ERNIE SEDGWICK spent two nights and three days hiding in the dunes of Dunkirk before room was found in a small fishing boat so that he could be evacuated across the Channel.

“He complained that for weeks after he smelt of fish,” said his son, Mike. “When he finally got home to Darlington, his mum made him undress in the back yard before coming in and then she scrubbed him raw in an old fashioned tin bath in front of the fire in the back room, hot water coming regularly from a kettle on the stove, and a big bar of carbolic soap.”

Ernie has died at the age of 101. He was the town’s last Arnhem survivor, having parachuted into Holland to capture bridges and enduring nine days of almost continuous hell, and one of Darlington’s last Second World War veterans.

At his funeral last week, his grandson, Theo, told how he was a favourite in local schools where the children asked in awe if he had shot someone.

He’d reply solemnly: “I did, and by doing so I saved hundreds of lives.” After the stunned silence, he’d reply to the inevitable follow-up questions: “It was an English Army cook!”

His remarkable story really begins when his Irish parents fled the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and came to the Rise Carr area of Darlington, settling in Thompson Street West, as his father found work in the North Road railway workshops.

Ernie was born on August 30, 1921, and passed his 11-plus exam, but his parents couldn’t afford to send him to the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School so he became a butcher’s delivery boy on a bike. Seeking a little more from life, he told the Durham Light Infantry he was 16 and became a reservist.

The Mail: Ernie Sedgwick, the Arnhem veteran of Darlington

Ernie, about the time of D-Day

When war broke out in September 1939, the regiment sent him as part of the British Expeditionary Force into France. That ended with the Dunkirk evacuation, and once he had recuperated from his mother’s carbolic cleansing techniques, he joined the Royal Artillery and was sent to guard Hull.

Seeking a little more from life, he joined the Parachute Regiment.

“Training was hard and on a night jump he ended up with a broken leg on top of a roof, which happened to belong to a pub,” said Mike. “He had to wait until daybreak to be rescued safely, and complained bitterly that the landlord didn’t even give him a pint for comfort!”

He was on a pathfinder raid on D-Day over Normandy, but was injured in the hand and sent home to recuperate which meant he was ready for Arnhem in September 1944 in Operation Market Garden, the famed “bridge too far”. The parachutists were dropped into enemy territory to capture bridges over the Lower Rhine so that when the ground troops arrived 48 hours later, they would be able to breeze over.

Ernie was one of the first to land, and nine days later was one of the few who was still fighting having been under almost constant attack with house-to-house and hand-to-hand fighting – he once escaped by clinging to the side of a raft and somehow dodging the German spotlights.

“He went on to survive the rest of the conflict where he was granted the rather unusual nickname ‘Bucket’,” said Mike. “This came about as it fell on him to hold the bucket for the sickly soldiers on flight runs.”

In peacetime, he worked at North Road shops, but wanted a little more from life, and so, after nightschool studies, he became a welding inspector and travelled the world working on oil rigs and pipelines in Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Australia, Canada and Nigeria.

He married Marie in 1948, but after their divorce, his partner was Anthonia, a Dutch lady he met in Haughton club. Their trips to her homeland enabled him to return to Arnhem and also get to know her family, meaning he has grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the Netherlands, Spain and the UK.

The French awarded him with the Legion D’Honneur and the Dutch with the Arnhem Liberation Medal.

The Mail: Ernie Sedgwick, the Arnhem veteran of Darlington

Ernie on his 100th birthday with his card from the Queen

Cllr Mike Renton, Darlington’s heritage champion who is an Arnhem historian, said: “I was lucky enough to shake Ernie’s hand a few years ago. He was a brilliant man with many stories to tell, and he touched the lives of countless people.

“The most important people that we have is our people, the living embodiment of our past. Sadly, we lose more and more veterans every year, so it is important that we cherish men like Ernie while we can – I’m proud to say that, thanks to him, my own kids have high five’d an Arnhem veteran. What a great man!”