After decades living in Australia, a World War II Special Air Service (SAS) and Battle of Britain veteran was escorted home to England last month by an Australian Army soldier from 1st Commando Regiment to join the Chelsea Pensioners, a program run by the illustrious Chelsea Hospital for British Army veterans.
CAPTION: Australian Army soldier Corporal A, from the 1st Commando Regiment, talks with Second World War British Army veteran Mr John Morris in the garden of his home in Merrylands, Sydney. Photo by Chief Petty Officer Cameron Martin.
Nicknamed “Cat” Morris for his ability to cheat death, Mr John Morris enlisted when he was 16, joining an anti-aircraft regiment as a gun layer to defend British cities against Nazi bombers.
When his regiment deployed to North Africa, Mr Morris first escaped death aboard a landing craft after his ship was torpedoed.
He contracted Hepatitis-A from drinking contaminated water in Algeria, an illness that led him to the SAS Raiding Support Group (RSR) when officers asked for volunteers at his hospital.
The newly-formed special forces unit operated behind enemy lines across Yugoslavia and Greece, providing heavy-weapon support and training to local militias to overthrow Nazi occupation, as Allied forces advanced into Europe.
Mr Morris said he was excited to get selected, despite its dangerous reputation.
“I don’t know if I was scared because when you’re young you don’t think you’re going to die,” Mr Morris said.
After the Allied invasion of Italy, the RSR launched operations across the Adriatic Sea.
It was around the time of an operation to retake the Albian coastal town of Saranda – a thoroughfare for German troops travelling from occupied Greece – that he contracted malaria.
“It was very unusual because it was the middle of winter, I must have got the germ while I was in Africa and it lay dormant,” he said.
Even seemingly innocuous tasks could become a matter of life or death behind enemy lines, as Mr Morris discovered prior to Christmas 1944, when a trip to pick up holiday mail ended in a close call.
“By the time we got to Dubrovnick we had a few rakis, so we weren’t quite sober and we lost our way coming back,” Mr Morris said.
“We drove through a German-held village and the Germans were outside drinking schnapps, and my mate said, ‘John, fire over their bloody heads. Don’t shoot to kill, it’s Christmas Eve!’
“I had the twin Brownings on the Jeep, so I let off a couple of rounds over their heads and we found our way back with the Christmas mail.
“I didn’t get any mail funnily enough, everyone else got something.”
When Mt Vesuvius erupted earlier in 1944, destroying 88 US aircraft at Pompei airfield, John was in the nearby Naples hospital and avoided death again.
In 1963, he spent six hours adrift near Casablanca, clinging to flotsam after fire destroyed the cruise ship TSMS Lakonia; 128 people died..
“I didn’t have a life jacket and I pulled a chap onto the flotsam with me, saving his life,” he said.
“I found out later he was the hairdresser on the ship and the fire had started in his salon.”
Sometime after the Lakonia tragedy, Mr Morris’ marriage broke down and he moved to Australia, working as a mechanic, then with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and meet his long-term partner.
“I’m unhappy to go — we’ve looked after each other for 32 years but we can’t look after each other anymore,” the 99-year old said.
A campaign to raise funds to repatriate Mr Morris, led by former British SAS Warrant Officer Matt Hellyer, helped secure a place with the Chelsea Pensioners, where he will live in “five star” accommodation with other veterans.
He was escorted home to London by Cpl A [protected identity] from the 1st Commando Regiment in Sydney, after a request from the British Army.
Cpl A met with Mr Morris several times in the weeks leading up to his repatriation and escorted him home on the flight.
“I’ll be very happy there but very sad to leave Australia because I love it here,” Mr Morris said.
“I’ve had a few escapes in my life but I think I’ve got somebody up above looking after me.”