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Dad never said much about the war when he came back.

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Dad never said much about the war when he came back.

Old 20th Jan 2016, 01:58
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Dad never said much about the war when he came back.

It is a truth universally acknowledged
, that quite often a Dad (or Grandad) would never say much about his experiences in the Forces in WWII after demob in 1946, and actively disliked being questioned about them. This was by no means limited to that war. My own father, though he used to keep me spellbound as a boy with his tales of Nigeria in early Edwardian days (when he had been seconded from the British Army to the Nigeria Regt. as a young SNCO Instructor), told me nothing about his later years in the trenches in 14/18.

Of course, there were many cases where this was perfectly understandable. A prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma railway, for example, captured in Singapore in '42, had no hope of release from his sufferings other than a wretched death after years of beatings, torture, starvation, and overwork. Freedom would come suddenly in August '45, but he didn't know that, as no one had any inkling of it beforehand. It was natural that survivors of this would need a long time to recover from their three years of living Hell. Many were broken in body and mind, and would have nightmares about it for a long time. Obviously it would be cruel in the extreme to question him about it or to say a word which might awaken terrible memories.

But there were many others who had the good fortune to have had a much less stressful time in the six years of war. For (as has been said somewhere earlier on the "Pilot's Brevet" Thread): "We each had to fight the war we were given". No two servicemen were given exactly the same war, and there was no choice. You did not choose your war - it chose you ! The surprising thing was that even among this group the same reluctance to speak about it (even to close family) was frequently to be observed. This was so common a behaviour that I feel there must have been some deep psychological basis for it, and it might be interesting to try to find it.

There is no doubt that, in total war such as WWII, the Forces and the civilian population were, in a broad sense, "all in it together". The non-combatants suffered all the hardships of rationing and shortages, the dangers of bombing, the mental strain of being separated from loved ones (for years, and maybe for ever), and all the other disruptions of family life. But all these were additional burdens on a normal daily routine, they did not displace it. The Law and normal civilised conventions remained in force. Apart from those directed into war work, people did the same jobs, lived in the same houses, took the same bus or tram to work through familiar streets, had the same friends and neighbours and used the same shops, cinemas and churches as they had done before. The dangers and difficulties of war were simply "bolted on " to normal life, as it were. I have mentioned before that wartime civilian life in the UK quickly became the "norm"; "before the war" soon became a distant memory; and "Don't you know there's a war on ?" became the stock answer to any grumbler.

But in the Forces it was vastly different. The recruit left behind him, not only the comforts (such as they were) of civilian life, but the whole framework of his former existence. All the old rules and conventions were turned upside down, for example, "Thou shalt not kill" became "Kill or be killed !"; a former settled life turned into a gypsy existence, in which you might be sent right across the country, or half way across the world, a helpless pawn in some Great Game which was being played by elemental forces which you could not possibly understand, still less control. You had the novel, salutary experience of realising that other men were actively trying to kill you, and it was your duty to try to kill them.

In place of your former coterie of friends and family, your life was now centred on the other men of your unit, on whom you had absolutely to rely (and who in their turn had to rely on you) to keep alive. It is not surprising that the comradeship which developed in consequence ("the one great golden thread", as I think of it), which went through Service life, was the one thing that helped to make it all worth while.

And it was worth while. We knew what we were doing in those years, and that it was all part of winning the war. And the war had to be won for we were fighting an evil thing (if ever a war was a "just war", it was WWII). We believed in what we were doing. Referring to the whole nation, Churchill put it into imperishable words: "If the British Empire ..... lasts a thousand years, men will still say 'This was their finest hour' ". And for many of us who served, it was our personal Finest Hour, too. By no means our happiest, or most fortunate, or most successful, or most rewarding, or most satisfying - simply our Finest. We could echo Dickens' Sydney Carton: "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done" (and, as many of us thought when it was all over: "or will ever do again").

The cumulative force of all these experiences made us feel that we had almost been "on another planet" during our war service. Many of the things we had had to do were distasteful, even shocking or revolting; when we "got back", and tried to explain them to our nearest and dearest, our stories were often met with incredulous horror, anger or disgust: they simply could not comprehend how their husbands, sons or brothers, whom they thought they knew so well, could have been capable of such things. Dad or Grandad soon learned to keep his mouth shut. And there was another, I suppose subconscious, feeling, that our time "away" from life as they knew it was in some way "special" or "precious" (even "sacred", in a way) to us: it would not be "right" to talk about it now that we had left our "planet" and could never return to it. We must close that book, and never open it again.

Reunions, and old comrades' associations proliferated, as for a few hours you could exchange reminiscences with others who knew how things had been and understood why they had been so. You spoke a "common language", as it were, which was incomprehensible to civilians, even to your own family. But, even then, many avoided them, in the belief that we should "savour" our past, but not try to exhume it. Best to let it lie and forget about it.

What do other PPRuNers think about this ?




Support for this analysis is contained in the following excerpts which have recently appeared in Posts on the "Gaining a R.A.F. Pilot's Brevet in WWII" Thread in the Military Aviation Forum (block text mine):


(p.6 #111 - Jun 2008)
...As has been related here, many from that generation are exceedingly reluctant to tell their tales. And far too many of those stories have disappeared forever with the passing of the storytellers.

Having interviewed numerous WWII veterans, British, Canadian, Australian, and American, most had never really talked about their experiences and their families were amazed what quiet, unassuming Dad or even white-haired Granddad had done in his younger days, both on and off duty...

