Veterans pour into Portsmouth for special trip set up by London cabbies

WAR heroes who sacrificed their youth to protect the nation from tyranny were the guests of honour at a popular heritage attraction.

Thursday, 10th May 2018, 7:00 am
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 12:31 am
Military Veterans visit Portsmouth's Historic Naval Dockyard Picture: Chris Moorhouse

About 100 veterans were given an exclusive tour of the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard yesterday morning.

Transported from their homes across the country by the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, the former soldiers, sailors and airmen strolled around the dockyard as part of their three-day trip to Portsmouth.

Among the band of retired servicemen included a contingent of Chelsea Pensioners, who all wore their traditional scarlet coats, with medals pinned on their chests and rank stripes on their arms.

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The day out was the group’s second in the city, with Tuesday having seen them stopping off at St Ann’s Church, in the Portsmouth Naval Base to pay tribute to those who sailed in the Arctic Convoys of the Second World War.

Gary Belsey is the chairman of the Taxi Charity, an organisation made up of volunteer London cab drivers, and arranged for an armada of dozens of vehicles to transport the veterans.

He said the trips were seen as a lifeline by many of the servicemen.

‘Days like this mean everything to them,’ he said. ‘We have veterans from Afghanistan who are amputees and it means a lot to them.

‘They go back home and some of them their marriages break up and they become reclusive.

‘So to get them out on trips like this gives them their confidence and self-esteem again.’

The event is marking the charity’s 70th anniversary and comes just days after the 73rd anniversary of VE-Day, that marked the end of the Second World War in Europe.

Gary added: ‘The welcome we have had in Portsmouth has been fabulous, absolutely brilliant. I can’t fault it.’

Among the veterans taking part in the trip was retired sailor Peter Smoothy, 93.

The former Leading Writer in the Royal Navy had served during the Second World War and was part of a landing craft tank crew during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

His heroics helping to transport tanks and troops onto Juno Beach earned him France’s top military honour, the Légion 
d’ Honneur.

He also helped to transport 200 Nazi prisoners of war from Normandy to Britain – the first to arrive in the UK after the pivotal French invasion.

Speaking of his trip to Portsmouth, the decorated war hero said: ‘This has been fantastic, it really has. Since I have been associated with the charity, they have changed my life.

‘They have taken me to places I would never have gone to. It’s been brilliant.’

Peter Henry, 71, a retired member of the Royal Military Police based at their former barracks in Chichester, was one of the Chelsea Pensioners visiting the city.

It was his fourth trip with the Taxi Charity. He said: ‘I can’t thank the generosity of the taxi drivers enough. Nothing is too much trouble for them.’

Friend Terry Conlon, a former Royal Engineer who is also a Chelsea Pensioner living in the Royal Hospital Chelsea, added: ‘This is great. It gets us out of London for a while. It’s just nice to be with the other veterans.’

The charity supports veterans from the Second World War to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

As well as taking groups of veterans to heritage sites across the UK, the organisation also sets up regular trips abroad, to the likes of Normandy and the Netherlands.

Today is the final leg of the Taxi Charity’s three-day stint in Portsmouth, which will see the band of armed forces heroes having a tour of the newly-opened D-Day Story museum, in Southsea.