Guest column: Former Second World War hero is an ‘inspiration’

It is hard to imagine a world without kindness: a world solely consisting of pain and hatred.

No love or compassion, nor warmth or benevolence, no forgiveness. Some may believe that we do live in a world full of the words listed above: a world powerfully bound by abhorrence and brutality.

Take, for instance, third world countries and starving children, murder, illness and rape.

Take, for instance, war. Thousands of lives destroyed daily, simply through an act of ignorance – something that has been happening since time began.

A disagreement or a bad decision leading to lives lost, lives ruined, and lives changed. But there is kindness in this world; it is in everyone.

“There is no teacher like life,” says Ray Ellis, a 94 year old World War II veteran from Nottinghamshire.

Full of honesty, morality, and not to mention a quick sense of humour, Ray is one of those inspirational people who you look at in awe.

For a man who has witnessed such unimaginable horrors and seen the truly horrific side of war, he is full of kind-heartedness and humanity, and possibly the most moving and heart-wrenching memoirs to ever be told.

You would think that bringing a room full of seventeen year old boys to the point of tears would seem to be a rather bizarre and difficult experience indeed, but more than 60 years after his war ended, Ray has no trouble moving the teens to absolute pieces. In a talk with the Year 12 Uniformed Services students from Ashfield Post 16, Ray shared with the class some of his invaluable life lessons from his time spent in the services.

His story begins on a bitter January night at the beginning of the war, his heart brimming with pride and determination as he made off from everything he knew back in England for one of his most difficult and life-changing experiences where he fought in the Western desert.

He says with the utmost modesty, “I am not a brave man; there was a job to do. I love England, and this is my country, it is my way of life.”

The battle lasted a terrible six months; with little equipment and constant bombing by the Italians, the true horrors of war really did hit home for the young bombardier. At the end of the battle, Ray was told to bury the dead soldiers. He was just 19 years of age. “When I left for the war, I was leaving behind something I would never find again: my youth.”

Although Ray lost many things during his time fighting for England, there was one thing he found to be invaluable: a lesson, “At school, nothing taught me as much as the war.” During The Siege of Tobruk, a confrontation that lasted for a gruelling 241 days and took up to 3,836 lives, Ray tells of the true horror he experienced and of learning things that have stuck with him to this day. “We were always in action, day and night – it was the longest siege in Great British Military history!”

During the talk, Ray speaks of other experiences within his time as a soldier, but one of the most prominent and inspiring would be his time as a prisoner of war, a truthfully inspiring tale. “We trekked 1000 miles through Libya. We had no food and no water, I was close to dying of starvation – and men did die, all the time. We were being sent to a concentration camp in Italy.”

“Whilst we were walking through Naples, the locals came out from their houses to jeer and mock us as we were marched. But then something magical happened.

“A little girl came running up to me from the crowds, and placed something into my hand. It was a peach.

“It was like a sunny day, in a very long period of bad weather. And this is what is important; you have to remember that there will always be a girl with a peach, however hard life gets.”

Modestly, Ray almost skims past his story of escape, not going into detail at all about how he managed to get away from the concentration camp, not once but twice!

“I came here today to give you some idea of what it’s like to be in a real war,” he explains to the Uniformed Services class. “A great value to me in my life is something so precious: people. I learned many great secrets in a very hard school - the war. Experiencing the kindness of my enemies made me a kinder man – I didn’t want to harm anyone.”

After the war, Ray further exampled his kindness and the will of wanting to share the life lessons he learnt during the war, in becoming a teacher and then a headmaster.

Ray’s final message to the class is a poignant one, leaving the class utterly inspired: “I have lived a very long and enjoyable life, and I have done many things. But the one thing I want to leave with you is to be a kind person: be the girl with the peach.”

There are horrors in our world. Not everything is plain sailing, or happy and easy, and life has always been this way. But remembering the most important things makes life so much better. We all fight our own ongoing battles, but wherever we are, and in whatever situation, we’re surrounded by love and compassion, our family and friends, kindness. So just remember, there will always be that sunny day in the long period of bad weather. “There will always be a girl with a peach.”