Students spent time on Monday (2nd July) interviewing 92-year-old D-Day veteran Hector Duff, creating a video that will form a lasting educational resource.
The St Ninian’s High School students posed questions, submitted by schools all over the Island, to the Military Medal holder.
St Ninian’s has had an association with Mr Duff dating back some 15 years and he now visits schools all over the Island to bring history alive for pupils.
Mduduzi (Year 10), confidently acted as the compere for the questioning, which took place in a specially set up TV studio at St Ninian’s.
Mrs Ewan, Head of History, had the unenviable task of selecting from the many questions, which covered Mr Duff’s call up to the Desert Rats, the Army’s 7th Armoured Division, his time in the desert in Egypt, his return home with an injury and his role on the beaches at D-Day and his journey through France and into Germany, where he was present at the liberation of Belsen concentration camp.
Year 9 students, who have learned about World War II this year, formed the audience and posed the questions to Mr Duff, with Mr Townsend from the DEC’s ICT section and students behind the camera.
Mr Duff was a 20-year-old, newly invalided out of deep sea sailing and back at his rural Sulby home contemplating what life had in store for him when he was called up to serve and he said: ‘Anyone that says they weren’t frightened going into war, they are not telling the truth.’
He spoke of daily life at war, with little sleep, bully beef, hard biscuits for rations and foul-tasting water, often contaminated with salt by the enemy and in short supply, to drink.
When he and his fellow soldiers came across fallen comrades or enemies, a necessary priority was to relieve them of their ration packs, he said.
He vividly described landing on the beach at Normandy on D-Day in 1944, the very worst of the German onslaught over but shelling continuing.
He is modest about the actions in saving the life of a commanding officer that led him to receive the Military Medal and has been reluctant to have ‘MM’ used after his name, as the honour permits, although he says the citation on his office wall at his Onchan home is a daily reminder of the event in which he ran, with little ammunition, towards enemy soldiers.
He lost hundreds of friends during the war and said: ‘We weren’t put on this earth to kill but it was kill or be killed.’ Nevertheless, he said it was hard when rifling through a fallen soldier’s possessions for his identity to come across a photo of a wife or family.
Mr Duff admitted he was as frightened on his last day fighting as he was on his first.
Asked about his return to the Island and his new wife, who he’d seen once during the war, he said: ‘I never thought for one moment that I’d come home alive. Many, many a time you were surprised that you had outlived yesterday.’
Asked whether – if he could travel back in time and have a choice – he’d go to war again he said he would, out of a sense of duty to King and country.
The war taught him a lot about friendship, he said. ‘When I went away I was a very green boy from the country but I came back a man.’
Demobbed with just the standard £81 Government payment to show for six years at war, he joined the Isle of Man Constabulary, where he served with distinction for 30 years.
Mr Duff said that in the whole of Britain there were just five men left from his Regiment in the Normandy Veterans’ Association, plus one in America, who he keeps in email contact with.
The President of the Onchan branch of the Royal British Legion, he said he wore his medals with pride now at Remembrance Day and Armed Forces Day, not from any sense of self-satisfaction but to honour fallen comrades.
Asked if he considered himself a hero, he said unequivocally: ‘No. I know perfectly well, I have seen men do far, far braver things than I did.’
And he spoke of the pleasure he gets helping students at St Ninian’s to learn from his first-hand accounts of war, saying: ‘I receive such wonderful letters and cards. I think more of them than if the King had given £50.’
Mrs Ewan said: ‘Hector brings history events to life. It is incredibly valuable for students to hear first hand of the experiences of soldiers. A textbook is never going to explain how it felt to be under fire, or to lose your friends, or how much better the American food was.
‘It was particular poignant to hear Hector say that as soon as he had been in action, he never expected to return to the Island alive. This resource will allow all schools access to the experience of hearing a hero talk of his war. St. Ninian’s was honoured to be able to host Hector.’