John’s sister Pam is an old lady of 94. She lives quietly in the south east of England looked after by a carer and visited by her 3 children regularly. She lost her second husband last year when he was 95, and is held in great affection by her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
And so it is with the hundreds of thousands of ladies of her age. We view them with a mixture of indulgence and respect, understanding their slow gait and sometimes confused minds, their forgetfulness. We smile when they switch our names round by mistake, and wince with sympathy at the discomforts they are forced to suffer because of their frail health.
When you visit Pam and look beyond the evidence of old age around you, you start to notice the silver-framed faded pictures of times gone by. They crowd the tables and mantlepieces, their sepia images not quite sharp; happy pictures of people standing together, proud ones of men and women in uniform. With surprise you find yourself recognising a young smiling face holding a baby - it’s Pam, and the obvious dawns on you: this is a previous incarnation of the gentle lady you are visiting. She too was young once, and if you ask her when she is rested and has had her nap, you will learn that it wasn’t all happy child-rearing and sunny days.
There are so many ladies like her around Europe who had their share of suffering during World War II. They were the waiting women, the ones who played no part in the glory of wartime heroism, except that they kept the home fires burning and welcomed their enlisted men back to love and normality. They endured many hardships, ensuring their children were properly fed from the meagre rations they were allowed, and tried for their sake to keep everything normal, hiding the inner turmoil of fear and worry about their men serving at the front.
There are millions of stories, and this is Pam’s.
Don had joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) before the war and at the outset of the conflict became a full member of the RAF Bomber Command as a Pilot Officer and captain of one of the Wellington bombers, which were the main ingredient of the bomber force in the early stages of the war.
He and Pam were just married, and it was not long before they had a golden blond and blue-eyed boy, Frank, who looked just like his father. John was a young teenager when war broke out, and hero-worshipped his older brother-in-law. The missions were highly dangerous but Don made light of it because he didn’t want to worry his young wife; indeed, on recalling the many nearly fatal mishaps he experienced on these missions he always managed to recount them as if they were hilarious.
In those days aircrew members had to complete thirty sorties before being transferred to training duties by way of relief; when Don completed this first stint there was an impressive celebration in his unit as he was one of the first to survive that far.
But there had been a sad price to pay – he had had three rear-gunners killed by enemy aircraft and on one occasion he was very lucky to have managed to land on his own airfield with one bomb hanging from the under carriage owing to a fault in the release mechanism.
One anecdote has never been forgotten by the family because he shared it with John’s eldest brother Anthony, who was in the merchant navy – also a very hazardous occupation in wartime. Returning across the English Channel from a raid, Don had spotted what was clearly a British Convoy heading for home, but had been shaken to realise that he was being fired on by some of the ships, whereupon he made haste for the cover of the clouds. As he told Anthony about it some days later when they were both home on leave, the latter interrupted to say “So that was you, was it?” … The crew of his ship had spotted a bomber overhead, which they had assumed was an enemy, and had done their best to shoot it down before it could report their position by radio… Fortunately they missed.
With Don’s record he was promoted to Squadron Leader and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and bar. For the next year or so he served as an instructor at a training unit in Scotland before being posted to one of the units constituting what were known as the Pathfinders. Equiped with the new, faster Mosquito bombers, their task was to fly ahead of the main bomber forces, locating targets with maximum precision and illuminating them by means of incendiary bombs.
By early February 1945 the number of missions required to be completed before aircrews had another rest period had been raised to forty, of which Don had reached thirty-six missions; he had also managed to complete two of these without Pam’s knowledge. Thus he was happily looking forward to the day when he could give her the happy surprise of being told that he had finished his stint.
He set off on his thirty-seventh mission (or ‘op’ as they called them) in the middle of a vicious blizzard, but in spite of the desperate weather Don made it back to the vicinity of his home airfield, where he signalled that he was ready to land. They radioed back advising him that they had a damaged aircraft about to land and asked him to return in five minutes. The blizzard was still raging and when the five minutes were up they had lost radio contact with him. A short while later his home station was telephoned by another airfield a short distance away, reporting that a Mosquito had crashed near their airfield and asking if it was one of theirs. Don had died with three ops to go, and unbeknown to him, very near the end of the war.
A few years later widowed Pam met Bill, a quiet and mild-mannered solicitor. He was her safe haven and became very attached to his little blond stepson who had been too young to understand how he had lost his father. They married and had over sixty happy years together. Pam had two further children, and at family get-togethers I have attended, her first husband Don is spoken of in a natural way, with respect. He is still very much a part of the family, and not least because one of Frank’s sons, Don’s grandchild, is apparently the spitting image of his grandfather.
His spirit lives on.
Different times, different world. I wanted to tell this story because it is part of the human experience, and worthy of record.
It is long overdue for those we referred to then as ‘the enemy’ to come forward and tell their stories round the same camp fire.
- from Lonicera's non-digital archive
and a few pictures of Fuerteventura, Canary Islands