OLD war comrades stood side by side for perhaps the last time when they turned out for a farewell service to commemorate the end of a sixty-year association.

Ex-Territorial Army members of the 252/80th (City of Oxford) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battery brought an end to over a half century of reunions when they turned up for the event at St Michael at the North Gate Church in Cornmarket Street, Oxford.

Their long friendship had started in 1938 when they signed up to serve their country, going to war just one year later.

The years which followed took them into the Battle of Britain, when they were stationed in Portsmouth and Southampton, and later into heavy fighting in North Africa and Italy, where they landed on the beaches in Salerno.

Ever since, the dwindling numbers who came home at the end of the war have met up once a year, but yesterday 14 surviving gunners turned up for the last time - apart from a final dinner in October. The group is being wound up because it is getting too hard for the veterans, in their 70s, 80s and 90s, to make it to the reunions, either because they are too ill or live too far away.

During the service, the soldiers were reminded of the origins of the group and took time to remember.

The Rev Dr Stephen Pix, city rector of Oxford, said in his address that the members of the battery were fighting a vitally important cause - the defeat of a Nazi tyranny and the defence of freedom.

"It is a shared vision and a shared ideal which has been the foundation for the friendships formed within the 252 Battery over the 60 years of its existence." Phil joined up after a boozy night GROUP secretary Phil Hanks was there at the beginning and, fittingly, he was there at the end.

Mr Hanks, 79, of Rahere Road, Cowley, joined the battery when it was in its infancy after a boozy darts night in a Jericho pub, signing up for service for a bet in 1938.

He said: "There was a group of six of us, we all trooped in and signed up there and then. The next day we all realised what we'd done."

The next year war broke out and the battery received its orders and was sent to fight.

"I didn't regret it at all," said Mr Hanks, a former worker at Pressed Steel in Cowley, "because the atmosphere among the people fighting the war was good.

"At the time Hitler was going into other countries and people automatically wanted to do something about it. We had a very strong comradeship and always kept it, even with new soldiers.

"That's why we've been meeting all these years, I suppose."

Sixty years on, Mr Hanks helped take the decision to bring the group to a close rather than let it waste away as, one by one, members died or simply could no longer make it to the meetings.

"I think it's the right thing," he said. "A lot of people can't travel and we are all getting on, but the people who can travel will very likely meet and drink and talk together.

"The chairman of the group, Lionel Roper, was supposed to be here but he was taken ill and couldn't make it. I had to organise the service and I was a little worried about whether it would go off all right but it's been perfect.

"We wanted to go out with a bang rather than just fade away." Bonds forged in battle to stay strong VICTOR Blake was forced to leave his wife, Mary, and their two children when he was called up to serve his country in 1940.

Mr Blake, now 84, was a late-comer to the regiment but says he felt he instantly belonged.

With the rest of his comrades he saw action in the invasion of North Africa in 1942 and the storming of Salerno in Italy.

He lives where he was born, in Cherton, near Thame, and got back in touch with the regiment six years ago.

Yesterday Mr Blake, and Mary, took their places in the church for the service, and says it was a fitting end to the group.

He said: "It's nice to meet up with them again. I would like the group to carry on but it's got to come to an end one way or another.

"I think the majority of them feel the same. It was a nice service and it meant a lot."

Mr Blake says the success of the group in keeping together stemmed from bonds made during battle, when they each had to be there for each other.

"They are great lads," he said, "and, I think, you would never get the friendships we have on civvy street. There was a lot of give and take, which you would never get anywhere else." A long way - but worth it THE prospect of driving a four-hour round trip was still not enough to deter former gunner Mervyn Kirkby from turning up to the group's final meeting.

Mr Kirkby, 82, lives in Braunton in North Devon, but was only too pleased to shake hands once again with colleagues he first met 60 years ago.

"It's a long drive but it has been worth all the time in the world to meet some of the chaps again," he said.

"I moved away from Oxford six years ago and so haven't seen them for eight years. It's funny, I slept in the next bunk to some of them but I just didn't recognise them.

"I had to pat them on the shoulder and talk to them before I realised who each one was."

Mr Kirkby is an original member of the club, joining up when he was an office boy for Lord Nuffield and serving with the regiment until 1944.

When he returned to Oxford, he worked at Morris Motors, then went on to work in the personnel department at Unipart and then retired.

He said: "When you join the services you expect a fair amount of danger but we didn't realise it so much when we were there.

"People were being hurt, they were leaving families which were being broken up, there were a hundred and one things that caused a lot of unhappiness but the comradeship was tremendous and it's still there."

He added: "We are

all in different walks of life, most of us are retired, but we will never forget it. It's sad to a degree that the club is finishing but I think it is right now because there are so few of us."

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