It’s been nearly 70 years since Ernest Palmer returned from war a hero.
“It’s a cliche to say I went a boy and came back a man, but I really did,” said the 93-year-old.
The medals on his chest - the France and Germany Star, the North Africa Star - are a map of an eventful seven-year service, which saw him stationed all over Europe and the Middle East and taken as a prisoner of war in North Africa.
Now, seven decades after coming back to his home city of Sheffield, Ernest is heading again to France, thanks to ‘Heroes Return’ - a lottery fund that pays for World War II veterans who saw active service to take part in commemorative visits.
“I was just 19 when I heard an appeal on the radio for young men to join the Territorial Army and help to avert a war,” said Ernest at his home in Shirecliffe.
“Three months later, I was in the real Army and heading off to war. I’ll never forget sitting alone in an empty schoolroom, waiting to be told where I was shipping off to - it was very strange.”
Ernest will travel to Normandy next week, where he will visit the famous beaches and war museum.
“I’m thrilled Heroes Return are making this possible for me,” he said. “I would like to go back and see it all as it is now - at peace.”
Even after all these years, Ernest says his memories of that time - from 1939 to 1946 - are still vivid.
“Setting foot on that French beach, my boots sinking into the sand, I felt so lonely and far from home,” he remembered.
“I just narrowly missed the famous Battle of El Alamein, but I was close enough to hear the guns.
“There were plenty of scary times, like when a group of us were captured in North Africa by German troops. They held us for 36 hours before we managed to escape. You don’t forget something like that.”
Upon his return to Sheffield, Ernest married Nora and together they had a daughter, Irene.
He also returned to his old job in the post office, which he eventually left to open his own haulage company.
“I’ve led a very enjoyable life,” he said in satisfaction.
“But my time as a soldier was an important chapter in my life and it means a great deal to be able to go back.”
FORMER SOLDIER RECALLS AMBULAMCE THAT SAVED HIM
“I’m not really a man of faith, but there were times over there I felt somebody was looking out for me,” Ernest told The Star.
“There’s one particular instance that has always stuck in my head. I’d lost the rest of my troop and was driving out in the middle of the countryside all on my own. It was dark, I was lost and my motorbike was almost out of petrol.
“Just as I was starting to panic, I came across this ambulance that seemed to have been abandoned. The engine was still running and there was nobody else around. Inside I found cans of petrol. I filled up my motorbike and got out of there quickly.
“I’ve often thought of that night in the years since, and how strange it was that I came across it when I did, as if it had been put there just for me.”