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19 November 2011

Lest we forget

Tag(s): History

Last week the nation commemorated Remembrance Day on an auspicious date, 11-11-11. That day I witnessed the burial of my last surviving Aunt at the age of 88. Sheila Torrington, my mother’s only sister, had spent most of her life as a vicar’s wife, a role she took very faithfully. She was just 16 when the 2nd World War broke out and she was the last person one thought of as a war heroine. But when she was 21 she was called up to work at Bletchley Park and spent the last part of the war helping to decode the Nazi German signals. This work was totally secret. Not even her father knew what Sheila was doing and she kept it to herself for most of her life. It was only in the past few years when it began to be talked about more openly that she would admit with great reluctance and indeed some annoyance that she had done this work. When asked how it had been she just said it was boring.

Perhaps it was but it is now generally thought that the code breaking effort of the staff who worked at Bletchley Park, while it may not have won the war, certainly shortened it and in that sense saved hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. In 2009 Sheila received a certificate from the Prime Minister which reads:

The Government Code and Cypher School

Mrs Sheila Esdaile Torrington

The Government wishes to express to you its deepest gratitude for the vital service you performed during World War II.

Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown MP  Prime Minister  July 2009

I also attended the funeral this year of my father’s elder brother Bernard who died at the age of 96. He also fought in the Army and was part of the D-day invasions. On D-day+1 Bernard was in an armoured vehicle and without thought stuck his unhelmeted head up through the opening. He was shot in the head by a German sniper and severely wounded. He was immediately repatriated to England and spent the rest of the war in hospital. But he survived, with shrapnel in his head, to have a successful career in insurance and outlive the rest of his five brothers and sisters.

At the beginning of this year I buried my father just before what would have been his 91st birthday. He had been 19 when war was declared but he had seen it coming and already signed up with the Territorials. He later transferred to the Royal Artillery, was trained in Yorkshire, Scotland and Northern Ireland and when he knew that he was due to go overseas married my mother in February 1942. They had a few days’ honeymoon and a brief period as husband and wife before he sailed to Madagascar to take part in the action there. He then went to India to prepare for the retaking of Burma from the Japanese. He was therefore one of the forgotten army who were still fighting in Burma months after VE Day in Europe. He did not return to be reunited with my mother till the end of 1945, nearly four years after their separation and after a few weeks’ leave was once more called up to take part in the post-war settlement activity in Germany.

My father was not seriously injured but had some close escapes. On one occasion in the jungle a Japanese fired at him and hit a tree nearby. The bullet knocked a splinter of wood into my father’s arm. On another occasion he was driving a jeep into the jungle when a superior officer came up and commandeered the vehicle. The officer then drove off and shortly after the jeep was hit by a shell and the officer killed.

Joan and Eric wrote to each other numerous letters throughout this long period of separation. My sister, brother and I have about 600 letters from Joan to Eric and 300 from Eric to Joan. The ink is fading and the paper is somewhat mangled but they are a marvellous record of a difficult time. Much of them are simply the intimate confidences of a newly married couple while much describe the routine of everyday life. But they are also an important social record of what it was like in wartime and very humbling it is to read. There were times when my mother faced more danger than my father as she worked in His Majesty’s Stationery Office in Central London and during the blitz had to take her turn of fire watching on the roof of their offices. All women between the ages of 20 and 45 had to register for fire watching.

Perhaps such experiences gave her a real insight into what was happening. Shortly after her 21st birthday, just halfway through the war she wrote the following:

“I shall have to write up my diary after this, darling, if writer’s cramp has not taken hold of me – I’m two days behind and that will never do, or else where will our history be when we want to read it by our fireside in years to come when we’re very old and grey and tell our children and our grandchildren what life was like in the Great War of the 19-Forties. “When life was real and life was earnest” – when people who loved each other had to be separated to win the war over Evil – when people learnt that the simple and ordinary things of life were the things that mattered – when for years – we lived in a state of Black-out, of Economy, of Rationing and were still happy! Ah, yes, we shall say – those were the days – you children don’t know what life is!” Well – I hope those children won’t know what War is, anyway, darling. Never again – they said in 1918 – and twenty years later the bomb exploded again – well – this time has really got to be the last – we can’t live to see people being oppressed & starved as they are in Greece & parts of Europe today- not fighting for long desperate months as they’ve had to in China and Russia. Our time of more suffering & hardship may come- but when it’s all over, we’ve got to see that all the sacrifices aren’t in vain – there mustn’t be another Treaty of Versailles – I know this must all sound like a fourth-rate propaganda speech but I do feel strongly that we’ve got to deserve the Peace when we’ve won it, and work to keep it. I don’t think our lives will ever drift along in the same easy, indolent sort of way that they did before Sept 3rd 1939 – life isn’t just an idle sort of game, is it, darling? It’s full of joys and happy things – fun, yes but you have to work for it.”

I find that reference to Greece particularly eerie today. And so we must buy and wear our poppies, not to celebrate war but to remember those who gave their lives or suffered in other ways so that our generation and the next generation might enjoy relative peace and prosperity and above all freedom. In correspondence with an American friend he told me that his 84 year old mother regretted that Americans no longer wore poppies. I told him that this year it was expected that 36 million would be sold in Britain raising £40m for the Royal British Legion who look after some of our veterans. He wrote back saying “I’m going to start campaigning here to bring back the Veteran’s Day poppies”.

And the circle of life goes on. On the day we buried Sheila my nephew’s Vietnamese wife gave birth to a baby boy.

Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved

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