Just before 8 o’clock on the evening of the 3rd of November 1952, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Margaret arrived at the Palladium in London’s Argyll Street. A crowd estimated at 10,000 lined the streets, eager to catch a glimpse of Her Majesty’s first attendance at the Royal Variety Performance as monarch.
Max Bygraves, Vera Lynn, Norman Wisdom and Tony Hancock were all on the bill but appearing towards the end of the show, in a section based on a BBC radio programme called ‘In Town Tonight’, was an act described in the official programme as ‘The Commando’. This Commando, Gerry Brereton, was a ballad-singing baritone and having only recently become a professional singer, he was relatively unknown.
During the war, Gerry served with No. 3 Commando and in 1943 his unit took part in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. In July 1943, after successfully capturing the town of Cassibile, 3 Commando embarked on HMS Prince Albert with the aim of landing in the Bay of Agnone and then seizing the Ponte dei Malati bridge. The bridge connected Syracuse to Catania and as it was essential for a rapid advance, it had to be taken intact.
There was a shortage of landing craft and so the commandos had to disembark in two waves. The first wave landed around seven miles from the bridge and came under immediate enemy fire. A few hours later, the second wave landed and suffered the same fate. Despite this, the commandos managed to get off the beach and push inland. The first group was in position at the Malati bridge at 3 am on the 14th of July where the single platoon of Italians garrisoned there was quickly overcome. The commandos settled in to defend their position until reinforcements arrived.
Over the course of the next few hours they came under intensive mortar and shell fire and the number of casualties grew: 30 were killed, 66 wounded and 59 reported missing or captured. Among the wounded was Gerry Brereton who lost his sight in an explosion.
Before the war, Gerry had a promising career as a footballer with Derby County but now totally blind, he needed to find a new way to earn a living. His journey to the London Palladium can be tracked through his mentions in the magazine of St. Dunstan’s, a charity helping blind ex-Service personnel (now known as Blind Veterans UK).
In 1946, the ‘St. Dunstan’s Review’ reported that Gerry had secured a job as a telephone operator at an iron foundry but less than a year later, there came the first of several announcements to say he could be heard in a radio broadcast. In 1949 he received a fantastic reception from the audience when he took part in Hughie Green’s ‘Opportunity Knocks’ and by 1950 he was described by one of his local BBC assistant senior producers as, “the North’s leading vocalist.” His success growing, Gerry decided to move with his family from his home in Derby to see if he could hit the big time in London.
He was a guest singer in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall and then spots in several radio and TV broadcasts culminated in his invitation to appear at the Royal Variety Performance. He walked on stage unaided, having memorised the route during rehearsals, and sang ‘Here in My Heart’. The audience took him to their hearts and he was the only artiste to be called back to take a second bow.
The next day, the newspapers were full of praise for him. A recording contract followed and it wasn’t long before Gerry released his first record on Parlophone, ‘Wyoming Lullaby’.
A version of this appeared in the Commando Veterans Association journal ‘Dispatches’ in April 2016.
Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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