LIKE hundreds of others, Glenys Atherton can’t take her annual walk to place a Remembrance cross at the Pots and Pans war memorial this year due to national coronavirus restrictions.
Instead, Glenys will pay her private respects to Britain’s fallen soldiers at her Greenfield home, remembering particularly her grandfather – Thomas Lloyd Jones – killed in the trenches during World War One.
She gives thanks also for a remarkable moment during the Second World War when his son – her father, Thomas ‘Ginger’ Jones – escaped death by a German firing squad.
Five other men perished at a bleak spot in the French countryside on August 9, 1944.
Tripping in laceless shoes as he fled from the bullets and then left for dead, the one-time coal miner found refuge with a family from the French resistance.
Comrade Serge Vaculik was the only other survivor who lived to tell the tale of their brush with death and daring exploits as members of the first ever SAS (Special Air Services) regiment founded in 1941.
Glenys, born in December 1946 and wife of former Saddleworth doctor David Atherton, told the Independent: “If dad had been killed by that firing squad I wouldn’t be here and our family history would have been so different.”
Wigan-born Thomas, who spent the last few years of his life in Springhead, eventually died in December 1990, aged 76. Czech national Vaculik, his war time pal and fellow commando, passed away incredibly the following day.
After their great escapes Thomas and Vaculik helped liberate the area before turning their thoughts to seek justice for their murdered comrades.
The pair even borrowed the local Mayor’s car to return to the site of the execution to retrieve evidence to present at the war trials against the German perpetrators.
During this post war time Vaculik started to pen his story for a book called Air Commando, also known as Beret Rouge, meeting up with Thomas to share reminiscences.
They belatedly received the Croix de Guerre – one of the highest French military honours – in 1964.
The five murdered by the Nazi guns were awarded the medal posthumously. Their bodies were exhumed from makeshift graves in a chateau orchard and buried at the memorial cemetery in Beauvais.
Glenys knows only too well those graves could have been dug for her father. So, at this time of year she remembers Thomas’s comrades who didn’t make it out alive one of whom particularly who drew fire to sacrifice his life for his friends.
The deeds of Thomas and Vaculik and other SAS fighters are brought to life in a new book by author and filmmaker Damien Lewis-SAS Band of Brothers.
“It is an amazing read because Damien really gets into the souls of these men,” added Glenys.
“Dad had a great sense of humour and was full of mischief but was absolutely fearless. He wasn’t very tall – probably 5’7 or 5’8 – but powerful and not frightened of anything or anyone.
“He never suffered fools gladly and you did as you were told as a child. But I loved him to his marrow.”
Like many soldiers of his generation and those before him Thomas, a keen teenage footballer and amateur boxer, was often reticent to unburden on others his war time experiences.
As an SAS man, under the command of legendary Irishman Paddy Mayne, he was involved in missions in North Africa, Italy and France.
It was in France where the patrol were betrayed and ambushed when parachuting into an area south of Paris for his near fatal saboteurs’ mission.
“I knew there was some form of escapade and I knew there was a book (Air Commando) about it but my mum and dad would never let me read it,” recalls Glenys, a retired teaching assistant.“I also knew he had nightmares. It was always difficult on the anniversary of the execution. He never worked on that day.
“He would take himself off and go for a drink. It was his way of dealing with it.
“Things were so different then because post-traumatic stress was never recognised.
“You had to pick yourself up and get on with it. Eventually though when he was in hospital he talked more about the war than he had done his entire life.
“I remember going to see him when it was close to Bonfire Night and he was crying. I had never ever seen my dad cry before.
“I asked him why and he said could I not hear the banging from all the fireworks. He said they should be banned or silenced.
“He said if I had seen friends lying there like he had seen them you would know why he felt that way.
“Within hours of his death people were phoning me up; men who had served with him in the SAS telling me what a fearless warrior dad had been.
“Even the SAS got in touch asking if there was any help I needed and this was a time before people really had mobile phones.”
It was the SAS who discovered Vaculik – also known as Jean Dupontel – had passed away less than 24 hours after his great mate, Ginger.
After the war Glenys’ father returned to the mines before eventually becoming a steward at local clubs in the Wigan area.Mum of four Glenys, widowed in March 2020 when David passed away aged 74, has proudly regaled tales of her dad’s combat adventures during talks to youngsters at St Agnes Primary School and Limehurst Primary where she worked.
She has also spoken to gatherings of the Royal British Legion members about the man who moved to Scotland just so he could join the 11th commando unit of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Proving his worth to his superiors ‘Ginger’ – nicknamed because of his hair colour – was then picked out to become part of the inaugural SAS squad founded by Colonel David Stirling.
Who Dares Wins became the SAS’s fabled motto. On August 9, 1944 Thomas Jones dared to defy a German execution squad and won with his life.