Lionel, the Desert Rat who measured the King of Tonga
PUBLISHED: 06:00 20 September 2020 | UPDATED: 13:50 20 September 2020
He started working before his teens, drove a wartime ambulance in the desert and measured up to the king of Tonga, literally.
And now Lionel Rogers, from Holt, has marked a century of life on earth with a small celebration.
Mr Rogers said he still “could not believe” he was a centenarian after passing his 100th birthday on September 6.
He said: “The secret is making the most of everything that life gives you and having fun. There’s no diet secret, it’s just having fun.”
His wife of 10 years, Carmel, 54, said Mr Rogers still loved a joke.
“He’s a proper wind-up merchant,” she said.
Mr Rogers grew up in Bury St Edmunds and started working for Foster Brothers menswear - which later became Greenwoods - when he just 12, while he was still at school.
He said: “Instead of going home for lunch I’d go to Fosters and deliver parcels and then go back to school in the afternoon. And after I finished school at 14 I went straight to Fosters.”
Following the outbreak of the Second World War Mr Rogers was called up to the Army and joined the Royal Army Service Corps in 1940. He was sent out to Egypt on a troop ship the following year and drove an ambulance in the Battle of El Alamein.
Mr Rogers said: “We were the Eighth Army, the Desert Rats. We didn’t come back, we just kept going.
“After I’d been out there a while I got used to the desert, and I loved it, although not a lot of people did. But you could go wherever you liked.”
When bullets and bombs from German aircraft came smashing into a convoy his ambulance was part of near Benghazi in Libya the war changed for him.
“Suddenly I was on the floor,” Mr Rogers said. “When I got up I couldn’t move my arm. There were bombing raids quite often. One of them caught me. I’ve still got the scar there in my armpit.”
Mr Rogers was first treated in north Africa, but then sent down the continent by train to South Africa to further convalesce and was then shipped back to Britain by boat. The whole journey from Tobruk to England took about six months.
He married his first wife, Betty, in 1943 and their son Michael was born the following year.
Pensioned out from the armed forces, he returned to Foster Brothers. But when the boss refused to give Mr Rogers a raise, he decided the time was right for a fresh start.
“I said ‘I’ve had enough of this’ so I packed up and went to London,” he said.
Mr Rogers found a job at Peter Robinson department store, before moving onto Gieves and Hawkes, a men’s taylor and outfitter.
He said: “Betty and Michael followed afterwards when I got settled. I was there for quite some years.”
Mr Rogers’ job was buying material and selling clothes, and he used to measure up clients - including many wealthy aristocrats - for their new suits or military outfits.
Mr Rogers said: “The king of Tonga used to come in. He had a huge neck, a collar of 21 inches. It took us two tape measures to measure his waist, and once he wanted a pair of new gloves so I had to trace his fingers on a piece of card because we didn’t have any patterns big enough.”
He said he also used to regularly visit Buckingham Palace to make deliveries.
Mr Rogers said: “It was a different atmosphere when you were there - the servants knew who you were and they gave you the nod.
“Then when I came out everyone thought I was someone special but I was walking across the car park because I wasn’t allowed to have a taxi in the grounds.”
Mr Rogers was also called in to clean up after an IRA bomb left the front of Gieves’ Bond Street store in ruins in 1975.
He and Betty moved to Norfolk in 1979, and she died about 14 years ago.
Mr Rogers worked for Bakers and Larners of Holt from 1979 to 1983, where he was known by his middle name, Norman. He frequently returning to the store after he retired and met Carmel after she started working there in the year 2000.
Denise Moy, who worked with them both at the department store, wished Mr Rogers all the best for his birthday. She said: “What an unforgettable time it was to work with ‘Norman’ with his quick wit, sense of humour and sunny disposition. He was always ready to help or advise.
“Lionel is a truly remarkable character and certainly does not look his incredible 100 years.”
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