Driving home from a fishing trip, Walter Gingell suddenly realised he was losing his sight. “The white line went all wavy like a snake. I followed a lorry all the way back to Sheffield. I managed to get home, put the car in the garage and I have never been able to drive since,” is the matter of fact of way he describes what must have been a shocking event in his life.
Walter had spent much of his career behind the wheel as a delivery driver, mainly for cutlery and silversmith companies.
So being unable to see to drive was a huge life-change for him. He says his late wife and family were a big help to him at the time. And it was his daughter Lorraine who introduced him to SRSB services at Mappin Street. Twelve years later, at the age of 93, he still visits every week.
“I like it very much. We get a good meal, I’ve got nice friends here who look after me," said Walter. And as a driver himself until he retired he especially appreciates the transport to the centre. “We’ve got a nice driver, Dennis, who brings us and he looks after us. He fetches me from my door. I would never get out if he didn’t bring me.
“It was a big shock when my sight went, just like that when I was driving. I couldn’t read or anything. But I coped alright. ”
Coping and “just getting on with it” is an attitude which has seen Walter through difficult times ever since he was a young man. He was 19 and an air raid warden during the Sheffield Blitz and his Army call-up papers came soon after - just a day after his 20th birthday.
He was in the Royal Artillery serving in El Alamein. “We were on the light guns defending the big guns, so they used to fire shells over our heads. We were in the desert for ages and ages. It was terrible living in the sand. When the wind blew you’d get sand sandwiches. But we chased Rommel out of Egypt”
After that Walter saw action in a pivotal battle of the Second World War for control of the island of Kos.
” It was terrible, there was nothing there. We all got malaria and yellow jaundice. The Germans sent the paratroopers in. I remember we looked up and the sky was black with them. There were only a few of us.
“We were captured and taken on a boat to Athens. And the Germans saved my life. It was 104 degrees and I collapsed on the pavement and when I woke up I was in hospital.”
During his 20 months in captivity Walter was held in prison camp Stalag 344 in Germany and then in the Sudetenland. After all his time in the desert it was a big contrast. The camp was covered with snow when he arrived. He can remember toasting bread over the fire. “There wasn’t much to eat, we’d have starved if it wasn’t for the Red Cross parcels.”
He was made to work in a factory producing roof tiles and girders. As usual Walter made the best of it. “I didn’t mind working, it was better than sitting with nothing to do. When the war ended the boss of the company came out with a box of cigars and said ‘That’s it you’re free, you can go.’ But we were 3000 miles from home.”
The first stage of his long journey back was from Prague by train.” We all piled onto it, it was going into Germany so there were Germans on it. One day we were fighting them, the next we were sitting next to them on a train.”
As well as his many memories Walter has all his wartime medals to remind him of his Army service. Among them the Africa Star and the Italy Star. “I am proud of my medals. It was a job we had to do and we took it in our stride, one day after the next until it was over.”
And that was Walter’s approach too when he lost his sight. He shows his gratitude for the help and companionship he has at SRSB by having a collection box at home.” I put all my 5p’s and 10p’s in it. It’s my way of saying thank you. And we all have a go in the raffle and the tote to help raise money. It all helps to keep the centre open because it costs so much every day to run it. But it’s worth it.”