Eric Greenleaf the sea legend talks about his time in the Royal Marines
PUBLISHED: 10:30 10 April 2018 | UPDATED: 12:33 10 April 2018
The word hero is bandied around too often these days, but in the case of veteran Royal Marine Eric Greenleaf it might just be apt, as CHRISSY HARRIS discovers
If music is the food of life, then Eric Greenleaf is looking pretty well on it. The veteran has a distinct spring in his step and a sparkle in his eye that defies the fact that this is a man who has been around for the best part of a century.
The 94-year-old credits his health and sunny outlook to one thing – being a member of the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines.
Eric arrived at the Royal Naval School of Music aged 14 and unable to sing a note, telling his superiors he could just about manage a harmonica.
He was virtually written off (his mother suggested he should go and be a painter and decorator) but a steely determination to wear that green beret at whatever cost saw the teenager learn the clarinet and later, the viola.
Eric went on to complete 26 years as a Royal Marines musician and served throughout the Second World War, helping to protect the Arctic Convoys delivering vital supplies to the Soviet Union.
Today, Eric, who lives just yards from the house where he was born on Plymouth’s Barbican, is still a regular at the band’s headquarters at HMS Raleigh in Torpoint.
“I make no bones about it,” says Eric. “I’d be dead if it wasn’t for the band. They have kept me going all these years. It means everything in the world to me, the friendships I’ve got with them. When you’re sitting there, playing along with them, well, there’s nothing like it. Music controls the savage mind and it’s certainly helped me.
“I’ll keep going until the rigor mortis sets in!”
Death is not something that seems to trouble Eric – he’s come close to it often enough.
Early on in the Second World War, his ship was sunk leaving Ceylon. He spent nine hours in the water, clinging to a piece of deck along with a fellow survivor who was covered in oil and couldn’t swim.
After being rescued, Eric re-joined HMS Cumberland. The ship, along with three other Royal Navy warships, fought the German battleship Graf Spree at the Battle of River Plate before her captain famously scuttled the German vessel in Montevideo Harbour.
Eric went on to complete 15 Arctic Convoys with the constant threat of German U-Boats, aircraft and extreme cold.
He was recently presented with his Arctic Star Medal, a long-awaited recognition for the part these veterans played in the war.
Although proud, Eric, like many from his generation, feels he was just doing his job.
“I’m not a big head and I don’t like all the fanfare,” he says. “I would give all the medals away. I got home safe. There were plenty that didn’t.”
Eric may be humble about his achievements to the outside world but in the comfort of his living room, there’s no disguising his pride in that fact he’s a Plymouth boy done good.
The walls are adorned with photographs of him next to important-looking Royal Navy personnel, as well as pictures of his family, including wife Joan (“a Plymouth maid”), who sadly died from pancreatic cancer aged just 37. The couple have a son, Raymond, who lives in Cornwall.
“I fought for Plymouth – I love it here,” says Eric, who lives off Notte Street, a stone’s throw from his birthplace. “I’ve been all over the world but this is my home.
“I’ll talk to anybody, have a laugh with anybody. I’ve had a great life,” he says. “In fact, I’m still having it now!” n
To find out more about the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Plymouth, visit royalnavy.mod.uk