Monday, 10 May 2010

153 Squadron 1944/45 - The final entry

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.

Dad and his crew. Dad front right.

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.

Don Freeborn and crew

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. 

Whizz Wheeler and crew

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.

Wing Co. Powley, Sqdn Ldr Gee.

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.

High Flight

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.
Aged 19.

153 Sqdn Reunion May 2010

Thank you all. God Bless.

See you later.......


La Belette Rouge said...

I think you and my He-weasel would have a whole lot to talk about. For sure you are the only blog I have ever sent him to. I know he will love this post. And I love this post. What I find so touching and poignant is your longing to understand your father's experiences. Your love for him is palpable.
Lovely post, Alistair.

Kadeeae said...

Yet another post to make me *sniffle*

Lovely, lovely thoughts equisitely expressed. Although short in terms of time, it must have been quite a journey for you. =)

And, to my way of thinking (some have dared to try and figure it out!) your father has been on the journey with you and no doubt learned much about you along the way too.

All the best~

Alistair said...

Hullo Ladies - and thank you for your comments.

Mme. La B-R, I'm touched that you saw something in here that made you think to pass it on to Mr. Le B-R. I'm touched too that with all the following you have this has been the only one. Thank you.

Kadeeae, Thanks too for those lovely words. Sorry I keep making you sniff. It's not the main aim of posting I promise. I'm afraid I am both naturally sentimental { and more as I get older too} and slightly melancholy in my expression sometimes. It might be something to do with being a Scot..... we always seem to be partying, fighting or 'greetin' about something or other in the past.

coastkid said...

great writing you have done to the brave men that flew and fought for our country in dark times...thanks alistair

Big Swifty said...

Fantastic series of posts. It had a big effect on me too, making me look at my dad's role as a mechanic in the RAF ,and my ex-father-in-law's actions as a bomber pilot. I salute them all, and thanks for recording it for us Alistair.

Alistair said...

Thanks guys.

Scottish Nature Boy said...

Amazing post again Al.

And I'm sure you will be delighted at the news of a long-overdue memorial in London to the men who flew for Bomber Command - heard about it on the news today. Would you travel down for the opening maybe?

Alistair said...

Aye, it's great news indeed. And Aye, I might well do just that.


Morning's Minion said...

I think your exploration of this chunk of WWII history not only gave you a new awareness of who your Dad was--itcan enlighten others who had a family member in the conflict--whether or not they served in a similar or different capacity, whether or not they "came home."
Those who survive war never seem to want to talk about it. Maybe it wasn't considered good "therapy" then [?] or maybe they couldn't bear to bring some of the nightmarish times into daylight.
I think that your focus, your good writing skills and your sense of personal involvement make this series of posts memorable. It is worthy of a wider audience than your loyal blog followers.

Alistair said...

Thanks MM. I may use it for some creative writing through my course. I have a hard copy of everything if I think about doing anything else too.


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