“AS WELL as first-hand memories of those who served, Abergavenny’s War documents life in the town during that era and how, like the rest of Britain, the ‘Gateway to Wales’ was irrevocably changed by the global conflict.

For any kid growing up in the 1970s or 80s the Second World War loomed large in our minds. We were reared on a steady diet of films, books, comics and toy guns from that era and we all had grandparents who either fought or were directly involved in the conflict.

With sticks as Tommy guns, stones as grenades, we spent hours battling the hellish Nazi hordes and putting an end to Hitler’s dark and diabolical schemes.

Between the years of 1939 and 1945 every city, town and village of Britain was forever scarred in some way by the war, but to our young minds it was as if it didn’t really happen in the larger world outside of the pages of our Battle Action Comics or celluloid adventures of Steve McQueen and co.

Many of us had grandads who fought in the war but we were used to seeing them pottering about the garden and tending to their rose bushes in corduroys and sensible jumpers. To think of them in army fatigues and dodging bullets was just too much of a leap of imagination.

My granddad, Jim Harvey, enlisted with the Sherwood Foresters in 1940 and became a career soldier. He would later become a Regimental Sergeant Major and serve in the Parachute Regiment.

As kids we knew him as an ‘old man’ who used to be in the army and liked to jump out of planes. We also knew he had fought in the war and was awarded a Silver Star by the Americans after fighting alongside them in Italy.

Still, in our eyes he was no Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, capable of singlehandedly saving the day, he was just granddad.

The only time during my younger days when I got an inkling of the bigger picture was when Jim was patiently teaching me how to tie my shoelaces. Being a fellow left-hander he taught me a different technique to the impossibly difficult way of the right-handers.

As I was studying the movement of his hands I noticed something I had never noticed before - a large part of his thumb appeared to be missing.

“What happened to your thumb granddad,” I asked.

He stopped what he was doing, looked at it for a while and replied, “It’s a long story.”

It was said with a finality which implied all future questions would be routinely dismissed in the same manner. He never talked about the war. So the question went unanswered and the tale went untold.

It wasn’t until years later that the story would began to unravel. It began at his funeral in 2005. It was a big affair and there were a lot of military types present. One group of elderly gentlemen in particular caught my eye. Their number was few but they appeared huddled together in their own distinct group. Other than the rolled-up cigarettes and hip-flasks that were passed around they appeared to share a common bond. A bond forged in a particularly unique and testing time of circumstance and chaos. They were all veterans of the Second World War.

There were questions I would have liked to ask them but I didn’t. But it did leave me with a burning curiosity to know more about my granddad’s role in the war.

A few months later I managed to track down his citation for the Silver Star. It made for interesting reading. In summary it describes how on the Gothic Line north of Borgo San Lorenzo, Lance Sergeant Harvey and the section of the platoon he was leading were held up by heavy machine gun fire. Arming himself with 36 grenades and a Tommy gun, Jim crawled within grenade-throwing distance of the post and having thrown two grenades, he rushed in firing his Tommy gun and took out the machine gun nest.

All seven men in Jim’s company except himself and one other were killed or wounded. One of those killed was one of Jim’s best mates. He had been blown to pieces while Jim had been left unscathed apart from a piece of his thumb which was taken off by a stray piece of shrapnel.

I saw my granddad in a new light after reading the citation. There were questions I would have liked to ask but he probably wouldn’t have answered if he had lived another 100 years. And who could blame him.

My gran’s story was also defined by the Second World War. She was an Austrian women from Salzberg called Ingeborge Dischler. She met Jim just after the war when he was stationed in Germany and she was working as a nurse. They fell in love, got married, and had three children together.

I never talked to any of my own grandparents about the war. I’ll never hear in their own words what they experienced or what they lived through. I can only guess.

Fortunately I’ve been lucky enough to have interviewed a number of Abergavenny’s Second World War veterans. Through talking to them, and listening to their stories, I feel I have developed more of an understanding in regard to my own grandparents.

One of those veterans is former sailor Roy Wickins.

He said: “There is no better way for a young lad to see the world than to join the navy and set sail into the great unknown”.

He joined before the outbreak of war, but soon was in action when his ship the Janus was attacked by dive-bombers in the North Sea over Christmas in 1939.

He later braved the blockade of Malta and the Battle of the Atlantic before returning to Gwent.

Among the other stories from the town at war is that of Bob Curzon – a prominent sportsmen who captained Abergavenny Thursdays during some of their most successful years, winning the Welsh Challenge Cup in 1951.

He joined one of the most famed fighting units of the war - the Chindits. They were landed by parachute and glider behind enemy lines to fight the Japanese army in the jungle.

Another is of Llanfoist man Gilbert Heywood. A sergeant in the RAF, he was educated at Abergavenny Grammar School.

He was a rear gunner in a Whitley bomber on anti-submarine patrol over the Bay of Biscay in 1942.

The plane was shot down and none of the crew survived.

He lies still in a small French cemetery with his fellow crew-members.

I was always surprised when talking to the interviewees in the book how forthcoming they often were and just how much detail from the war they could remember.

Naturally, there were certain areas where the minds of these men still refused to wander.

You could see the shutters go up in the eyes at such times, and there would be a slight pause and catch in their voice as they gathered themselves and stepped back from the brink of whatever abyss they were gazing into.

Another Abergavenny man was witness to the scene of one of the greatest horrors of the war. Vincent Leslie was among the first allied servicemen at the Nazi death camp of Bergen-Belsen.

The RAF medic volunteered to help the relief effort for the survivors at the camp. Working to monitor the feeding of former inmates, he had to ensure their weak digestive systems were only given a certain sort of food.

The horrors he saw gave him his “worst memories of the war”.

Such instances hammered home how even though the men were now old, grey, and walked with a stick or zimmer frame, they had once been upright, vital and all that stood between the free world and the unthinkable.

Hopefully this book sheds some light on the human cost of war.”

l Abergavenny’s War is produced by Amberley Publishing and is on sale now priced £14.99.