I've backed Poppy Appeal for 60 years

PETER Chubb knows about the horror of war. In the 1940s he was a Guardsman in faction-torn Palestine. Then, nearly four decades on, his Royal Marine son was seriously injured in the Falklands.

PETER Chubb knows about the horror of war. In the 1940s he was a Guardsman in faction-torn Palestine. Then, nearly four decades on, his Royal Marine son was seriously injured in the Falklands.

“War is a terrible thing for people who really know; who really experience it,” says the 80-year-old. “It's a ghastly business. I've been to Holland and seen the graves of some of the men I served with. We trained together but were put into different sections. I could have been with them. It's the luck of the draw.

“War hurts so many people. And this, I think, is why I have a great pleasure and sense of duty to distribute poppies.”

Peter first collected for the appeal in the mid-1940s, when he was recovering from the illness that brought him back to England from Palestine and eventually saw him invalided out of the Coldstream Guards.

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“I remember distinctly. I was in 'hospital blues'. In those days, if you came back injured or ill, you were issued with a blue uniform and it stood out. 'He's a blues man.' You could walk into any cinema free of charge. I remember once, at the break, I was served with tea on a tray and biscuits!

“Then I was asked if I would go and distribute poppies. I was up and about by that time. So out I went. In those days it was 'Penny for the poppy'. I stood there with a tin and no-one ever passed me by.

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“Now I can stand at Morrisons (the superstore in Sproughton Road, Ipswich) - who are very kind to us - and very rarely will anyone pass without putting money in.

“Whereas it used to be a penny, now it's a pound or more. I remember last year this dear lady came out in a wheelchair and said 'Oh, I must have my poppy.' She took out a ten-pound note. I said 'I'm sorry, I can't give change.' 'I don't want any change,' she said.

“I happened to speak to someone afterwards who knew her and he said her son had been a Spitfire pilot, and was lost. It's very poignant.”

Peter's own military career began in the days of conscription. The lad from Kingsbridge in Devon came of age in the early autumn of 1944 and was soon in uniform.

“One week I was 18; the next minute it was the sergeant major bawling at me on the barrack square,” he smiles - a West Country burr still there in his voice.

“For my mother, it was horrendous, because we'd just had word that my brother had been killed in action in North Africa and then I had to go. I always admired the ladies during the war: they never knew what part of the world their men were in. The only way to get hold of anybody in those days was by telegram and you used to dread seeing the boy on his bike, riding up and down the street, because you knew somewhere they'd be some bad news.”

Peter, a Royal British Legion county vice-president, fetches his immaculately suit. On one side of the jacket are his own medals; on the other are his brother's, including an oak leaf: a special award for bravery and a mention in dispatches. William was in a reserved occupation but wanted to serve his country.

He was 30 when he died. He and his colleagues from The Duke of Wellington's Regiment were in the desert when they realised German forces were counter-attacking. William grabbed a Bren gun, went up onto a knoll, and held back the enemy while his platoon got away.

“Unfortunately, if you put yourself in a position like that in the field, somebody's going to get you, and he got killed by a sniper.”

Teenage conscript Peter went to Caterham barracks in Surrey for a couple of months, “to knock the corners off. You grow up very quickly. It was an establishment to sort out the men from the boys, as it were, and it was pretty traumatic for an 18-year-old. All you were qualified for at that age was doing what you were told!”

England, at that time, was suffering badly because of flying bombs.

“I found out that warrant officers and sergeants in the Guards were human. We were asked to help clear up a house that had been hit. I was only 18 when I came across the torso of a young girl. You stop, the first time.

“I felt a hand on my shoulder and a voice said 'Come along lad. We shall clear this up and we shall see a lot worse before this bloody lot's over.' I turned and it was the colour sergeant from the Guards. He was digging as well as we were. And I thought 'These people are human. They don't all just shout, scream and bark.'”

At Caterham came battle training school at Pirbright, also in Surrey. Afterwards, Peter became part of 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards.

Some of his fellow Guardsmen went to Nijmegen, on the Dutch/German border, where it was “a bit hairy”, he says with understatement. The German troops tried repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to blow up a key bridge. Peter went there briefly, when “the Germans were packing up”.

It looked odds-on he would go out to fight against the Japanese - was, in fact, kitted out for it - “and we weren't looking forward to that! But the Americans dropped the atomic bombs and that was the end of that.

