The moment a World War II veteran is reunited with a comrade whose ‘funeral’ he went to 67 years ago
When Harry Finlayson’s tank was destroyed in a fierce firefight with the Afrika Korps in Libya in 1941, his superiors and comrades assumed the worst and held a military funeral for their fellow fighter.
Among those grieving the loss of their friend was Sergeant Gerry Solomon, who spent nearly 70 years believing Harry had died.
But Harry was very much alive – after surviving the attack and being held as a prisoner of war – and yesterday the two friends were met up for a ‘stunning’ reunion.
Harry Finlayson, 93, from Somerset, was reported ‘missing, presumed dead’ in 1941 after the German Afrika Korps destroyed his tank at Tobruk.
His superiors assumed he was dead after finding a body at the wreckage site, and held a military funeral in Libya – with his wife awarded a widow’s pension.
It was not until three months after the conflict on November 23 that he sent his wife a letter telling her he had survived. But his Tank Corps comrades had no idea of his safety.
It was only when Harry’s daughter advertised his ‘greatly exaggerated demise’ in a military magazine he was brought back into touch with Mr Solomon, now 92.
The two met for a private reunion yesterday and are due to be presented with HM Armed Forces Veterans Badges in Colchester, Essex tonight.
Harry said of Mr Solomon: ‘We were great friends in the desert and I had a photograph of him and I by the Pyramids. We chatted for one and half hours. Oh yes, he was surprised – he said, “I thought you were dead!”‘
In turn, Mr Solomon said he was ‘stunned’ to hear news of his friend’s resurrection. Both agreed they hardly recognised each other with the passing years.
Mr Finlayson, a retired telephone engineer, was part of Operation Crusader – an attempt to relieve the siege of Tobruk in the North African campaign.
He was held in Stalag 344 for the remainder of the war and was eventually liberated by the Americans.
Recalling the moment of his ‘demise’, Mr Finlayson recalled how his damaged radio caused him to miss an order to pull back. He carried on fighting until his machine was disabled and he and his three-man crew were captured.
He told BBC Radio: ‘I didn’t hear the retirement [order] and I went straight on into the German lines.
‘The driver said we were running out of petrol so I said: “There’s our lines, go like mad'”.
‘But one of their tanks hit my tank and blew the engine right out of it and we were surrounded by Germans, so I was taken prisoner.’
Tank commander Harry Finlayson’s first tank – similar to the one which was destroyed, leading to his capture by the Germans and presumed death
Mr Solomon volunteered for the Army in 1939. He saw action in the North Africa Campaign under Field Marshal Montgomery, including at El Alamein and the relief of Tobruk.
He served in France and was evacuated from Dunkirk.
The Services Personnel and Veterans Agency, part of the Ministry of Defence, has helped to arrange the reunion, and Mr Finlayson travelled to Colchester in style, in a Royal Tank Corps staff car.