A few months ago, just before Christmas in fact, I decided to go on a journey in search of a bit of my Dad that I didn't know all that much about. Dad died last year aged 84. He'd had a good innings, been an ordinary working man all his days and, an intelligent, able and highly sociable man, he worked in low paid jobs - postman, insurance agent, traffic warden, social work assistant for blind welfare - for all of his working life. He never hankered after money or status and enjoyed the simple things in life; family, children, nature, people. He was a great fisherman and a great reader, he enjoyed solving problems and making things with his hands in a nutty professor creative kind of way. He was a natural psychologist and understood what made people tick. He was self deprecating and a good conversationalist, a staunch and lifelong giver of friendship. He was inquisitive, questioning and interested to the last. He had one of the most embarrassing laughs I have ever heard from a grown man. He gave that laugh to me.
When he was a young man there was a war on. Before it ended he joined the RAF and became a rear gunner in 153 Squadron of Bomber Command. They flew Lancasters from Scampton near Lincoln in England, the same base that the 'dambuster's raid had been launched from. He very rarely spoke about his armed service. When he did it was short stories of training flights, innocuous anecdotes about life around the base or, more often, stories about when he had been posted out of the Squadron after the end of the war to a small town in Northern Germany where he lived with a German family while working on various ground roles in the area, or about dropping food to starving civilians in Holland. As he would never speak of it much, as I got older I never asked. When I did he simply said that he had trained and then been in a crash and by the time he recovered it was nearly over and his life hadn't been that exciting or dramatic.
After he died I suddenly realised I had a thousand, a million questions unasked about hundreds of things and no chance to have them answered any more. I wanted to know more about his time during the war. I wanted to know about what he did. I wanted to know about him and his experience. As usual with Dad, nothing was ever straight forward. I began to look. I began to read. I began to dig. As was so typical of him, he led me to a door, opened it and showed me something much bigger than I expected. A much different story than I imagined began to be shown to me, one that wasn't about my Dad so much as included him.
As I worked away at the information and began to post what I had found, attempting to keep in time with the campaign calendar of 1945, I found the story of a relatively small group of people, no doubt like hundreds of thousands of other small groups around the globe at that time, who were experiencing things that were way beyond my ken. As I posted the sometimes daily updates, they became known to me. They became real to me. Their joint experience put into context language and fears that I recognised from Dad even 60 years later, not from what he said, but from who he was. I began to feel a contact with, and empathy for them through my knowing of him. I began to appreciate much more clearly what they had all been through in those truly terrible times. I saw that this was only a small part of what was the same experience for thousands of other 'Bomber Boys' on a nightly basis over an extended period of time. The very reality of posting 'in real time' showed me how relentless their situation was, even over such a short period. I'm sure that if you have read, or will read these posts as a result of what I am saying here, that you too like me, may come to a clearer understanding of just what WWII in the air was like for so many.
But now, my little project is finished. I do know more about my Dad. I know more about all of them. How typical of him to show me that it's not about one person, no matter how important that one person may be to you. It seems now, right at the end, that it was in fact about all of them almost right from the beginning. Maybe I should have realised that it was going to be that way. That's another similarity between him and I, I suppose.
High Flight, 20,000ft
Before I leave the topic completely, I want to re-post this little poem from an earlier entry.
Its for Dad and its for all of 153 Squadron. Those who lived and the 147 who died long ago.
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter silvered wings,
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun split clouds - and done a hundred things you
Have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung,
High in the sunlit silence, hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air,
Up, up the long delirious blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark nor even eagle flew,
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod,
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
written in September 1941
by John Gillespie Magee Jr
Royal Canadian Air Force
died 11 December 1941.
153 Sqdn Reunion May 2010
Thank you all. God Bless.
See you later.......