Family History, Rememberance

Remember Granny’s War

[D]701152: Heinkel 111

My mother was not killed in the war, obviously — she survived and had me and lived to know her grandchildren and now, after her death, they repeat her stories to their children. I wish I had listened more to these when they were first-hand and taken notes.

Mum was 16 at the onset of World War II, she worked in Central London and for some peculiar reason her work was evacuated to the south coast (nearer to the enemy) — to Eastbourne. This was judged to be safer than London.

In about July 1940 just after her 17th birthday she went on her bicycle to play tennis, riding alone along a country lane in her short white tennis dress — not a soul about. A mighty thud shook the air from behind her — from the direction of the town — she peddled harder. Then there was the roar of an aircraft getting louder, she glanced over her shoulder to see a black shadow approaching fast, she looked around — there was no cover -just a ribbon of Tarmac, a ditch and close cropped pasture on either side. She peddled with all her might. There was machine gun fire — she threw herself into the ditch and the bullets strafed the road a few feet away, sending up spouts of dust and the smell of hot tar. Her bicycle jumped convulsively. She lay in that ditch, her arms over her head, in the embrace of that cool mud for a very long time.

Finally ‘when the plane had had time to get all the way to Berlin!’ she said, she extracted herself from the ditch, moved her mangled bike and splintered racquet from the bullet scarred carriageway and set of to walk back to town and her digs.

She didn’t make a fuss but that evening she telephoned her father and soon after she returned to Central London where she lived and worked throughout the rest of the war, witnessing the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.

When I was a child and we climbed out of the Underground at the Aldwych Mum would be reminded, she would remember climbing up these steps once before, exiting of the Tube — at that time there had been a blast and she had been blown down the steps. Recovering herself she continued up into the dust laden air to the surreal sight of a red double-decker bus sticking out from the first floor of the building opposite where it had been blown by the blast. She said it was a V1 flying bomb (the sort that you could hear coming, they were the worst, when the engine stopped, you held your breath as you waited for the bang). Mum had had another near miss but no fuss! The casualties, which were considerable, were not dwelt upon.

In the evenings, she and her father would walk to the Archway bridge that overlooked the City and watch the fires burning.

Meanwhile in Eastbourne sporadic bombing and gunfire continued with significant civilian casualties. By 1942 the Nazi tip and run attacks were happening all along the south coast but worst of all in Eastbourne — low flying Messerschmitt Bf 109’s delivering their single 250Kg bomb to key targets and causing maximum fear and disruption by attacking the streets with automatic fire before escaping back across the Channel.

Mum felt much safer in the capital — somehow there the conflict felt less personal!

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From Omaha to Hiroshima.

He wasn’t a hero.

Young GMB in uniform

He was a bookish boy with an academic interest in anything and everything to do with flight – that’s flying not running away. His father and uncle had been World War One aviators – the uncle was a hero (MC and DFC) and died. The father, whose wits were very quick and eyesight very good, was not a hero but survived and after the war produced the boy whose eyesight was poor and who took after his mother who was of a nervous disposition.

When the next war broke out the boy volunteered for the Royal Air Force, not to fly but to serve in the RAF Regiment as an officer on the ground, building runways and keeping up, just behind the lines, with all the logistics of flight – that’s flying not running away.

Unusually for the time, he had spent his childhood holidays, between the wars, in France and while a bookish boy at Highgate School , had been paired with a German Jewish refugee boy (Gerard Hoffnung) – the one to learn English the other German – it worked.

On D-day +1, about a week after he had married my mother, a bookish young man who spoke French and German was running up Omaha Beach in Normandy under fire, soaking wet and more terrified than he could ever have imagined. His kit was lost and returned, rotting in sea water, to his young wife in London; the family thought he had been lost but she would not believe it (she washed his spare uniform repeatedly until it smelled fresh and she had had news that he was safe — well not exactly safe… He went on (with others) to fight through France, Belgium and Holland, where he lived with a young Dutch family facing horrible hardship.  Later he went on to use his languages (he’d added Dutch and a smattering of Russian), and his unit’s bulldozer to bury bodies, in Belsen.

Just when he thought that the nightmare was over (or was he really alive for the only time in his life) he was ordered to embark for the War in Japan — a war without the niceties of the Geneva Convention or Red Cross parcels, where capture could mean starvation or summary beheading.

He sailed through the Suez Canal and was half way across the Indian Ocean when the Allies detonated the atom bomb over Hiroshima (6th August 1945), and three days later, over Nagasaki; Japan surrendered; the war ended; my dad – Geoffrey Mitchell Buck (1922-1991), who was not a hero, survived and was re-routed to the North where, armed with a copy of the Koran and assisted by a Muslim bearer, he was seconded to the Indian Air Force to witness the partition of India and the death throes of British colonialism.

When I was a child my father used to scream in the night. Once he was showing me how to sail a dingy in Norfolk and I pointed out a duck — Duck! He threw himself into the bottom of the boat and went pale, with perspiration on his top lip. Then he got cross with me which didn’t seem fair at the time.

Last week I found and read a book of his (signed and dated 1947). It was Hiroshima by John Hersey, It contains first-hand accounts from survivors of the bomb – everyone should read it – it feels like a latter-day gospel about the sacrifice of people for the sins (and future) of others.

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