A WAR veteran will lead Territorial Army celebrations next month as the Durham Tattoo marks 100 years of its existence.
Colonel Alex Johnson, 89, of Sterling Lane, Rowlands Gill, Gateshead, was 19 when he joined the Army and next year will celebrate 70 years of service.
And, as the TA prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary, Col Johnson relived his time in the armed forces – from daring missions to scoring the winning goal in a post-war football friendly.
He befriended fellow North East soldier Jack Emerson, of Leadgate, near Consett, County Durham, as the world braced itself for war in 1939. Only months into their service, the pair were on a routine mission in France when they were picked up by a German squadron and taken captive.
Sitting in the rear of an Army truck, the pair were destined for a prisoner of war camp.
But Col Emerson offered the German soldier a cigarette, giving his friend the opportunity to knock him from the vehicle.
The two comrades jumped from the truck and made their way back to the beaches at Dunkirk, on the northern tip of France, where Allied forces were being evacuated by an armada of boats. There they waded into the sea and swam to sanctuary.
Col Johnson said: “We swam out to sea and got a lift back to England. Once we were there, we got straight back to business.
“I didn’t know Jack before the war, but we signed up together. He was about 20 years old when I first met him and we remained friends after the war. But he finished the war and died at a relatively young age.”
In 1944 Col Johnson took part in the Normandy invasion.
And later, he would score the winning goal in a post-war friendly with France – a spectacle that attracted thousands of fans to the stadium in Courseulles, France.
Representing the Royal Engineers, Col Johnson bagged the winner in a 2-1 victory over the French, in a game that was designed to bring hope to war-torn regions. Then, 60 years after the game, he was invited back to France to kick-off a repeat game.
Col Johnson said: “In 2004, they decided to have another game, with the present-day teams.
“They advertised in a local magazine to try and find people who had played in the original game, and there was picture of the teams. I saw myself, wearing my stockings which were hanging down.
“They asked me to go back to Courseulles and kick-off the new football match. I was the only one left from the original game. It was lovely, we beat them 5-0 this time.”
After the war Col Johnson returned to family life – he has a daughter, Susan Innes, 63, and two grandchildren, Julia and Clare. He continued his Army service and has been an honorary member of the TA for the past 10 years.
He said: “The TA is a marvellous organisation and I would encourage all youngsters to join. The discipline they teach is great.”
THE Territorial Army, originally called the Territorial Force, was formed in April 1908, and by the end of the First World War there were more than 700 battalions.
In 1920 it was restructured and given its current name.
The 15 (North East) Brigade was formed in Ireland and fought throughout Europe during the First World War before distinguishing itself during the Second World War in Italy.
Now based in the North East, it is the largest brigade in the UK, with more than 60 bases.
In 1947, the TA was restructured and expanded to maintain its former role of supplying complete divisions to the regular Army until 1967.
The TA continues to provide about 1,200 troops each year in support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.
NEXT month the Territorial Army will celebrate the Durham Tattoo and mark its 100th anniversary.
The Reserve Force and Cadet Association for the North of England will stage the event and will also pay tribute to all TA soldiers from the North East, past and present.
Hundreds of the region’s soldiers from the TA, army cadets, military bandsmen, veterans and historical re-enactors will bring 100 years of history to life during the Durham Military Tattoo, to be held on Palace Green in September.
Amid explosions and the noise of military vehicles, the audience on September 6 will see scenes reenacted from the First World War to the present day, where TA soldiers from the North East serve alongside their regular counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The main event will be a 20-minute demonstration of the TA in action in the 21st Century by serving territorials who have been on an operational tour of Iraq, Afghanistan or the Balkans.
People who are 100 years old can join in the celebrations with free entrance.
The Tattoo is on Saturday, September 6, at 2.30pm and 8.15pm. Tickets from Durham Tourist Information Centre or on (0191) 384-7641.