Tuesday, 26 May 2020

No place like home?

Back in 1944, my father was serving in the Royal Air Force. He was stationed in a large base in Foggia in Southern Italy and was flying active service missions in a Wellington bomber, attacking targets in Italy, Germany, Yugoslavia and Rumania. I've no real idea how this would have affected him. He was always happy to talk about the war, but rarely about the darker aspects of it. Although he was a prisoner of war in Rumania, he only ever spoke highly of the Italian people. The occasional references he made to German camp guards portrayed them as rather stupid. I asked him about this once and he said "the last thing any decent soldier would want to be was a guard in a prisoner of war camp", making it clear that he felt them to be the dregs of the German army, in every respect. He had a lot of professional admiration for the capabilities of Luftwaffe pilots.

The only Axis soldiers he ever spoke in any way negatively about were the Japanese. This was based on the harsh treatment of Australian POW's, including some of his close friends. He used to tell the story of how one of his friends was being held in a Japanese run POW camp and he and his comrades were being badly treated, and were starving. The camp commandant had two fine fighting cocks and in desperation, he killed it and ate it, with some other Aussie POW's. The camp commandant was furious and said that if the perpetrator did not own up, 50 men would be executed. My Dad's friend decided to own up. He was staked out in the sun for three days in the hot sun and on the third day all of the inmates were forced to watch his execution. The camp commandant offered him a final request. His response, knowing he was going to die, was the "The other cock for supper". Sadly that was the last thing he said. He cited it as proof of the unbreakable anti establishment ethos of the ordinary Australian. I used to view it as a 'funny story', but in one of my last conversations with my Dad, I asked him if it was true. He told me that it was, another friend who survived had witnessed it. But he went on to tell me that other Aussies had told him the same story about other people.

He was unimpressed when I told him it sounded like when The Sex Pistols played in Manchester. I explained that there were in reality about 30 people there, but if everyone who said they'd been there was, then the crowd would have filled Wembley Stadium. He then laughed, understanding that what I was referring to was the propensity of people to nick other peoples stories. He told me the Aussies were the worst for that. There is a scene in the film Gallipoli, where Paul Hogan's character is asked what his trade is. He lists a long list of achievements, ending with "and the biggest liar in Queensland" (if my memory serves me correctly).

But amidst all of the bravado, there was a softer side, a side I never really saw. My father was not one for sentimentality or displaying vulnerability, but my aunts effects are being cleared out and my cousin found some of my maternal grandmothers possessions in a bag. One of the items was this

It is a sketch of Wellington bomber flying through searchlights and anti aircraft fire. The inscription reads 'Even we who fly sometimes think there’s no place like home’.  My father was a talented artist, and had many sketchbooks of planes etc, none of which I've got. He was a very mechanically minded person and liked accurate drawings. My mother bought a large Picasso picture for the wall, which he hated, but she insisted on hanging up. His view was that it wasn't any good if it didn't look like the subject. What is interesting is that the plane appears to be diving to avoid the searchlights. My father told a story of how once he'd been targetted by a blue searchlight. These were rumoured to be radar guided and it was said if this illuminated you, then you had six seconds to live. He told me he immediately put the plane into a corkscrew dive and just managed to avoid the shells as they burst around him. When he returned to base, the RAF told him that no such German weapons existed. At an RAF reunion get together in the late 1970's, a weapons expert gave a talk. Someone asked about the blue searchlights and the expert again stated that these didn't exist. My father recounted that there was uproar as several pilots at the dinner had been shot down by them. When I queried why this should be, he said "The way it works here is that when they decide they are not going to tell you something, they won't tell you it, ever". Apparently a couple of years later, the same guy came back and gave a proper explanation. I do wonder if this sketch was a depiction of the incident? Something clearly made him a bit homesick. I was also puzzled as to why he sent it to my Grandmother instead of his then fiance, my Mum? I think the inscription gives a clue. My father at that time was an orphan, his mother had passed away in the 1930's, tragically in a road accident. I suspect that, as many of us do, when things get difficult, we want to be in a loving safe place, and perhaps my Dad had decided that 56 Milling Road in Burnt Oak was his safe place. 

There are two lessons I draw from this, from todays crisis. The first is perhaps a very sad one. The government are still lying to us, telling us things we know not to be true, thinking we are too stupid to realise. The second is that ultimately, there really is no place like home, especially in a time of great crisis. There are those who stay and fight and those who turn and run. I know what my Father did. Sadly I also know what the bloke directing our response to this virus did, when the chips were down. They say we get the leaders we deserve.That is perhaps the thing that troubles me the most. 

No comments: