A resident at Sherwood Grange has shared his inspiring life story as a soldier in World War Two and living as a LGBT+ advocate during a time when it was illegal.
92-year-old Roy Archer felt inspired to share his story of love, identity and determination during adversity.
Life before the war
Roy was born in 1926 and lived in Westcliffe-on-Sea. At the age of 13, Roy uprooted from home and evacuated to Swadlingcoate, Derby.
“Most of my memories are happy ones, I had a fairly ordinary childhood life - my toy car was the pride of my life,” said Roy.
He returned home later in his teens and took a job as an assistant to the clerk in a court.
Roy recalls: “I can recall sitting in the clerk’s office and the windows were half painted up the front with green paint, during the war it was common practice to do that.
“One day I heard a loud noise and commotion. Peering out I could see a Cromwell Tank pulling into the petrol station, which was quite a significant event! Being inquisitive I went over to see it, it is not often you would see one of those in Southend! I heard the driver say to the attendant “you better put 100 gallons in the tank”. Compared to my Aunt’s Austin 7 car, which took 3.5 gallons, this was a significant number. I leaned across the tracks and peered into it, that was my first meeting of with a tank.
“Almost straight away I went to the recruiting office located in Warrior Square near where I worked. I had a discussion about my options with the clerk and he said I was near to being drafted, and to be drafted would mean the risk of being put in any of the services in any part of the world. I knew I wanted to be in the Tank Regiment, so I enlisted instead; I wanted to be a tank driver - I went home and my mother nearly fell through the floor!”
The horrors of war
At 18, Roy joined the 8thKings Royal Irish Hussars Tank Regiment and was posted to northern Germany where he was assigned as the driver for Richard Dimbleby, a renowned radio commentator, when he visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration prison camp.
“My army ID number was 14497240, a number you never forget,” said Roy, “I was sent to Aldershot, then Catterick and then Wiltshire for training. By the time I was trained, there was only about a month left of the war - the Germans were retreating and the end was in sight.
“I did see the front line as I was part of the Forward Deliveries Squadron. We had to take supplies and vehicles to the frontline as the Germans were retreating and we needed to move fast to push them back. One morning, I found myself in Schleswig-Holstein as part of the British-led liberation. The atmosphere, although busy, was calm - we were focused, we were determined to win, and we were catching them up.”
Talking about his most shocking wartime experiences, Roy said: “Bergen-Belsen, a former army camp and then a Nazi concentration prison camp run by SS Josef Kramer was located nearby. Senior officers knew to push towards to the prison. I arrived at the prison gates and, somehow, I got mixed up with the famous commentator Richard Dimbleby.
“I drove him in an armoured car. We had to provide an armed guard for him, he was flanked by high ranking officers, as there were still SS German guard’s soldiers appearing and running off, and bullets were still being occasionally fired. There were miles of brown accommodation huts - I then found out it was a death camp; we had been told previously it was a place for people to get work.
“It was one of the worst sights I’d ever seen, I was shocked and horrified at seeing the atrocities, there were emaciated dead bodies everywhere, there were two large dugout pits half full with bodies, some were fifteen feet deep, and there were bodies lying on wooden planks.
“We later found out they had been removed from the gas chambers where they were stripped of the gold and flung into the pits, it was a nasty sight.
“After we left the camp, security was put in place to secure the evidence and keep people out.”
The concentration camp held 40,000 prisoners, and Dimbleby’s report stated that 30,000 had been killed in the month leading up to their arrival.
Roy said: “These events certainly broadened my experience in life very quickly, I think we all needed to normalise again, to meet people and make friends.”
A relationship against all odds
After the war, Roy returned home where he met his lifelong partner, John, in a Southend pub. Roy realised he was gay in his teens, however it was illegal at the time and his relationship with John was frowned upon by his family, with both families having members that refused to speak to the couple.
“I met my partner and future husband, John, in a pub called ‘The Peterboat’ in Southend. It was on the high street and had great sea views.
“John and I moved into his aunt’s house in Crouch End, lodging in separate rooms. Shortly into staying there she became suspicious of noise in the night and the creaking floor boards, she suspected we were lovers.
“Furious, she wrote a letter to my mother informing of her disapproval. She left us a very direct note which said we needed to move out upon her return - we had just two days.”
It was a challenging and heart-breaking time for Roy and John as it was illegal for two men to be in a relationship. Despite adversity, Roy and John fought to stay together and remained a couple for 64 years.
Talking about his experience, Roy said: “It was a very difficult time; it was unspoken and illegal for two men to be together. However, by chance my aunt who had house in Richmond was going to New Zealand for a time and we were fortunate to be able to house sit.
“Both our families stopped speaking to us routinely and we grew distant from them, I later heard it was the older generation among my family that prevented the younger more understanding family members from communicating with us.
“Later in life thanks to Ken Livingston, the then London Mayor, we had a civil registration. It was held at Westminster Registry Office and we went with another pair of friends and they did the same so we weren’t alone. It wasn’t a big deal, nothing remarkable, but it gave us some legal recognition which, given our family situation, was important. We wanted to look after each other and show others who and how we lived - we were the first. I remember wearing a grey suit and black shoes, so rather tame. We later went on to formally marry each other in 2014.
“John worked for the BBC, he was instrumental in developing outside broadcasting and worked on programs such as ‘On the Spot’, ‘Down Your Way’, ‘Saturday Night Out’, ‘Grandstand’ and ‘Match of the Day’. Due to his experience of outside broadcasting in 1953 he was part of the team involved with televising the Queen’s Coronation. By coincidence Richard Dimbleby was the BBC commentator, he of course I knew from my war time days!
“John was in the Royal Air Force towards the end of the war as a forces correspondent. He was awarded an MBE in 1966 for his services to the BBC, I was very proud of him; he was a very cultured and articulate man. We had a long retirement together before he passed away in 2015 ages 87 years.”
“A true inspiration”
Roy moved into Care UK’s Sherwood Grange in late 2016. A lover of the arts, Roy actively attends theatre and cinema trips with friends and enjoys spending time with loved ones over a bottle of Shiraz.
Rick Mayne, home manager at Sherwood Grange, said: “When we heard Roy talking about his story, we knew we had to help him share it to inspire others who may be facing difficulties in their own lives. For those living with dementia, it’s important to reminisce about their lives to help give that person a sense of pride in their identity.
“We are in awe of Roy and his life story – he is a true inspiration. We hope he continues to share his memories with us as we will never tire of hearing the phenomenal things he has seen and experienced.”