Witness, wartime bombing survivor bonded by history

POIGNANT REUNION: Melvin Baker, left, the only remaining survivor of the sinking of warship HMS Gloucester in 1941, is reunited with Manny Kaligeros, who witnessed the incident in Greece when he was just nine years old
POIGNANT REUNION: Melvin Baker, left, the only remaining survivor of the sinking of warship HMS Gloucester in 1941, is reunited with Manny Kaligeros, who witnessed the incident in Greece when he was just nine years old
Image: ZAMANDULO MALONDE

In May 1941, at the age of nine, Manny Kaligero witnessed the bombing and sinking of the warship HMS Gloucester in Kythera, Greece, by German dive bombers in World War 2.

On Friday, nearly 79 years later, he bonded  over tea and cake  with South African and former Royal Navy volunteer Melvin Baker, who recently turned 100 and is the only remaining survivor of the historic ordeal.

Recounting the details of that fateful day when 722 died and only  85 survived — Baker among them —  the two men told the story as though it was a recent tale.

Baker was just 21 years old at the time.

“The date, May 22 1941, is stuck with me forever — it’s not something you forget,” he said at the cottage of family members  at Fairhaven in Humewood Extension, where he and Kaligero got together.

“Though over the years I have detached all emotion from it, I am still able to tell the story like it was something I watched on TV recently,” Baker added.

Baker and Kaligero were introduced by retired Port Elizabeth doctor Robert McDonald several years ago, while Kaligero was still a hairdresser in the city.

Neither recall the exact year they met for the first time.

McDonald had heard Kaligero’s witness account of the event while visiting his salon for a haircut and later introduced the two, Baker said.

Now 88, Kaligero remembers that fateful afternoon as vividly as Baker, saying it was only when he grew older that he realised the tragedy of it all.

At the time, Kaligero lived in Kapsali, Greece, and watched the bombing from a distance.

“I remember watching several smaller ships along with a big one [HMS Gloucester] sailing in Kythera and the Germans coming in to bomb the bigger ship.

“We watched it disappear into a big billow of smoke until very late in the evening and we had no idea what was going on.

“When we woke up the next  day it was clear and we only learnt later that the men who were in the ship were taken by the Germans.

“For us it was thrilling action to watch because we were kids who knew nothing about war, but as I grew older and learnt, I realised what a terrible ordeal they had gone through and I was very grateful to meet Mr Baker,” Kaligero said.

“I was worried thinking I would miss seeing him for the last time before I return to Greece for good,” he said.

Baker had visited relatives Chris and Pat Rhodes at their home two weeks after celebrating his 100th birthday on January 9.

For his birthday, the Grey High School alumnus received a letter from Birgitte, the Duchess of Gloucester, to honour him.

Written by Lieutenant Colonel Alastair Todd on behalf of the duchess, part of the letter reads: “She is very well aware of the service  that you gave  to the Royal Navy and  to HMS Gloucester in particular during the war and would want to thank you very much for the sacrifices that you and your family made.”

Baker said: “The letter from the duchess was very meaningful to me because I had met her in person at the decommissioning of the 10th Gloucester [ship]."

Surprisingly energetic for a 100-year-old, Baker holds a clear memory of the past and walks around without assistance. .

Though he now has a bit of trouble hearing, he does know his way around his smartphone.

“I never thought I would get to 100 years ... hell, I never thought I would make it past 21,” Baker quipped. 

Baker returned to Bedford yesterday afternoon, where he lives in a  retirement village.

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