Saturday, 9 May 2020

My Dad's War

My Dad, December 1940 - 29 years old
In 1940, soon after the declaration of war against Germany, my Dad was conscripted into the British Army. In that he was just like every able-bodied male, of suitable age and not in an essential job like the railways.

War is hell, as has been said before. For so many, even if they escaped with their lives, it was a traumatic, life-changing experience - and not in a good way. But for some it was the greatest experience of their lives, working together in a common purpose. I'm quite jealous of the people at Bletchley Park, constantly struggling with new ways to break the German codes, knowing that an hour shaved off the time could save hundreds of lives.

One of my favourite books is Most Secret War, by Reg Jones. He led the efforts to develop hi-tech (for the time) aids to beating the Germans, and to understand and defeat their technology. Just one example was their use of intersecting radio beams to bomb British cities accurately. Once understood, it was a simple matter to broadcast a stronger signal on a slightly different alignment, resulting in thousands of tons of German bombs falling on open countryside instead of devastating a town and killing hundreds of people.

Yet there was a human side too. Jones had to live through the blitz just like everyone else. He mentions an occasion when they expected a big raid on their neighbourhood. Prudently he filled the bath beforehand, ensuring a water supply even if, as happened, the pipes were destroyed by the bombs. Imagine his shock when he discovered his wife, wondering why on earth he had left the bath full, had emptied it shortly before the bombs fell.

My Dad was selected for the Artillery. He was sent off to a remote training camp in North Wales to learn to be a wireless (radio) operator. He was taught Morse Code, and the basics of radio operation. No doubt he expected to be sent to a battlefield somewhere, sending reports and receiving instructions under bombardment as his squad-mates in turn bombarded the Germans.

He never talked about exactly what happened. He was a very social, personable chap, who made friends very easily with a straightforward, natural charm. Maybe it was that, or maybe he really was talented. But whatever the reason, the camp commander decided that he could best serve his country by teaching other people how to communicate under bombardment, instead of doing it himself.

And so for the next five years my Dad was stationed just outside Llandudno, teaching other men Morse Code. It's hard to imagine anywhere more remote or distant from the industrial heartland, except maybe the Scottish Highlands. He admitted to having seen just one enemy plane, a German bomber which had got lost and subsequently crashed into the Irish Sea. The contrast with my mother, too young to serve and living at home in South London with her family, couldn't be greater. Bombs were part of her daily life, met with typical British stoicism: "If it's got my number on it, it's for me". She was more concerned about being home before her mother's imposed deadline than she was about being hit by a bomb.

He may have been far from the action, but he was still a soldier in uniform, admired by the people who remained on the farms and in the villages. Even with strict rationing, the local country people weren't short of eggs, chickens, milk or butter. So, "Here Reg, take a couple of eggs for your breakfast" happened often enough.

Without a shadow of a doubt, World War II was the highlight of my Dad's life. He had good friends, an easy enough life, the respect of everyone for a serving soldier - and what he was doing was genuinely valuable for the war effort. That it involved absolutely no risk at all certainly made it more pleasant.

He made friends easily, but they were mostly superficial - good mates, but no more. There was one exception, Bert. They served together in North Wales for the entire duration of the war. He often spoke of him, and in the tradition of the times they exchanged Christmas cards, but no more. Bert lived a long way off for the times, somewhere near Birmingham in the Midlands.

And yet... one day with my mother he visited a park quite a way off, in Barking. Why they went there I have no idea. And strolling through the park, over a hundred miles from home, was Bert, with his family. It's an extraordinary coincidence, worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel. They shook hands, chatted for a while about the old times... and never saw each other again.

Even for my Dad, the war wasn't without unfortunate consequences. He had married in the late 1930s, setting up home in a flat in Kilburn in grimy north-western inner London where my half-sister was born. When he went off to the Army his wife moved to the Suffolk countryside to live with her mother. It was an area that was crammed full of airbases, as close as possible for launching nightly raids on Germany. The airbases were in turn crammed full of airmen, British and American, and all the supporting staff they needed.

As the locals said, "The problem with the Americans is that they're overpaid, over-sexed, and over here." That was very unfair, considering that they were dying by hundreds every day in poorly conceived daylight bombing raids. And anyway it wasn't an American who stole my Dad's wife, it was a fellow Brit. From my point of view, this was an excellent thing - otherwise I would not have come into existence. In fact things worked out well all round - her second marriage was long-lasting, and my father made a happy second marriage too, as these things go.

It was a common enough problem after the war, and the Army set up special divorce courts to deal with it. My Dad told the story of leaving the court, after his divorce had been approved, along with a fellow serviceman who said, "Best day of my life, I'm finally rid of her. Let me buy you a drink."

My Dad's post-war life was uneventful, and successful enough in a very modest way. He became a salesman to the clothing industry, which lasted until he retired at 67. But I don't think anything after 1945 came close to his wartime experience.

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