One of the traditions of this blog is to write an armistice day reflection. I started in 2008, the first year of the Barnet Eye blog, publishing my fathers wartime diary from 1944, when he was serving with the RAF in Italy, as a bomber pilot. It is quite harrowing and ends with "Shufti" on the 30th June 1944, when he was shot down and taken prisoner of war. His first task was to identify the body of his rear gunner, John Charles Murphy (You can read more about my Fathers wartime experiences at the rather wonderful Aircrew Remembered site - R F/O. Lawrence Franklin Tichborne (aircrewremembered.com)).
This year, something has happened that makes this an almost impossible blog to write. The Cenotaph ceremony has been politicised by the Home secretary Suella Braverman. What should be all about the brave men and women who passed has become all about her. I cannot hide my disgust at this. I really didn't want to mention this, but it simply cannot be ignored. In some ways though, it brings me to my last proper conversation about the war with my Dad. He told me some things that I never truly understood until today. I have spent my life believing that everything we do, see and experience has a purpose, one which sometimes takes years to become clear, sometimes it never does.
Dad died of a heart attack in January 1987, aged 69. In November 1986, Mum had gone away, we went for a curry and then sat up until 3am drinking Scotch. We'd had a massive falling out earlier in the year and I'd only recently got back on speaking terms with him. One of my mates, Ernie Ferebee had taken me aside in June and shaken some sense into me. He'd said "Your Dad will not last forever, if he died tomorrow and you were not on good terms with him, how would you feel?". His words rang true, although I believed Dad to be indestructable. After all he'd survived being shot down. I made my peace. Unlike me, Dad was not a man to hold a grudge. He always said it was the Irish in me that made me fester for months or years if I felt wronged. What was it about? When I moved out, my parents had slung all my old stuff out that I'd left. Ticket stubs, football programmes, copies of the NME. They hadn't told me. I felt they'd erased my past and had a massive strop. It lasted nearly a year. How stupid was I? I collard my Dad after work in June, told him we needed to have a drink. We had a quick pint and said our sorry's. He said he'd never have slung the stuff out if he thought I'd wanted it and hadn't realised the significance. He said that if his wartime diary had been slung out, he'd probably have felt the same. I was just pleased to be back on terms with him. My mother, who I get my Irish sense of grudge from, was less welcoming for a while. Only a grovelling apology for my rant would do and that was harder, as I felt I was right. Dad advised that sometimes it is worth saying sorry when you are not. He said that Mum knew she was wrong, but that was not the issue, it was one of respect for her. Good advice. I was not living at home, I only saw them a couple of times, then in November Mum went to see her sister and I had a night out with Dad.
It was probably the only proper, adult conversation we had. We talked about many things. As I said, things happen for a reason. I believe that we fell out, so that when we had that night, everything would stay locked and fresh in my memory. despite the many beers and the scotches that followed.
We had long chat about the war. As it was November, he'd been to a remembrance day service. I asked him how he felt about the war. What he told me was quite stark really. He told me a story of when he arrived in England, on a troop ship from New York. Dad was an Aussie and he'd travelled from Australia via the USA. A whole bunch of fresh faced airmen arrived, full of excitement. All were volunteers from the Commonwealth. They were told to crew up. The RAF did this, allowing crews to select themselves. Dad's crew was unusual, in that all were officers. Once crews were selected, they were assigned aircraft, Vickers Wellingtons. They were then told to take them out for a test flight.
As they were getting ready to take off, one of them shouted "Last one in the air buys the squadron beers when we land". Dad was lucky, his plane was first on the runway. He got up in the air, without a problem, flew a few circuits and the crew familiarised themselves with the aircraft. He then radiod for permission to land. He was told to divert to another airfield. He was surprised, but assumed that this was part of the exercise. He landed and was transported back to his own base. When he arrived, he was horrified to find himself on a charge. What had happened after he took off was quite incredible. The crews all made a mad scramble to take off and several aircraft had collided.
They were all summonded for a dressing down. The officer told them that the RAF was considering sending them back where they came with dishonourable discharges. He then rounded on one airman, who was wearing a Royal Navy uniform. He said "look at you bedraggled lot. You haven't even got proper RAF kit, you are a disgrace". The airman then, to Dad's total surprise, replied to the officer "Sir, would you mind turning around?". The officer was surprised but did this. The airman shouted "Just as I suspected a shiny arse". He then rounded on the officer. He said "I'm wearing this because when I was being transported across the atlantic, a U Boat sank our ship. All of my mates died, I was ina dinghy for seventeen hours, before a boat rescued me. The convoy sailed past us leaving us to drown. I was nearly frozen to death when I was pulled out. I lost all of my kit and you and your mates have not seen fit to replace it, so don't lecture me on doing my job, sure we screwed up, but only because we were excited to be given the opportunity to die over Europe for the likes of you who never get off your arse and do anything useful". To Dad's amazement, the officer said "I am so sorry, I should have realised" and that was the end of the matter. Dad said that of the 100 or so men there, maybe a dozen survived. All were the best of the best.
He then said "Your brothers are 40 years old now. Thank God, none will serve in a war. You are 24, you might. Just remember son, the officers, the top brass and the politicans are not your friend. They do not care for you and yoru well being. If ever you are called to do your duty, you don't do it for them, you do it for your family and friends, so that your kids might have a better future. Do your duty, but never trust them. They don't know you, they don't care for your safety.". When Dad was shot down, his CO wrote to my mum to say he'd been lost and was missing presumed dead. He said "Norman was a fine airman". My Dad's name was Lawrence.
I think that this is the first Remembrance Sunday when I truly understood what he was getting at.