“We were re-routed to Palestine. Trouble was brewing there. It was the same position there as it is now: we were the meat in the sandwich, trying to keep this one apart and that one apart. Irgun Tsvai Leumi” - a militant Zionist group - “was one lot of terrorist, and there was (David) Ben-Gurion” - who in 1949 would become prime minister of Israel - “and his gang, and then there was the Stern Gang (a Zionist underground organisation).

“So there were three groups to contend with. It's a miserable business - terrorism war. You never know where things are coming from; you've got no friends.

“You had to be on your mettle the whole time - especially when you were in barracks or on sentry duty. You had to watch everything that went on. Even the cat could frighten you to death!

“It wasn't pleasant. I was out there when one gang captured two intelligence sergeants of the Army. They were, I'm afraid, despatched and they were found in an orchard, having been hung and obviously tortured. It was a most unpleasant time.”

Peter was there for about two years.

“Unfortunately I contracted double bronchiole-pneumonia. I was very, very ill. This was in the days of M&B tablets. You wouldn't remember those. Dirty great tablets. And penicillin was injected with a needle like a bodkin! Every three hours . . .”

After being invalided out of the Guards, Peter returned to Devon before he and wife Audrey headed for the other side of the country. He'd always wanted to be involved with veterinary medicine, and worked as a radiographer at the PDSA animal hospital in Ilford - “a very satisfying job”.

“Then the family started to grow and the salary didn't grow at a commensurate rate,” he smiles, “so I went into the commercial side as a rep for a large veterinary instrument firm. And I thoroughly enjoyed it; I really did: travelling many, many miles, and meeting some lovely people.”

The family later moved to Suffolk and he says all his children - two girls and two boys - grew up in the county.

When son Stephen was out in the Falklands during the 1982 conflict, Peter experienced war from a different perspective.

“I was getting it from the other angle: I was a parent waiting to hear. Unfortunately, he got very seriously injured on the last day of the fighting. And that's a swine. I then knew how other people had felt when I was in service.”

It was a tough period. Stephen had been one of the Royal Marines sent to deal with the Argentinian scrap metal merchants who established a camp on South Georgia and laid the foundations for the conflict. Less than a fortnight later, an Argentinian invasion force took the islands.

“Anyway, they (the Marines) were captured and were shipped to Argentina. We lost contact with them, and so did the authorities, for a couple of weeks. That's very distressing.

“He came back from that and was repatriated. You're not allowed to put repatriated troops back into the arena, unless they've volunteered to do so, but being young Royal Marine commandos . . . As Steve said, they weren't staying there. And back he went.”

He was close to making it home safely, too.

His father explains: “He and someone else went out to get some rations that had been dropped by a helicopter, on the last day of the fighting. At this time they were very close to the capital, which they were then going to take.

“The Argentinians saw the Marines go out and lobbed some shells in. Poor old Steve was only six feet or eight feet away from a shell when it exploded. His friends saw him go up in the air and thought 'That's Steve who's gone.'

“He had any amount of pints of blood when they got him back to the station. Both arms were broken, his shoulder was smashed up. He had injuries to his back, injuries to his head. He was in a mess. Blast injuries and shrapnel.

“Of course, we didn't know all that. All we knew was that he'd been seriously injured. We weren't told the extent of his injuries, which I suppose in a way was just as well. But, again, it was - what? - another three weeks wondering what was happening.”

Peter says the Falklands conflict had the same effect as the first and second world wars in uniting the country. Today he lives near Ipswich; then, the family home at the time was at Bacton, near Stowmarket, and every day people would ask how Steve was.

“As soon as he was seriously injured, you could feel the goodwill around you. I remember a veteran of the first world war stopped me one day. 'Tell me,' he said, 'how's that boy of ours?' He was 'their boy' - not just my son.” Peter proudly gets out a photograph of a very-young-looking son on his passing-out day.

Fortunately, Stephen recovered from his injuries and was able to work for some time in office jobs for the Royal Marines before finally being invalided out of the forces - “I must say they did look after him,” says his dad - though the incident put paid to an active career as a commando.

“But as he once said to us: 'Don't worry about me; I'm all right. There's 250 of my mates back there who are never coming home.'”

The grandfather of eight gazes out of the window at the bright autumn day. “War is not nice. It's good we remember that. People who stop and put money in will often talk about their son being involved in the forces somewhere.”

He says visiting the war graves emphases the cost of violent conflict. His wife's father was injured in the First World War, and one of her uncle's names is commemorated on the Nijmegen Gate.

Sadly, the lives of British service personnel are still in jeopardy around the globe - not always, he thinks, for the right reasons.

“Now we've got our forces involved in two areas of conflict: Iraq, which is a beastly situation, and Afghanistan, which is an equally difficult place to go.”

