I think I did save a few lives.”
Gary said goodbye to William in a WW2 jeep - a lifesaver invention for the medical corps in the mud and snow. The winter of 1943-44 was the worst Italy had seen in living memory, and Gary started to gain a sense of just how relentless it must have been fighting in this terrain.
“Meeting William was unbelievably inspiring and terribly humbling,” said Gary. “And he did exactly the same thing as Grandad Stan.”
The capture of Rome on 4 June 1944 was a crucial moment but it has been somewhat overshadowed by the D-Day landings two days later. The Italian campaign cost the Allies 313,000 casualties.
“The more I learn about the Italian campaign and how arduous it was, the more I’m surprised that it’s not talked about more,” said Gary.
Gary feels that the soldiers of the Italian campaign deserve to have their stories heard. “If I can just make a slight difference on that, then that makes me feel proud,” he said, choking up as he stood on a bridge over the River Rapido. “I just wish my mother had been alive to see it.”
While he also wishes he’d talked to Grandad Stan about his time in the war, Gary knows now that he probably wouldn’t have wanted to anyway.
“I feel a lot of emotions… the one overriding one, I think, is one of pride,” he wraps up. “If one thing comes out of this more than anything else, it’s that we give respect to those that were here as much as we do to those that were in other places.”
Watch Gary Lineker: My Grandad's War on Monday 11 November at 21:00 on BBC One.