Tributes paid to East Harling RBL president and war veteran Alfred Zelke

Alfred Zelke, his wife Paulina, and his daughters Anna, Alfreda and Kristina. Supplied photo.
Alfred Zelke, his wife Paulina, and his daughters Anna, Alfreda and Kristina. Supplied photo.

A Second World War veteran and former East Harling Royal British Legion chairman was honoured at his funeral this week as “a fountain of knowledge and an inspiration to others”.

Alfred Zelke, a long-time member of the RBL, died at his East Harling home on Tuesday, March 14, aged 92.

Orginally from Poland, he fought as part of the Free Polish Army starting in 1942. In subsequent years, he aided the French Resistance and the liberation of Italy.

He was discharged in 1947 before moving to the UK with his wife Paulina Campa, whom he had met the year before while stationed in Italy.

Mr Zelke is best remembered in Norfolk for his years of service to the East Harling RBL, holding the posts of membership secretary, standard bearer, Poppy Appeal organiser and branch president, and twice winning the County Standard Bearer Competition.

At the funeral service on Monday, Robin Knowles, East Harling RBL chairman, described Mr Zelke as “a gentleman and a gentle man” who embodied all that was good in the legion.

“His experience and knowledge about how the legion should operate was without question unique,” Mr Knowles told the Diss Express on Tuesday.

“I can honestly say that most of what I know today, I have been taught by Alfred himself.

“I have been gifted with some superb branch officers, but it was Alfred who has moulded us all to ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’ and be the branch everyone knows.

“To say he will be sorely missed is somewhat of an understatement.

“I am determined that the branch will move on with the memory of Alfred at the helm.”

Mr Zelke was born in 1925 near the Polish capital city of Warsaw and was the eldest of eight siblings.

In 1939, as the Second World War emerged, he was sent to live with relatives in Germany itself, at the age of 14.

He was later forcibly sent to France and was tasked with transporting German munitions to the English Channel as a captive worker, but eventually escaped with friends on a fishing boat.

Upon arriving in Scotland, Mr Zelke joined the Free Polish Army, volunteering to be trained by the Special Operations Executive, and would go on to serve in occupied Poland.

He then returned to France due to his background and language skills to assist the French Resistance by making maps and drawings of stategic targets, and he was later involved in helping liberate Italy from Mussolini’s fascist rule.

In a eulogy delivered during the funeral service, the Rev Derrick Sheppard said: “Alfred was ever the reluctant hero but he did open up to me on one occasion.

“I inquired about the background to the most outstanding of all the many medals he proudly wore on Remembrince Sunday.

“Alfred responded that they gave him the medal because they said he saved somebody’s life. I am sure they were right.”

After the war, Mr Zelke married Paulina and resettled in England, eventually relocating to Fen Lane in East Harling during the 1970s.

For many years, he was employed in forestry and fencing work, including projects for the Jockey Club in Newmarket, Shadwell Stud and even the Royal Estates at Sandringham and Windsor.

During his time as a member of the East Harling RBL, the branch was awarded the annual Jack Lee Trophy for Outstanding Contribution to Norfolk County British Legion twice in three years.

In his eulogy, Mr Knowles said: “A stickler for rules and regulations, he had very high standards and was always immaculately turned out.

“Alfred worked tirelessly for the legion and was a fountain of knowledge and an inspiration to others.

“Not only was he our friend, but he allowed us to be his friends for which we are so proud.

“Alfred was the Royal British Legion, and the Royal British Legion was Alfred.”

Mr Zelke is survived by his daughters Alfreda Perry, Kristina Castro Pinto and Anna McInnes, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.