The Sunderland hellraiser who became a hero

YOUNG RECRUIT: Private Ronnie Campbell pictured in 1939.
YOUNG RECRUIT: Private Ronnie Campbell pictured in 1939.
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PENSHAW-born Ronnie Campbell was shelled, machine gunned and sniped at during the Second World War – risking his life day after day for King and Country.

Just years earlier, however, he had been banged up for burglary in a reform school.

Ronnie Campbell, 93, with his son Ronnie (left) and Richard Smith, author and compiler of the book.

Ronnie Campbell, 93, with his son Ronnie (left) and Richard Smith, author and compiler of the book.

War was to change everything for the young thief – and bring him a better future too.

“Enjoy your life and laugh your way through it while you can,” he said. “War and having a family taught me that. I’m proud to be the root of my family today.”

Born in Penshaw on April 20, 1921, Ronnie – son of pitman James Campbell and his wife Dorothy – was “wrapped in cotton wool” as a child after developing pleurisy.

The Campbells later moved to a council house in Grey Avenue, Murton. It was here that Ronnie, his three brothers Ken, Jim and Les, plus sister Dorothy grew up.

“Dad worked at South Hetton pit as a tub loader. He was also part of a singing troupe called The Mac Duds – performing at the first concert party in Murton,” said Ronnie.

Young Ronnie attended St Joseph’s RC School from five to 14, playing street football after lessons each day – until the light faded and he was called in by his mother.

But disaster struck the Campbell family when Ronnie was just 11, when his beloved mother died in childbirth. Mother and son had been close, and he missed her badly.

“I remember lying awake, crying and wishing my nightmare would end,” he said. “I felt as if I had been robbed of my life and I was angry for a long time.”

The family started to break up after Dorothy’s death, with Ronnie’s sister moving to Newcastle to live with a relative. His father worked nights just to pay the bills.

Ronnie was left alone for hours. As he struggled with grief, his behaviour took a nose dive. Childish pranks, such as stealing milk money, eventually gave way to crime.

Despite his mischevious ways, however, Ronnie secured work at Murton Colliery as a supply lad after leaving school – but found pit work “nearly as bad as lessons.”

Indeed, he carried out repeated raids on a Dalton-le-Dale refreshment hut just out of boredom, but was finally caught after a foiled break-in at a chapel in Seaham.

Ronnie, then aged 15, was sentenced to three years in a reform school for his crimes.

“Three years seemed like a long sentence,” he said. “In saying that, perhaps I would have gone on to be a major offender – so history can be the judge of my deliverance.”

Ronnie served his time at St William’s Reformatory in Market Weighton, Yorkshire. The school was home to 200 young delinquents – who slept in large dormitories.

Time passed slowly, and tediously. Discipline was strict and harsh, with days spent digging gardens and planting vegetables, while evenings were devoted to army drills.

As the storm clouds of war started gathering over Europe, however, so Ronnie was offered a chance to go free – by joining the Supplementary Reserve. He jumped at it.

Just 17 when he signed up to the East Yorkshire Regiment, Ronnie moved to barracks at Beverley and changed his life. “I had to go there to get where I am now,” he said.

Ronnie, whose father was a First World War hero, settled easily into army life – embracing the daily routine of kit inspections, barrack inspections and constant drilling.

And, after celebrating his 18th birthday, he committed himself to King and Country for seven years as an infantryman – volunteering for a further five reserve years too.

“Shortly after this war was declared and things began to move on at a pace,” he said.

Ronnie and his regiment were transported to Plymouth for training as part of the British Expeditionary Force – but his oversea adventures were still years away.

Indeed, a flurry of activity was followed by months of tedium – including a stint building barracks for new recruits in Chesterfield, as well as training in Somerset.

Ronnie watched in frustration as 1940 and 1941 passed him by without any wartime action. The acute monotony of drilling and field exercises was all that filled his time.

Finally, in 1942, he spotted an advert calling for volunteers for the Green Howard’s Special Air Service. Despite privately calling it the “suicide squad” he joined up.

Ronnie, who served alongside England footballer Wilf Mannion and professional cricketer Hedley Verity, found himself posted to India via Africa within months.

“It was May 1942 when our ship, RMS Samaria, docked in Bombay,” he said. “I still remember the hustle and bustle as we disembarked at the dock in the sweltering heat.”

A trip to scorching Karachi followed, with no action, before the order was given to move on to Persia – where Ronnie was forced to sleep under canvas in the bitter cold.

By now, the Battle of Britain had been won and America had joined forces with the Allies. These events, however, seemed far removed from the cold boredom of Persia.

