Ventriloquist to the troops hangs up his dummy after 70 years

Seven decades after they first took to the stage, the soldier-turned-ventriloquist Walter Huntley and his dummy "Gunner Turner" were the stars of the show for one last time yesterday.

Surrounded by curious children and autograph-hunters, the pair basked in the glory of an act that began in the Blitz.

Mr Huntley, who was then a Sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery, maintained morale among soldiers and civilians during the darkest hours of the Second World War. Together, he and Gunner Turner kept people laughing in the depths of the London Underground during bombings and travelled across the country entertaining troops.

Yesterday, the 88-year-old decided it was time to find Gunner Turner a permanent home and handed him over to the Imperial War Museum to use in their exhibitions. At 4ft 6in and weighing two stone, Jimmy had become a bit too heavy to carry around.

As they walked through the main hall of the London museum, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the men and women they once entertained stood transfixed by the life-size dummy in military uniform, as he appeared to speak to them.

"How does he do that?" said an otherwise speechless Harry Turner, six.

"The whole thing was totally different, light years away from the circumstances now," said Mr Huntley. "We had tremendous support during the war, everyone appreciated the entertainment. We had a captive audience who probably thought we were a lot better than we were. They didn't have all these TV channels."

John Rickard, 13, who travelled from Buckinghamshire with his family to see the final show, said: "I think he is really good. I think he would do well in Afghanistan."

"He is not just a puppet, he is amazing," added his 11-year-old brother James.

Mobilised two days before the outbreak of war on 3 September 1939, Mr Huntley was taken away from his usual duties when the War Office realised he had a special talent for ventriloquism.

The "Stars in Battledress" – which included Spike Milligan and actor Terry Thomas – were set up to keep soldiers and civilians entertained in a series of increasingly grand shows. Sergeant Huntley and his dummy regularly performed to packed audiences in military bases, cinemas and theatres.