How Doncaster veteran's war led to starring role in film alongside Hollywood star Annette Bening

The cameras were rolling at Doncaster war memorial at South Parade.

Thursday, 13th September 2018, 11:31 am
Updated Thursday, 13th September 2018, 11:37 am
Les Wales,aged 95, from Balby, Doncaster, served with the Royal Army Service Corps during World War War Two. He is pictured with Hollywood acress Annette Bening

A few yards away stood a big name Hollywood actress, present for a scene involving a moving remembrance service.

But the Hollywood actress, Annette Bening, is not the star of this scene. Instead it is 95-year-old Doncaster grandfather Les Wales, one of the borough's few surviving veterans of World War Two.

Les Wales,aged 95, from Balby, Doncaster, served with the Royal Army Service Corps during World War War Two. He is pictured with Hollywood acress Annette Bening

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When a film crew came to film the feature film Hope Gap in the town earlier this year, they requested a genuine war hero to read The Exhortation '“ They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

Les was selected.

Les grew up in Balby, on Marshall Avenue, attending Oswin Avenue School, Leaving school in 1937 aged 14, he got a job initially as an errand boy, then at Stotts Garage near Doncater Racecourse. When the war started, petrol was rationed and demand for the garage fell, so he moved to a job at British Ropes in Balby.

He mixed it with duties as a fire watcher and the Home Guard.

Les Wales, aged 95, from Balby, served with the Royal Army Service Corps during World War War Two. He is pictured with his wife Anna, who he met while serving with the army in Italy

Shortly before he was 18, he applied to join the RAF. He wanted to be an air gunner on Lancaster bombers. but was turned down  because of arthritis in his left foot, which doctors thought could cause him a problem at high altitude. Bomber aircrews had some of the most horrific casualty numbers in the war.

But three weeks after he was rejected by the RAF, he received his call-up papers from the army, and joined the Royal Army Service Corps. He was trained up as a lorry driver, using his previous experience from the garage.

He was initially posted in Britain, learning to drive Bedford three ton lorries in Sheffield.

But early in 1943, he was posted abroad, sailing from Glasgow to Algiers, to serve in North Africa.

There he carried shells in this truck as part of the supply column for the Royal Artillery, as they pushed the Germans back to Tunis.

From there, they were later sent to Sicily, as the army started to invade Italy.

He remembers the terror of the journey across the Mediterranean  '“ which saw him lucky to escape with his life.

He said: 'We went to Sicily in August 1943 in a tank landing craft, carrying about 40 of our vehicles.

'We were attacked by German bombers as we came into the port at Syracuse. One of the bombs was quite close to the stern. The next morning there was no tea for breakfast because it had damaged a pipe. It was a lucky escape..'

From Sicily, they moved into Italy in September.

They spent Christmas in small tents, as deep snow fell in the mountains where they were based. One of the artillery gunners froze to death. 

It was not Les's last lucky escape.

Another came when his unit crossed the Sangro River as they advanced north.

Les's lorry had broken down and had to be repaired.

He said: 'The River Sangro had been well defended and there was quite a battle there. It was a difficult time. Once when were taking ammo, a fan belt broke on my wagon, I had to stop with the breakdown lorry. Another belt was fitted and we went off again. The main convoy had moved on and left us. 

'We got to a bailey bridge, a temporary bridge that our engineers had made, that we used. Those bridges had loose plants that used to rattle. We crossed it and carried on.

'We'd gone maybe 25 yards and there was a shell landed close to us. There was a shell hole with smoke still coming out of it. We'd had a lucky escape.

'We carried on until we got to a village, and an officer told us we were the last to get there. He told us to get out because the Germans were shelling.

'We found out later that drivers had been told to stop at the end end of the bridge, wait, and then after the Germans had fired move on again. Apparently the Germans had been listening for the rattle of the planks on the bridge, and then firing.'

Les remained in Italy until the end of the war. He finally got to see his family for the first time in two and a half years when he was given leave late in 1945. He also finally got to fly in a Lancaster bomber '“ one of the famous aeroplanes carried him back to England.

And while serving in Italy, he also met his Italian future wife, Anna, with whom he enjoyed 57 years of happy marriage, meeting her at a dance in Rome.

After finally leaving the army, he returned to his job at British Ropes, later moving to work at Brodworth Colliery as a diesel locomotive fitter, before he was made redundant in the 80s before the miners strike.

He was proud to be offered a role in the film.

'I'm looking forward to seeing it,' he said. 'I never expected to have a part in a film like that.'