The Sunderland man who photographed Churchill, Montgomery and the King

Victory in the desert North Africa. Monty meets the King in 1943.
Victory in the desert North Africa. Monty meets the King in 1943.
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George Waller’s war years were dramatic, dangerous, eerie and unnerving at different times.

We began the story of this Sunderland man last week and told how he was part of 241 Squadron .

George Waller.

George Waller.

His first overseas posting was to North Africa where his squadron was attached to the 1st Army, arriving at Algiers in 1942.

Thanks to Trevor Thorne at the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, we continue our look at George’s remarkable life.

In November 1942, George Waller was there as “Operation Torchlight” unfolded.

It was the time when the 1st Army met up with 8th Army at Tunis, jointly encircling the Germans.

His most vivid memory of that time were the attacks by German Stuka planes which had wing flaps specially adapted to make a screaming noise as they dive bombed. He was often serving in forward landing strips so this was a daily occurrence

Trevor Thorne

With General Montgomery in command, it was Britain’s first real success in the war. As the army moved towards Egypt, George took pictures at Tobruk and El Alamein where battles had been fought.

His most vivid memory of that time were the attacks by German Stuka planes which had wing flaps specially adapted to make a screaming noise as they dive bombed. He was often serving in forward landing strips so this was a daily occurrence.

The attacks would send George and his pals scurrying to the slit trenches which they had dug,as soon as they reached settled locations.

Guard duty in the black of a desert night, he remembers, as being particularly eerie and unnerving.

Churchill arrives in North Africa with General Alexander.

Churchill arrives in North Africa with General Alexander.

Danger was particularly present when a new landing strip was taken over following a German retreat, as box mines were often left behind as booby-traps. A roadway to the transport plane would be clearly marked by tape but there was always the worry that a mine had been missed. Men were working to unload petrol supplies and there were ammunition stockpiles nearby, so if anything went wrong the whole area would blow up.

George Waller took a camera with him to war. His squadron was involved in air reconnaissance work, so he could get pictures developed on the spot.

He was present with his camera to record the King arriving to congratulate Montgomery and the troops on their success in defeating Rommel, the German commander.

Winston Churchill wearing a white suit also arrived to do the same thing and was also photographed as he landed at the airstrip where George was working. There are also several other excellent pictures from the North Africa campaign in his collection.

In September 1943, George’s squadron was attached to the 8th Army and left Africa for the Italian campaign, landing at Salerno south of Naples).

Soon after they arrived in Italy, George photographed a night raid taking place at San Sebastiano, showing the vivid effect of the bombing.

In March 1944, while in still on the Mediterranean coast, like other servicemen he watched in awe as Mount Vesuvius erupted and lava streamed down the hillsides with small cinders bouncing off his metal helmet.

The 8th Army made its way inland across Italy, eventually arriving at Monte Cassino, the hilltop monastery manned by mostly German defenders. Many men died in taking the stronghold which was reduced to rubble in removing the enemy forces.

The results of the destruction were photographed by George, who returned to the area many years later as part of the Hero’s Return programme, funded by the National Lottery. The army then crossed over to the Adriatic coast moving north through a place called Ancona.

The Allies eventually overcame strong Axis resistance and took the remainder of Italy. Having been wounded by shrapnel in the right arm when anti-personnel mine blew up, George was given some local leave and travelled to Rome to look at the sights.

While in both North Africa and Italy he found he had a gift for languages, learning as much as he could along the way. He visited St Peter’s Cathedral while in Rome and spoke in his best Italian to the caretaker’s daughter.

He was then shown by her father to a room where people were congregating and to his surprise Pope Pius X1 arrived, giving blessings to those present. The caretaker waved George forward despite his protests.

Watch out for a third instalment tomorrow.