A Second World War veteran who lives in Letchworth was reunited last week with a member of the family he stayed with while liberating Belgium.

Len Brereton - now 98 - stayed in Poperinge with the Lemahieu family while his regiment was waiting for a delivery of new Comet tanks in late 1944.

During the cold weeks he spent there with his comrade Don Branch, Len built up a warm relationship with Robert, Anna, and their two children, Nelly (then 10) and José (8).

In the years after the war, they fell out of touch - but, after 79 years, they were reunited on November 2, when Nelly made the trip over from Belgium to see Len.

The Comet: Robert, Anna, Nelly and José with Len (right) during the Second World War.Robert, Anna, Nelly and José with Len (right) during the Second World War. (Image: Picture supplied)

It was the result of years of searching for each other. Members of Nelly's family had tried to find Len to no avail, and Len's daughter, Cass, had been unable to track down the Lemahieu's. But she had more luck in 2021, when an appeal posted to social media on Len's behalf found its way to Nelly - José had sadly died in the intervening years.

Len told the Comet that "it was absolutely brilliant" to see Nelly, while she said that it was "like a fairytale" to meet him again.

He said that he had been "surprised and touched" by the gifts and messages he received from the people of Poperinge, thanking him for his service and his role in ensuring their freedom.

Len was "amazed" that two of José's children, Fleur and Jocelin, who also visited him, knew so much about his time with the family.

Fleur and Jocelin remembered their father recounting stories of Len as they grew up - including an occasion when Len had bought a toy Jeep at a local shop, and singing songs together after Len borrowed a music book. The impression on José was long-lasting - he kept a framed memento of Len's time with the Lemahieu's in his study.

The Comet: José kept a framed memento of Len's time with the family on his study wall.José kept a framed memento of Len's time with the family on his study wall. (Image: Picture supplied)

Born in Chiswick, Len joined the B Squadron of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment as a tank driver and engineer in 1943, aged 18.

After an intense period of training, he landed in France in June 1944, eight days after D-Day, and was part of multiple operations as Allied forces progressed towards Germany.

By November 1944, Len and his regiment had made it to Belgium and to Poperinge, where they had to wait for several weeks before they could collect their new Comet tanks from Brussels. 

During those weeks with the Lemahieu's, Len and Don were shown around Poperinge by the family and taken in as if they were part of the family themselves.

During the war, Len fought battles in Normandy and was involved in the liberation of Antwerp. He was also involved in taking a number of towns and villages in Germany.

It was in that final stretch of the campaign that he drove the lead tank on a reconnaissance drive through the concentration camp at Belsen, prior to its liberation.

The Comet: Len visiting the First World War cemetery in Poperinge.Len visiting the First World War cemetery in Poperinge. (Image: Picture supplied)

After the war, Len continued to serve in the army, rising to become a Corporal and serving in Hong Kong.

He left the military for civilian life in 1952, working as an engineer at at D. Napier and Son, Hunting Engineering, and Bae Systems in Stevenage, where he eventually became plant engineering manager.

Len also lived in Stevenage for 67 years - members of the Bowls Club in the town may remember him as a former player, and he remains a keen supporter of Stevenage FC.

He has been invited for a return visit to Poperinge, to be a guest of honour as they mark the 80th anniversary of the liberation of the town.

Poperinge, as remembered by Corporal Len Brereton

In the late autumn of 1944, following the liberation of Antwerp, our regiment proceeded to Brussels to deposit our Sherman tanks, arriving in the Belgian town of Poperinge by trucks in late 1944.

It was 'perishing cold' but Don Branch and myself were warmly welcomed by Robert and Anna Lemahieu and their two children, Nelly (10) and José (8).

The accommodation was above the family business and Don and I shared a room. Robert was a tailor and his wife, Anna, a hairdresser.

I can vividly recall the big steam irons for pressing the clothes and Robert taking apart suits brought in to him, turning the material and remaking the suit-inside out, as it were, for further use in difficult financial times.

The family was so very kind, making us meals even though they were not obliged to and taking us to places of interest, for example, the First World War cemetery.

The children, Nelly and José were also brilliant-really well behaved and good fun. I remember cousin Wisje and the girl who brought the wine in her bicycle basket.

At the same time I remember going to the TOC-H club for service personnel and having lectures on WWI, given by Tubby Clayton a celebrated veteran of the First World War.

In early December, we left Poperinge for the Battle of the Bulge, returning in January 1945 and remaining in Poperinge for three weeks.

During that time, we were taken back to Brussels, collected our new Comet tanks from the Renault factory in France and, later returned to the Lemahieu family driving our new tanks.

We then had to practise manoeuvring and firing them to get used to them - they were certainly better to drive than the heavier Shermans. We went up the road to Dunkirk which was still occupied by the Germans to do our firing practice!

As the tanks left Poperinge for the last time, people of the town lined the streets to wave us off. We were headed for Germany and the Rhine and all that lay ahead.