Remembrance: East Ham Second World War veteran looks back on nine decades of memories

PUBLISHED: 13:00 11 November 2017

Stanley Silburn, 94, looking through old photographs of his time serving in the Second World War. Picture: Ken Mears

Stanley Silburn, 94, looking through old photographs of his time serving in the Second World War. Picture: Ken Mears


“I’ve had a wonderful life,” remarks Stanley Silburn, as he reflects on 94 years of memories.

Stanley (right) photographed in uniform with a comrade. Stanley (right) photographed in uniform with a comrade.

A husband, father, grandfather and veteran, Stanley has experienced a world war and vast change in his native east London.

As a teenager he served in Africa and Italy, with circumstance introducing him to future wife Margaret, with whom he shared many happy years.

The Second World War – and its predecessor the Great War – defined generations, and Stanley and his peers were no different.

Born in 1923 to John James Silburn and Marie (nee Woollcott), the veteran – who has lived in East Ham for 62 years – grew up in Leyton and Leytonstone with his younger brother David, now 90.

Stanley photographed with his comrades during his war days. Stanley photographed with his comrades during his war days.

Their father managed to purchase a newsagents in Portway, Stratford, and from the age of seven Stanley was “running around the place delivering newspapers”.

His grandparents lived on Wanstead Flats, with his baker grandfather working through the night to make bread. The location meant for many pleasurable walks in Bush Wood.

Like many fathers of the time, Stanley’s had fought in the First World War, on the Western Front, and as was all too common, he kept most of his experiences close to his chest.

“He never had very much to say,” said Stanley. “He was taken prisoner at one stage, he used to say they were harsh with them.

Stanley (left) and a colleague in action as a mechanic during the Second World War. Stanley (left) and a colleague in action as a mechanic during the Second World War.

“I think he had joined up with 3rd Essex or something.

“He was in the ‘Dad’s Army’ [Home Guard] during the Second World War, and used to look down on me as he was a sergeant! He did what he could during the war, he was 47 at the time.”

Stanley was called up aged 18 and served as a mechanic in 554 RAC (Royal Army Service Corps).

“We were like a garage on the move. We were part of Operation Torch in North Africa, then we moved down to Sicily, and from there into the toe of Italy.

Stanley Silburn when he was a young mechanic serving in the Second World War. Stanley Silburn when he was a young mechanic serving in the Second World War.

“I sometimes wonder exactly what we did there because you cannot find anything really about Torch. It’s a huge subject.”

While in the ‘toe of Italy’, Stanley lost a close friend, Alf Holly (aged in his early twenties), who was killed when his vehicle tumbled off the road. “It was really sad,” he said.

But out of sorrow came the beginnings of a new relationship. The man who took over Alf’s role, Jim Pestell, told Stanley his wife Enid – serving in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) in England – had a friend interested in acquiring a pen pal. The woman in question was Margaret, who sent her first letter to Stanley in November 1944.

The couple met for the first time when Stanley, along with 29 of his comrades, was granted a month’s leave when the war ended.

Waiting eagerly at St Pancras station, under the clock, he saw a group of girls arrive.

“Off the platform came about a dozen or more girls in ATS uniform. They all came across and told me they were Margaret.”

Stanley said the group kept up the pretence for at least five minutes, but Enid was anxious to hear news of her husband.

The mechanic met the real Margaret: “There was something there, and that was that.”

Stanley returned to Italy for some time, looking after 300 employees at a staff car company in Caserta. “Back then I was a corporal, a bit posh.”

He and Margaret went on to have two children, Marilyn and Wendy, and Stanley went back to repairing motor cars, and ran 
his father’s newsagents for many years after he fell ill.

Margaret died 18 years ago, aged 78, after many years of happy marriage.

This weekend, Stanley will be attending the Remembrance service in Central Park, East Ham, to honour his colleagues, in particular one old friend.

“I will put Alf’s cross there as I have done every year,” the veteran said. “He was a good pal.”

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