The little-known story of a Bangor man who escaped an Italian prisoner of war camp has thrown up a surprising link to the highly decorated war hero ‘Paddy’ Blair Mayne.
Dundonald man Martyn McCready came to the Spectator offices to share a folder of archive material relating to his uncle, Stanley Milling, a postman from Bangor who served with the Desert Rats during WW2.
Amongst that material was the original copy of a letter of recommendation typewritten and personally signed by Lt Col Robert Blair Mayne.
He and Stanley knew each other through serving with the 5th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery Supplementary Reserve, of which both were members from its foundation.
After the war, Mayne, who was awarded the DSO and Three Bars for his bravery as a member of the SAS, wrote a reference for Stanley Milling.
That letter, dated January 16, 1950, was kept by Stanley and was passed down to his nephew Martyn who kept it safe amongst his uncle’s archive.
Written five years before Mayne’s death, the reference reads: ‘I have known Mr Milling for some eleven years and in that time I have always found him courteous, efficient and trustworthy.
‘He has a fine war record having been Mentioned in Despatches and after escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp being promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer.
‘While in the army he had no difficulty in keeping discipline, being respected by other ranks and trusted by officers.
‘I have no hesitation in recommending him for any appointment in which his capabilities can be properly utilised’.
There was some insight offered into the pre-war experiences of those in the Supplementary Reserve from a newspaper report Stanley kept about a reception he had attended.
This was hosted by Ards Borough Council to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battery’s formation.
The report related how the men had compared the early days of the Battery to being akin to ‘Dad’s Army’ and described graphically their initial training at Movilla, with pick shafts as weapons and of defending the area at Sydenham with only one rifle between them all.
Despite such uninspiring beginnings both Blair Mayne and Stanley Milling had a war marked by bravery.
Though born in Belfast, Stanley was raised in Crawfordsburn, his family having moved there when he was a baby.
Stanley was a lover of the outdoor life from boyhood and was a keen Scout, later joining the Territorial Army in Newtownards when he was old enough.
He was just 19 when the Second World War broke out and he was posted to Alexandria, Egypt, in October 1939 as a bombardier.
Stanley’s Regiment was later involved in the siege of Torbruk in 1941 during which several Ards men were killed or wounded.
The Battery was also involved in several battles with Rommel, the most notable being El Alamein and the second battle of Torbruk, which fell to the Germans on June 21, 1942, resulting in most of the men being taken prisoner.
Stanley, who was by then a sergeant of a gun crew, was amongst those taken prisoner in the desert outside Tobruk.
He was sent to a German POW camp in Chiavari, Italy, and Martyn’s archive includes a copy of the letter he wrote home to his mother following his capture.
In it he tells her he has been wounded but is being treated well by his captors.
He added: ‘Shortly I shall be transferred to a prisoner’s camp and I will let you have my new address. Only then will I be able to receive letters from you and to reply’.
Stanley remained in the camp from June 24, 1942, until he escaped to Switzerland in September 1943 from a train transporting him to Germany.
Says Martin: “Him and another fella jumped off the train and escaped to Switzerland. He stayed in different people’s houses who were friendly with the British and kept on moving until he got to the Switzerland border.”
While in Switzerland Stanley was promoted to Warrant Officer and put in charge of 250 ex-prisoners of war in the Wald Hotel, Arosa.
Later, in 1964, Stanley tried to trace the man he escaped with – a Sgt John Wilson – and wrote to a newspaper in Edinburgh where Wilson’s wife had lived during the time of their capture.
It is not known if he found him, but Martyn says that after his escape Stanley returned to the war and was Mentioned in Despatches for his distinguished service.
He was also awarded four war medals – the Defence Medal, The War Medal, the 1939-45 Star and the Africa Star.
After the war Stanley carved out a career in the Post Office, first in Craigavad and Holywood and latterly in Bangor Post Office.
It was very much a family affair in the Bangor office where Martin’s five uncles also worked and where his aunt Belle was the postmistress.
Stanley and his wife Kathleen (nee Stewart) lived at Rugby Avenue and shared a love for Bangor Parish Church.
Stanley served as churchwarden there and was on the Select Vestry.
Kathleen was clergy secretary at the Parish and got to know the then curate Robin Eames, now Archbishop Eames, who wrote an account of Stanley’s escape from the prisoner of war camp.
Martyn recalls that the couple loved children but were unfortunately unable to have their own.
He also recalls: “He was very interested in motorbikes and he took my aunty in a sidecar everywhere.”
Kathleen outlived her husband by several decades and died just a year ago at the age of 92. Stanley is buried at Clandeboye Cemetery.