Even when Ronnie moved on to Bagdad, Palestine, the Sinai desert and finally Kabrit in early 1943, the only action the infantryman saw was jail time for getting drunk.

Eventually, however, he set sail for the invasion of Sicily. “I was a little nervous, but I was with the best – and that made me feel good,” he said. “We all knew our jobs.”

After a peaceful beach landing – due to the advance help of Navy gunners – Ronnie and his comrades moved inland, expecting to face enemy fire at any moment.

Instead, all the Italian soldiers they met surrendered immediately. Yet again, no action was needed.

“The enemy all had their hands up in the air and seemed to be chuffed to bits that the war for them had ended. It was a funny experience,” he said.

Ronnie’s first encounter with the ravages of war came a few days later, during action in Mellili. The little town was left badly damaged in the fighting.

“There were a lot of civilian casualties, and that is hard to swallow when you first see it. War is barbaric in this respect; not good, not good,” he said.

More action followed north of Mellili, when Ronnie’s company came under machine gun fire. He survived to tell the tale, but had a close encounter just days later.

“A shell hit a high tension electric pole and crashed to the ground just a few yards away, with the high voltage wires hissing around like angry snakes,” he said.

Other action followed, including an attack on a railway near the River Simeto.  

Fierce fighting between British and German troops flared, which left Hedley Verity dead.

Battle then followed battle as the soldiers moved through Sicily, with Ronnie helping to take Belpasso – after an artillery barrage persuaded enemy soldiers to beat a hasty retreat.

Finally, in August 1943, Sicily fell. Taking the island had been a baptism of fire for Ronnie and his comrades – who had been shelled, machine gunned and sniped at.

Action on the front line at Morrone in Italy followed, when Ronnie’s company was involved in a fire fight – knocking out several enemy machine gun emplacements.

Battles across Italy continued into 1944, including three months in the battle zone of Anzio. At times, Ronnie and his mates had to face down enemies by the dozen.

“We never got much sleep on the line,” he said. “It was a very hard time. I saw a lot of dead men, a lot of wounded men. The noise of the explosions tested our nerves.”

Finally, in June 1944, Rome was liberated – and Ronnie was on his way out of Italy. More travel and training followed until, in March 1945, he sailed for France.

It was Germany, however, which would be his real destination – as part of Field Marshall Montgomery’s final assault on Hitler and his followers. It proved a success.

“The Germans were still fighting on their home ground and you could be whacked quite easily by a sniper when he was concealed under tree and shrub cover,” he said.

The Germans eventually surrendered on May 8, 1945, when a ceremonial parade was held. The fighting was finally over for Ronnie – but there was more horror to come.

Before this, however, came one day of pure happiness – when he was allowed to view the dead body of Heinrich Himmler, who was laid out on a concrete slab.

“We were taken into a large room guarded by two armed soldiers. I remember thinking this feller must be important – or dangerous – and it was Himmler!” he said.

“He was a main architect of the holocaust, and I had to go to one of his camps – Bergen-Belsen – at around the time it was liberated. It was a terrible experience.

“There were dead bodies piled into mass graves, and survivors were in various stages of starvation. Those who could walk were gorging themselves on food in swill bins.”

Ronnie was finally demobbed in 1946, living in London with his sister at first and finding work in a brewery. In 1950, however, a letter arrived from the army.

The outbreak of the Korean war had sparked a need for extra soldiers and, as an experienced infantryman, Ronnie was called up to the Northumberland Fusiliers.

“It was rumoured we would be landing in Korea to help tidy up the country and provide security. That rumour about security was a load of crock!” he said. “The enemy made mass attacks day and night. They charged fearlessly into machine gun fire, artillery, mortar and tank positions. They were brave or crazy or both.”

Ronnie spent months fighting in Korea, risking his life day after day. He was even left for dead at one point, but managed to scramble back to base – cold and bleeding.

He had to be nursed back to health before being sent home. The journey took four weeks – which Ronnie spent in “a state of numbness” brought on by his experiences.

Ronnie returned to his native North East after being demobbed for a second time, finding work at Murton pit and eventually marrying his sweetheart Josie in 1953.

Today he still lives in the village and retains vivid memories of his war years.

“All of those times helped make me what I am today and it was my fate; such is life,” he said. “It was what I was meant to do and where I was meant to be.

“My poor education at school was insignificant compared to the life schooling I have had – and we are not finished yet, are we?”

•A book about Ronnie’s life, Just Call Me Ronnie – written by family friend Richard Smith, will be launched at a concert for Macmillan Cancer Support this Saturday, to be held at the Glebe Centre in Murton from 7pm. Tickets on the door cost £3. All welcome.