Friday, 8 May 2020

VE Day - 75 years ago today

My Parents at Piccadilly Circus VE Day (centre)

75 years ago today, my Mum and Dad were having a party. That's them in the middle, the best seats in the house at Piccadilly Circus. Heaven only knows how they blagged that, but anyone who knew my Dad would not be surprised! As for the puff of smoke at the right of the picture? Dad always told me that it was the ghost of his rear gunner F/O John Charles 'Spud' Murphy, who died when they were shot down over Rumania in 1944. My father served with the RAF for another year, before being discharged. He flew 38 active missions, getting shot down on the last, being held POW, escaping and being repatriated to the UK. He ended up working as a flying instructor and an air accident investigation officer. After leaving the RAF, he worked as a commercial pilot for a while, until my mother got fed up and made him start a business in Mill Hill.

I had planned a grand splash for today. My plan was to drive down to Whitsable and interview my Mum's  younger sister Audrey, to get the full story from her. Sadly, due to the lockdown and then her death from covid, I didn't get the chance. Audrey had a brilliant memory, so my plan was for a video of her recollections. Sadly that was not to be.

My parents always said VE day was the best day of their lives. The days of worry were over. My mother had yet to have children, and just for a day, the worries of the world were lifted. Our family always comment on the 'Guinness is Good for you' behind my Father. My mother would drink gallons of the stuff.

On the 50th Anniversary, back in 1995, we had a small party. My Dad sadly had long since passed, my father in law talked about his memories of being with the RAF in India, my mother in law was in London as was my mother. My mum told us that people were so friendly, people dragged piano's into the street, food, which had been scarce for five years magically appeared. The pubs and bars were packed and my father bumped into many friends from his RAF service.

Like many people, the reality of peace for my parents wasn't quite the promised land they'd hoped for. Rationing continued, national service continued, shortages continued. Housing was scarce, so my parents had to live with my grandparents in a small council house in Burnt Oak, until my brothers were born, and they moved to Wise Lane Mill Hill. My Grandfather advised my mother to vote Labour in the 1945 election, as he explained that the Tories had shafted the common man after the first world war. Strangely my Grandfather actually knew Winston Churchill, he'd been involved in the Liberal Party in Oldham when Winston Churchill was their MP. Many forget that Churchill served as both a Liberal and a Tory. My Grandfather never trusted him, after he switched back to the Tories and would be very vocal about his dislike.

My Father, as an Australian, had a strong dislike of the British class system. He felt that the biggest problem in the RAF was that officers were often promoted on their background rather than their ability. He told me that you'd see who the good officers were when there were real jobs to do that were difficult. They would get done and the pen pushers would get the accolades. My father referred to them as 'shiny arses', who spent their careers sitting down. My father told me that his active service in an operational squadron provided some of the best and worst moments of his life. Identifying Spud's body as a POW was the low. He explained how he was given hospitality by the Rumanian Airforce before being returned to the POW camp. Spud was given a proper funeral. He said that the Rumanian Airforce officers were among the most decent people he ever met and he fully understood that they were patriots. He explained that they were not Nazi's, but feared Stalin and communism. In an unguarded moment, he said that he always felt bad that Rumania ended up as a Soviet satellite as he felt those people deserved better.

Many years after, through the Rotary club, my father invited a German Pilot to stay at our home. I was worried that this may be difficult, but it was one of the most fascinating conversations I've ever heard. The pilot flew night fighters and they discussed tactics and strategies. My father had always tried to be first over target, he believed that the night fighters would let the first one through, so as to not alert the main body of the force to their presence. This was confirmed. On the subject of the Nazi's, the German explained that he was a young man who'd been brainwashed. Once the war finished and the truth became known, he was horrified at what he'd been fighting for. He said that the saddest thing was that so many fine pilots died for what was in effect a big lie. He said that it was clear to all that by 1944 the war was lost and that every German loss after D-Day was a waste. The pilots knew that the game was up, but felt they had to do their duty. Perhaps the most difficult part of the conversation was about the Nazi treatment of the Jewish population. Sadly, it demonstrated just how evil the Nazi's were. It was explained that most Germans before the Nazi's were totally anti semitic. The Nazi's started as a small and very thuggish party. When they took power, they used every organ of state to blame everything on the Jewish population. Older people would be too scared to say anything and younger people fell for the lies. It was only when the scale of the depravity became clear, the truth hit home. The Luftwaffe were not involved, but the members had to accept that they were part of the machine.

Perhaps the real legacy of the war was that these two old foes could share a beer and acknowledge this truth. The world we live in is not perfect, but it is infinitely better than the alternative that Hitler offered. That is why we should celebrate today.

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