Wigan war veteran's fighting spirit shines bright on incredible journey

The old saying about getting up again after being knocked down is certainly applicable to a remarkable Wiganer who is Britain's oldest submariner.

Friday, 28th December 2018, 10:36 am
Updated Wednesday, 9th January 2019, 2:49 am
Harry Melling with nephew Matthew Melling

Newtown resident Harry Melling, who did his duty on the front line during World War Two, has enjoyed a remarkable change in his life since he was the victim of a cowardly robbery in his own home.

Other news: Moving tributes to 'top bloke' and Leigh Centurions' commentatorPublicity of the vile attack brought Mr Melling, who is now 98, back to the attention of the Royal Navy.

And he is now invited to every major event organised by the tight-knit community of those who have served the country beneath the waves and rubbed shoulders with everyone from Prince William to former Wigan Athletic owner Dave Whelan.

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A young Harry Melling

Mr Melling reflected on the extraordinary chain of events that began last October when he answered the door to an offender who pulled his trousers down before stealing his wallet and making his getaway.

Despite the public revulsion at the incident and the best efforts of both Mr Melling’s family and Greater Manchester Police (GMP), the person responsible has never been caught.

Mr Melling said: “Someone called and when there is a knock at the door you go to it. Someone just pushed it and put me onto my back.

“Since then there have been a lot of good things happening. When you come to the notice of the authorities they start doing something about it. Certainly for me life has become easier.

“Since that man came to my door there have been good things and not so good things, but you can relatively ignore those because the good things are what you remember. This is the way it should be.”

Mr Melling’s ordeal came to the attention of command warrant officer (CWO) Andy Knox who arranged to drive to the borough to meet him.

He even presented him with a bottle of armed forces port as a gift from the Royal Navy.

During the meeting he also invited Mr Melling to the Submariners’ Remembrance Service and Parade at Middle Temple Gardens in London.

Each year the fraternity of those who have served on board the underwater vessels gather the week before Remembrance Sunday to pay tribute to submariners who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Mr Melling returned to the event this year which turned out to be even more special when the Duke of Cambridge asked personally to speak to him.

Mr Melling said: “He seemed like a very normal person, he could have been almost anyone. I didn’t need to bow!

“He asked me about the job I did so I told him about working in footwear. He also asked where I was from.

“Meeting royalty you do tend to try to act a little better than you would normally, but he put me at my ease and I was more or less eased into speaking to him normally.”

Soon after the callous attack Mr Melling received another invitation, this time from Wigan Athletic who made him a VIP at a home match where he met then-owner Mr Whelan.

Once the military had established Mr Melling was Britain’s oldest-living submariner he quickly found himself going to important occasions, including a journey to Scotland to attend the prestigious Gambit Dinner marking 117 years of Britain having submarines.

Mr Melling was welcomed into the military community with open arms, with people queuing up to speak to him at the event north of the border until 1am and servicemen and women and former personnel all desperate to hear his accounts of the war.

His service between 1939 and 1945 was remarkable, with Mr Melling and the other crew members of HMS Osiris serving in the Mediterranean where they played a role in the Allied invasion of Sicily and even travelling as far as Kenya.

He said: “The Mediterranean was a hot sea, it was far too busy and it was very dangerous. It was more or less only submarines operating there.

“However, it was a good life on board. I got to do things and see things I would never have normally done or seen.

“We had to go all round the south of Africa and then up to Kenya because it would have been too dangerous otherwise. I must admit for someone of my ilk to be going to the middle of Africa was an eye-opener. I was only in my early 20s so it was a real education.

“The place was still British at the time and everyone knew the British. The Kenyan people were as British as a lot of English people were, although they spoke with a different accent. On board a submarine it was quiet. When you dived you stayed down as long as you could and you were waiting for something to happen.

“You weren’t stirring things up, you weren’t creating a situation, but if something did happen you were just hoping you would be there.

“It was quite claustrophobic and the smell after diving was foul, although you got accustomed to it.

“It wasn’t hectic on a submarine, you got your sleep. We got on each other’s nerves a bit but when we went into combat it broke that up.”

The visit to the Scotland base also allowed Mr Melling to see today’s submarines compared to the vessels he served on in the 1940s, and to compare his own experiences with those protecting the country in the 21st century.

He said: “We could only stay below for eight hours. Now they can virtually stay under water forever, seven days or longer.

“I do enjoy meeting the submariners. A lot of them haven’t done what I’ve done.”

The last 12 months or so have also been a source of deep pride for Mr Melling’s family, with great-nephew Matthew taking him to most of the events.

He said: “We always knew my Uncle Harry was amazing and it makes us fantastically proud to see how much respect other people have for him. They’ve all started calling him Uncle Harry at the Navy events.

“At the dinners there’s a tradition where they all have a glass of rum together and he even joined in with that.

“Young and old submariners really look up to him and want to hear his stories.

“It’s all down to the Royal Navy. They have been phenomenal with him, second to none. Going to these events makes you realise what a family it is. In that room they are all so proud to be British and it makes me proud as well.

“It’s strange because he got recognised for the wrong reason.

“If you could go back in time I would rather that had not happened to him but it’s easier to disregard it now because of all the good things that have come since.”