DENNIS Durkin didn’t think much of it when, in April 1942, he was asked to stand on top of the Layerthorpe gas holder to keep a lookout for anyone who might be breaking York’s black-out.
The young Dennis was just 17, and he’d been told by older members of the Home Guard in York that it would be perfectly safe.
“He had been reassured …that in the event of an air raid, the gas was sucked out of the gasometer and hidden in tanks under the River Foss!” said his daughter, Sandra Wreglesworth.
From his high vantage point, Dennis was able to raise the alarm as the first bombs began to fall in what became known to history as the infamous York Baedeker raid.
But what he didn’t know at the time, Sandra said, was that according to Luftwaffe pilot Willi Schludecker, the gasometer was one of the main targets of that night’s raid. “He could have been the first man on the moon!” Sandra said.
Dennis himself described that night in an interview with The Press in 2007.
Then aged 83, he told the newspaper: “Me and my friend were up the top of the gasometer with binoculars looking for lights so we could report them to the black-out wardens.
“When we were up there, we heard a plane go over the city and then heard it come back. It must have got through the system because the air raid sirens hadn’t gone off.
“When the bomb was dropped it shook the whole tower. I had to phone down to say where I thought it had landed and then we were told to get down as soon as possible.
“I just keep thinking how lucky we were. If that gasometer had been hit I think the whole of York would have been destroyed.”
Dennis, who has now passed away at the age of 96, went on to have a full and active life.
At 19, he volunteered as a Royal Engineer in the British Army. Before long, he was recruited to join General Ord Wingate’s Chindits.
“After rigorous and dangerous training Dennis served in India, Singapore, Malaya and Egypt,” Sandra said.
“But it was chiefly in Burma where he engaged in guerrilla warfare, causing as much havoc and destruction in enemy territory as possible. At the time of the Battle of Kohima, Dennis was behind Japanese lines blowing up roads, bridges, supply lines and damaging communications.”
Dennis Durkin as a young man during the war
Half of the Chindits were killed or wounded in action – and many died or suffered the disabling effects caused malaria, yellow fever or sand fly fever, Sandra said.
“At one point Dennis was so ill that the doctors told the nurses not to treat him any more. Fortunately a nurse whispered in his ear that she would not give up on him and nursed him back to fighting fitness again, although he continued to suffer from recurring attacks of malaria for the rest of his life.”
At the end of the war, in recognition of his service and sacrifice, Dennis was presented with a samurai sword surrendered by a Japanese officer at the official surrender ceremony.
After the war, the former St George’s schoolboy became an antique dealer. In 2008, he and his wife Kay celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary.
Dennis, who lived in Bad Bargain Lane, York, died peacefully at home on January 25 after a short illness. He is survived by Kay, to whom he was married for nearly 73 years, four daughters, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
“My father may have been a member of the Forgotten Army, but he will never be forgotten by his family and friends,” said Sandra. “He was a special man who fought in a special force. Had it not been for men like my father, perhaps none of us would be enjoying the life and freedoms we all enjoy today”.
Dennis’s funeral service will take place at St George’s Church on Friday February 12 at 12.30pm, followed by interment at Fulford Cemetery.