Saddam Hussein was “a bit of a swine”, but America wanted the oil, he suggests, “and I think our soldiers aren't fighting for king and country: they've been pushed over there by the politicians”.

Folk like George W Bush are safe. “No members of his family, as far as I know, are involved. It's your son, and my son, that he's sent over there to do this; and look at the casualties they're taking. I don't know . . . Politicians . . . Irresponsible people, sometimes.”

Do most of his mates in the Royal British Legion share those views? “Yes,” he answers without hesitation. “We shouldn't be there and we shouldn't be in Afghanistan either.”

So with British forces still putting their lives on the line, the message, then, is to keep giving - because the need will always be there.

“Yes. And, of course, if people know of any ex-service person who needs help, for heaven's sake get in touch with us, because that's what we're there for.”

FOR most of the year the poppy appeal is a bit like a swan: all might appear quiet and serene on the surface but, underneath, the legs are paddling away like mad.

Or, put more succinctly by Robin Hitchcock, county poppy appeal controller in Suffolk, it's “5% intense activity - as it is now - and 95% of the time planning for that intense activity”.

The reason for the frantic period is the rule that bars poppies being made available to the general public earlier than a fortnight before Remembrance Sunday (on November 12 this year).

The retired major who served in Malaya, Oman, Germany and Northern Ireland, raises an eyebrow as he mentions Children in Need, which comes to a head with the telethon on November 17, yet which has been widely trailed for weeks on the BBC.

Money raised from the poppy appeal goes to the Royal British Legion's benevolent fund and is then used to help existing and ex-service personnel and/or their dependents: a widow or widower, and children under the age of 18.

Last year Suffolk raised £451,000 - up from £427,000 in 2004. The total made Suffolk the seventh most successful fund-raising county in England (up from ninth) in terms of money collected per head of the population.

Peter Gipson, chairman of Suffolk Royal British Legion, says the last world war might have ended more than 60 years ago, but today's news reports remind us UK armed forces continue to put their safety on the line.

“Even if all war ceased tomorrow, the young lads in Afghanistan being banged about will need help for the next 50 years or more. And the job gets more and more expensive. One would think that with the Second World War generation falling by the wayside, we wouldn't have the expense, but we're spending more and more.

“I think perhaps 10 or 12 years ago I thought it would be tapering off, as we lose my parents' generation. But no. And we're stretching out into other areas that we haven't looked at before.” Nationally, the Legion's found that 25% of homeless people have a forces background. “And that's a stunning figure, because there isn't a high proportion of ex-forces people in the wider community.

“We get guys getting off the train and wandering into the Royal British Legion office and saying 'I'm homeless.' That happened in Bury St Edmunds.

“We also reach out into prisons now, and we're finding ex-forces people there. There are some things we can do for them, but not a great deal.

“So there's a problem. And that's what we're here to help with.”

In meeting that need in Suffolk, the Royal British Legion has so far this year received 483 applications for assistance and spent £222,170 on welfare. Thirty-one of those requests sought help with the cost of adaptations to bathrooms, 30 asked for assistance with the cost of installing stair-lifts, and there were 52 requests for electric-powered vehicles.

Other help has involved riser/recliner chairs; beds and bath aids; assistance with rent deposits for separated wives or homeless ex-servicemen; adaptations to gardens and driveways to make them wheelchair-friendly; respite breaks; emergency payments to meet outstanding utility bills; repairs to property, including central heating, and making it possible for serving soldiers to return home for family funerals.

The Legion has also helped 12-year-old Felixstowe lad Ben Hart, who has cerebral palsy, with a home computer system to help with his writing.

There's a well-oiled machine raising the money to make possible assistance like this.

Robin is full of admiration for the team: committed people like the five ladies who between them devoted about 160 years' service to the appeal. Then there's the organiser who travelled 1,750 in a year on poppy-related business.

“We could not do it without volunteers giving up their time,” he says. “They're out in all weathers, for no personal gain. Without them, we'd be dead in the water.”

Working with him are five assistant poppy appeal controllers whose areas correspond more or less with district council territories. Ipswich fell under the auspices of Peter Thompson, who died in the summer, but his widow and family are this autumn carrying out poppy duties in his memory.

The assistant controllers work with 211 appeal organisers, who in turn look after a veritable army of collectors - between 2,000 and 3,000 folk who epitomise the ongoing concern for those in need of a helping hand.

“The Royal British Legion cares - its members and its supporters,” says Peter Gipson. “The need is still there. Support the Poppy Appeal as you've never done before.”

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