A 98-year-old veteran has spoken publicly for the first time about his experiences during the Second World War after being inspired by other heroes who shared their stories during VE Day 75 commemorations.
Christopher Hutchinson, a retired lieutenant colonel, still has shrapnel in his skin from when he was captured by German forces during an operation in Italy in 1944.
He was serving in the Royal Tank Regiment when the tank he was travelling in was hit by a missile and caught fire, killing two men on board.
The young soldier dived into a hedge and was captured by German paratroopers before being taken to the Stalag VII-A prisoner of war camp near the town of Moosburg in south Germany.
He was held there for eight months until the camp was liberated on April 29 1945, days before the war in Europe ended.
On VE Day, Mr Hutchinson – then back in the UK – was reunited with one of his sisters and spoke to his other sister and their mother on the telephone.
“It was a lovely end to my VE Day,” said the veteran, who is a supporter of SSAFA – The Armed Forces Charity.
Mr Hutchinson, from Seahouses, Northumberland, began training as a trooper in the Royal Tank Regiment in June 1941 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant the following year.
In 1943, he served in North Africa as a troop leader in the 48th Royal Tank Regiment and was part of the offensive on the Cape Bon peninsula.
The following year, he was sent to central Italy and was unexpectedly told one night to advance towards Rimini to cut off the main arterial road to the city.
Mr Hutchinson said it was a dark night as the troops made their way forward in unfamiliar terrain, but a break in the clouds gave a clear view for “about 10 seconds”.
He could see a section of infantry marching in the field parallel to his tank, about 50 yards away, and believed they were from the Royal 22nd Regiment of Canada.
But he then received the message that the Canadians were “nowhere near” and the troops were in fact the enemy.
“Suddenly I could see a flaming onion coming straight at the tank,” he recalled.
“It went straight over the top and whizzed by where I had ducked down a few minutes before.
“This was an anti-tank missile, fired from head on, from the enemy.”
He said there was suddenly an “almighty crash and the tank started filling with smoke and flame”, having been hit by another missile, killing the forward gunner and driver.
The tank careered forward as the driver’s foot had jammed on the accelerator, while pieces of hot shrapnel were “ricocheting round inside” and burning Mr Hutchinson.
He and a gunner managed to stagger out of a hatch and dived into a hedge to take cover.
“Unfortunately, it consisted of a trench, and in the trench were a section of Germans. That’s how we were taken prisoner. I suppose I was just glad just to be alive,” he said.
“I was burnt in various parts, and I had bits of shrapnel scattered throughout my body, arms and hands and I was bleeding and a bit of a mess.
“I was handcuffed to one of their people and I was very shaken.”
Mr Hutchinson was taken to the prisoner of war camp where conditions became “worse and worse” over the following months until it was finally liberated by US forces including General Patton.
He was flown to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force headquarters in France before being taken back to the UK on a Lancaster bomber on VE Day.
“We were particularly grateful to the RAF for giving up their revelry on VE Day to fly us home,” he said.
He telephoned his sister Katherine from the reception centre and took a train to Durham, where she was working in the Land Army.
They had a “joyous reunion” and she informed him that his sister Ruby and mother were alive and well.
Mr Hutchinson met his future wife Jinny at a party on May 21 that year, and they married in June 1946.
They spent 73 years together until her death last year and had five children, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
After the war, Mr Hutchinson transferred from the Royal Tank Regiment into the Royal Army Pay Corps and spent the rest of his service working in finance until his retirement in 1987.