Excerpt from the Express And Star Newspaper January 21st 2005
The day I helped a hero win his VC
By Peter Rhodes
Jan 21, 2005
Jim Miller is 94 and, true to Army tradition, has been called Dusty ever since 1931 when he enlisted in the Poor Bloody Infantry.
He doesn’t look his age. As we chat in the living room at his home in Leamore, Walsall, Dusty Miller looks like a spry seventy-something. And then he reaches far back into history and recalls his earliest memory, of a Zeppelin raid on Tyneside in the First World War.
Two of our planes attacked it and it burst into two lots of flame. I was holding hands with my mother and we could see the crew jumping out and falling to their death.
“I said, ‘Ma, look at those poor men’ but she said ‘They’re only Germans’.”
It was the age of Empire. Britain ruled the world and Brits had little time for foreigners. By the time he was 20 young Jim had been sent off to Canada to work as a farm-hand. Returning to dirt-poor Britain he did what the Millers had always done. He joined the Durham Light Infantry. Soon he was guarding the Jewel in the Imperial Crown, India.
By 1938 he had served his time and was married and living in Walsall with a baby on the way. Then Hitler invaded Poland and Private Miller was recalled to the colours.
In May, 1940 he was digging trenches in France, awaiting the Nazi invasion in high spirits. Britain had beaten the Huns in 1918 and would surely do it again.
“We were told the Germans were a load of duffers,” he chuckles. “Everyone knew their tanks were just cars covered in cardboard.”
A 1939 greetings card from the troops showed the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, slaying Hitler with a single umbrella thrust.
And then reality arrived in the sinister form of Stuka dive-bombers. Stuck in a field with a single machine gun, Dusty Miller tried hopelessly to shoot them down.
“I was firing away and this one went by so low and so close I could see the pilot. He was waving and smiling at me.”
As well he might. In the days that followed the full might of German Blitzkrieg fell on the Brits.
“They were so well organised,” says the old soldier. “Nothing could stand against them.”
The Brits fell back. By May 15 they were defending the south side of the River Dyle, east of Brussels.
It was a bitter battle, Germans and Brits blazing away at close range. In in the midst of the action was a young officer, Dickie Annand.
“I’d only noticed him a couple of times before but he seemed very nice. He was always smiling, a bit like Tony Blair.”
Annand raced forward to the top of a ridge, pelting the Germans below with hand grenades. He was wounded but went back again for more grenades.
“I was filling a sandbag with grenades for him,” says Dusty Miller, “and he was slinging them, dozens of them. God Almighty, he killed some Germans.”
The officer managed to withdraw his platoon and then, regardless of his own safety, went back alone to rescue his wounded batman in a wheelbarrow.
A few days later, on the road to the coast, Dusty Miller was knocked unconscious when his convoy was bombed. He was kicked awake by a German soldier who then smashed a rock in his face, destroying his sense of smell for ever.
He spent the next five years in prisoner-of-war camps, escaping in the final days of the war and riding to safety in Czechoslovakia on a tank of the victorious Russian Army.
Jim Miller came home to Walsall, raised a family with wife Marion (they have been married for 66 years) and had no further contact with his old regiment until 1969.
Then he attended a DLI reunion. He thought he recognised a tall officer in the crowd.
“You mean Captain Annand VC?” said a comrade.
And that was the first Dusty Miller knew that the rearguard battle in 1940 had resulted in Dickie Annand being awarded the Army’s first Victoria Cross of the Second World War.
The pair became firm friends, exchanging letters and re-visiting the scene of their finest hour. Annand always seemed slightly embarrassed at his award, repeatedly stating that every member of his platoon deserved a medal.
Captain Dickie Annand died on Christmas Eve aged 90. Although his old officer had been ill for some time, Dusty Miller admits he was shaken by the news.
A memorial service for the officer, who devoted his post-war years to working for the disabled, will be held in Durham Cathedral early next month. Dusty Miller, the oldest survivor of the dwindling band of DLI war veterans, says he is probably not fit enough to attend.
Sixty-five years after the battle on the River Dyle, he is proud of the dogged way his battalion held off the Germans in order for their mates to escape. And he is proud to have been associated with a man who received the ultimate award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
The strange part, says Dusty Miller, is that at the time as a 30-year-old private, the action seemed nothing special.
“It was just a battle. We were fighting hard and bullets were flying everywhere. But it seemed like just another battle. Ah, such memories.”