Goodbye to ‘Mr Never Surrender’: D-Day veteran who fought his way from Normandy to Germany and who was later reunited with four-year-old girl he saved in WW2 battle has died aged 97
One of Britain’s last surviving D-Day veterans who was nicknamed ‘Mr Never Surrender’ has died aged 97.
He made headlines in 2016 after he was reunited with a Dutch woman whose life he had saved during a battle when she was just four years old.
He became a familiar figure in recent years at reunion events in UK and Europe for the dwindling band of veterans who fought in the Second World War.
Mr King’s wartime memories were highlighted by the Royal Mint in 2019 in its publicity material for the launch of a £2 coin to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Alan King, a radio operator in a Sherman tank, battled his way across France, Holland and Germany after landing on Sword Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944
He made headlines in 2016 after he was reunited with Dutch woman Toos Kockan whose life he had saved during a battle when she was just four years old (pictured together)
He said: ‘We weren’t heroes, we were just boys. We were terrified. But you had your crew and your regiment and that’s what you cared about.
‘Since our life expectancy after landing was just one hour, we kept each other going. After I got back, for the first 40 years I didn’t think about it.
‘Didn’t want to. But it’s important that people know about it. People now have no idea what we went through.’
The day that changed the course of WWII: The D-Day landings
The Normandy landings, also known as Operation Overlord, were the landing operations of the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Some 156,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
The assault was conducted in two phases: an airborne assault landing of 24,000 British, American, Canadian and Free French airborne troops shortly after midnight, and an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armoured divisions on the coast of France commencing at 6.30am.
The operation was the largest amphibious invasion in world history, with over 160,000 troops landing on 6 June 1944 – and 195,700 Allied naval and merchant navy personnel in over 5,000 ships were involved.
The landings took place along a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of the Normandy coast divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
The landings were chaotic with boats arriving at the wrong point and others getting into difficulties in the water.
Troops managed only to gain a small foothold on the beach – but they built on their initial breakthrough in the coming days and a harbour was opened at Omaha.
They met strong resistance from the German forces who were stationed at strongpoints along the coastline.
Approximately 10,000 allies were injured or killed – 6,603 American, of which 2,499 were fatal, 2,700 UK soldiers and 1,074 Canadians, of which 359 fatal.
Between 4,000 and 9,000 German troops were killed – and it proved the pivotal moment of the war, in the allied forces’ favour.
The invasion had required the transport of soldiers and material from the United Kingdom by troop-laden aircraft and ships, the assault landings, air support, naval interdiction of the English Channel and naval fire-support.
Mr King, who died on Thursday after a short illness at his home in Thornham Magna, near Eye, Suffolk, was a father-of-three with seven grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.
His daughter Joyce Cooper said: ‘He had a unique sense of humour. On veteran trips, he kept us all amused. Rest in peace dear dad, forever missed.’
Mrs Cooper said her father had been known as ‘Mr Never Surrender’, partly due to his grand age and his love of impersonating Sir Winston Churchill.
He served in the East Riding Yeomanry as part of 27th Armoured Brigade during D-Day when his tank dodged mortar fire while providing vital cover to infantry soldiers.
Mr King took part in the Battle of Cambes three days later as well as Operation Charnwood and Operation Goodwood to help liberate Normandy.
After advancing through northern France, he went into the Netherlands with the 33rd Armoured Brigade and took part in the liberation of s-Hertogenbosch in October 1944.
During a tank battle in the Dutch city, he saved the life of a heavily pregnant woman and her four-year-old daughter Toos Kockan who stumbled in front of his tank.
Mr King saw through the narrow slit of his tank that another 30 ton Sherman was unwittingly reversing towards the pair, and radioed a warning to tell it to ‘Halt’.
He was reunited with Ms Kockan in 2016 when she was a 76-year-old mother-of-two, and went on to meet her and her family in her home city twice more.
Ms Kockan and her sister were photographed with their father huddled beside a Sherman tank from Mr King’s squadron in the city’s market square as the battle raged around them.
The family had their lucky escape as they tried to flee to a shelter during the three-day battle which killed 253 civilians, injured 2,100 and destroyed 722 buildings.
Recalling his meeting with Ms Kockan 72 years later, Mr King said: ‘When I saw Toos she was very grateful to see us, she nearly smothered me.’
He added: ‘It was great to see her again after all these years and very emotional for both of us.’
Monique Hekman, the Protocol Officer for the General of the Royal Netherlands Army who acted as translator for the pair, said: ‘Toos remembered Alan very clearly – she was so excited and glad to see him. It was lovely.
‘She did everything in her power to make him comfortable. Toos bought Alan a very rare delicacy called bosche bol, a cream cake with chocolate on top, and he loved it.
‘It was overwhelming to witness, actually.’
Mr King was invited to Holland by the Dutch government to mark the 72nd anniversary of the battle of Arnhem, immortalised in the film A Bridge Too Far.
Mr King was invited to Holland by the Dutch government to mark the 72nd anniversary of the battle of Arnhem, immortalised in the film A Bridge Too Far
A wartime picture showing Toos Kochan and her sister with their father sheltering behind a tank in 1944 after Toos and her mother were saved by Mr King
Recalling his time working on the ill-fated Operation Market Garden, he said: ‘It really was a bridge too far.’
He left the army in 1947, two years after the war ended, and became an engineer in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Mr King was awarded France’s highest honour, the iconic Légion d’Honneur, in May 2016 for helping to liberate the country from Nazi rule.
He was president of the Stradbroke and district branch of the Royal British Legion and a former church warden at St Mary’s church, Thornham Parva.
Mr King met the family of his tank commander Cpl Louis Wilkes at an event to mark the 77th anniversary of D-Day at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire this year.
He laid a wreath with his former Corporal’s grandchildren Kevin Wilkes and Sonia Bailey after they tracked him down.