Meet the Second World War hero to whom Europe owes an enormous debt
PUBLISHED: 12:31 11 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:31 11 September 2019
© Archant Norfolk 2014
His selfless heroics helped free much of France, Belgium and the Netherlands from the stranglehold of the Nazis during the Second World War.
And now, 75 years after his efforts helped liberate the Dutch town of Valkenswaard, Coldstream Guard Thomas Twite will be welcomed back as guest of honour as those who sacrificed their lives are remembered.
The 96-year-old - who lives in Dereham - was part of the Guards Armoured Division during the war and landed at Normandy in 1944.
He remained in mainland Europe until conflict finally came to an end, liberating Brussels and a number of Dutch towns during what was the fastest military advance in history until the Iraq War.
On the road to Arnhem he supported Operation Market Garden, as well as a host of other famous battles including Goodwood, Bluecoat and Grouse.
Later this week, Mr Twite will depart for Valkenswaard to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its liberation, a moment in history for which the town is eternally grateful.
Three quarters of a century later, he speaks about his wartime experience in a startlingly assured and phlegmatic manner.
"I spent the vast majority of the time on the inside of a tank - that was my life for two years," said Mr Twite.
"When we liberated Brussels, they hoisted me out of my tank because they thought war was over. They'd been starving and, until we arrived, we didn't realise just how close people were to starvation.
"The main purpose of our advance was to liberate the troops who were stuck down in Arnhem but, as far as I was concerned, our objective was Eindhoven. We carried on there and, in the end, we took it - plus all the places in between.
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"As far as I'm concerned, I am the only Coldstream Guard left that landed in France and went right through to the end of the war."
Following the war, Mr Twite Was sent to Palestine to police the influx of Jews from all Europe, but soon realised being in the army was no longer for him.
"I joined the army on account of the war, and the war was won," he added. "Being in Palestine just wasn't for me. They told me promotion would be quick but that wasn't of any concern to me."
Having already been guest of honour at the town's 70th anniversary celebration in 2014, Mr Twite is set to leave for Valkenswaard on Friday, September 13, alongside family members including his nephew, Bob Hindry.
An image of the distinguished former tank operator - awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 2015 - can be found in the town hall and, according to Valkenswaard's mayor, will remain pride of place for hundreds of years to come.
Mr Hindry, who takes great pride in his uncle's bravery, says the pilgrimage to the Netherlands is a trip Mr Twite wouldn't miss for the world.
"There were so many situations where Tom so narrowly managed to stay alive, and his friends did not," added Mr Hindry. "But all you hear from him at these anniversary occasions is 'why me?'
"Last time a man came up to Tom to thank him and just kept crying," said Mr Hindry. "He and many others had waited 70 years to do that, and to finally get it off his chest triggered this outpouring of emotion. Later on he brought his son over and got him to shake Tom's hand.
"That's the difference between our countries. They will not let their children forget and they ensure their kids are totally involved in these celebrations.
"I feel nothing but respect for people like Tom when it comes to the war, as do most people in Britain. But people in Holland have a different attitude. If someone sees Tom in the street wearing his medals, they will actively stop to go and shake his hand.
"His story could be the last of a veteran who landed in Normandy and was there at the end of the war. I don't think I would be here if it wasn't for people like Tom."