THE family of a pitman who helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp have backed a campaign to save a statue of him.
Freddie Gilroy and the Belsen Stragglers was created by sculptor Ray Lonsdale, a fellow resident of South Hetton.
Fred, who died three years ago aged 87, had been friends with the steel fabricator and would regularly call into the Two Red Rubber Things workshop in the village.
During one of these visits he recalled how, as a Territorial Army member, he was plucked from his job as a colliery brickmaker and conscripted as the Second World War broke out in 1939.
Fred went on to be a gun aimer in the Royal Artillery, then Regimental Police Officer.
As the conflict came to a close in April 1945, the British took surrender of Belsen, which had been used to hold thousands of Jewish inmates.
He was ordered to guard camp physician Dr Fritz Klein – who was made to carry the bodies of the dead as they were buried in mass graves, before he was put on trial and hanged.
Fred spent his 24th birthday at the camp, a month after it was liberated.
He remembered the horror and grief for the rest of his life and cried on every birthday from that day.
Ray said: “Fred Gilroy was just an ordinary fellow that I knew and got talking to, and one day he started telling me about Belsen.
“The piece isn’t just necessarily about him, but I wanted to put an ordinary man’s name on it and it’s a war memorial too.
“It’s really about how ordinary people were plucked from their ordinary lives and put in to extraordinary circumstances.”
After the war, Fred returned to South Hetton and the village pit, to support his mother Sarah and brother Nelson.
He became a father-figure to his nephew, also called Fred, from High Barnes.
Ray’s statue of him was on temporary loan to the town of Scarborough, where it stands on the North Bay. Now local residents aim to raise £50,000 to keep it. Fred, 42, is among family members backing the campaign.
He, and partner Hazel Dixon, 40, a staff nurse at Sunderland Royal, only recently discovered the one-tonne sculpture.
Fred, a nurse manager for County Durham and Darlington NHS Trust, who saw the structure for the first time on Sunday, said: “It was quite emotional to see the statue.
“It’s not quite a true depiction of him, but it captures a whole generation.
“I can see Fred in him, the way he’s sat, it’s Uncle Fred, he’s got his cigarette and his walking stick.
“It’s an absolute honour and nice to know somebody thought of him, and it’s great to know so many people love it.”