(p.389 #7768)

(From the memoirs [No.6] of Tempest Pilot Flt.Lt. Jack Stafford (RIP), DFC RNZAF, submitted by Geriaviator 3.12.15), under the heading:

..But I could hardly believe the gulf that had opened between me and most of the people with whom I had been so close only 12 months earlier.

My single-minded devotion to the Air Force was beyond them; they could not understand my experiences in the air. At first I was keen to discuss my flying in great detail, but I could not get through to them. Our lives had taken very different paths, and nothing was the same. I found it very hard to accept that their interests were still centred on the weather, the stock, the fragile old fence on the back boundary, who would be at the dance on Saturday night, and so on.

Christ! Didn't they realise what an exciting world it was? If I spoke about life in the Air Force people would listen politely but before long their disinterest became obvious and they would remember that the ewes had to be shifted in the top paddock or business had to be done in town...

From Google the following:



(Last triplet):
...Lie in the dark and let them go;
 Lie in the dark and listen

(p.406 #8120)

...Until now he has always been reluctant to talk about his war experiences for reasons which will become apparent to those who will labour through my attempt to share his story...
(p.405 #8096)

.. & never really talked about it...

(p.406 #8120)
...This left Frank “feeling a bit like a murderer” and with a growing perception of the total brutality of the war in which he was engaged. It is one of several experiences which have led to his reluctance to talk about his wartime experiences...


And no doubt a more extensive trawl would reveal more examples of a similar nature.... D.

Last edited by Danny42C; 20th Jan 2016 at 06:25. Reason: Typo.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 02:18
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Very good summary.

My Dad, who wasn't allowed to go with his mates to WWII, never heard his Dad say anything about WWI. He'd never discuss it and the only time he even mentioned it was when my 15 year old Dad asked for his signature to sign up. The exact words escape me but it was along the lines of "After what I saw in the War, there's no way I'm signing you over to those Bastards!"

Years later, my English Grandfather came out to Oz, 1963 I think it was. When he met my paternal Grandfather, they quickly established which battles they were in, and they even realised their units were on the same battlefield during certain actions. My Dad sat to the sides listening to this banter, fascinated by stories he'd never heard before. As you'd imagine, the shutters went back up after he'd gone home.

It's clearly the shared experience that opens up the conversation. As a non Military man, I can only liken my experiences during the Black Saturday bushfires and, by no means do I intend to compare combat with fighting a bushfire*, but that's as 'exciting' as it gets for me. Our Driver saw some horrors on that day and he is still dealing with them. I was exposed to none of it as I was sheltered in the back of the truck but, he'll only open up to me "because you were there." He's told me things that I wish I never knew but I will listen as long as he needs someone to talk to.

It's the shared experience that allows him to open up & let some of his Demons out I guess. Best I can do is listen.

* Bushfires can kill you, but they lack malice, or the will to do so.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 05:13
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That was a very eloquent summary of how I have observed ‘veteran’ behavior. I have a veteran colleague at work (GWI) who is not the person he should be.

My father was the same age as you (as indicated on your profile) and never talked about his WWII RAF experiences. Unfortunately he died when I was twelve, so I never had the chance to bond with him when I was old enough to ‘shoot the shit’. My understanding was that he was mostly involved at the ‘end’ in transporting VIP’s (I have several BW pics of various treaty signings).

I am an expat Glaswegian now residing in the USA and swmbo’s father who is 95 has finally started talking about his experiences in WWII. He pulled out a box filled with mementos, Casino, Anzio, Auschwitz and a lot more where his ‘outfit’ was involved. He even has a couple of Nazi flags and rank flashes as well (oh oh)

My only military experience is in the CCF, I have been lucky to avoid a major conflict; I am not so sure I could cope as well as your generation.
As a foot note

When I asked my father in law for his daughters hand in marriage, we went for a walk (deaf as a coot for most of his life due to being on an artillery unit) I asked if it was OK to marry his daughter, he paused for a while (not sure if he had heard me) and eventually he replied “Bunch of Jocks camped out next to us”, they were OK guys”. I took that as a yes, 
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 06:52
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I've spent the last few months interviewing veterans for the International Bomber Command Centre. One of them, a man named Denis, told me the most astonishing story I've ever heard first-hand, about his time on the run in occupied France after being shot down in July 1944. I sat there for fully an hour, mouth agape but saying not a word, as he told his tale. He still suffers nightmares as a result of his experiences, which included (among many, many other incidents) hiding and fighting with the Marquis, being captured by the Germans briefly before escaping right on the point of boarding a train for Berlin, and eventually being picked up by Patton's tanks and liberating several small French villages with them.

It was only after his wife died that his son managed to convince him to tell his story. He subsequently wrote the rawest, most honest account of feelings and experiences of life in Bomber Command and beyond for the benefit of his grandchildren.

After we'd finished the interview Denis mentioned that he'd told me more that morning than he had ever told his late wife. And I'd only met him the morning of the interview.

It's only been in recent years, really, that a lot of these stories have come out. A lot of it I think is because grandchildren are suddenly showing an interest. In Denis' case, the other motivation is the respect he has for the two members of his crew who died when the aircraft was shot down, and the others who have all died now as well. He has belatedly realised that he is the only one who can tell their stories, and given he is now well into his 90s he realises he mightn't have all that much time left in which to do it. And so he's now been happy to talk to total strangers such as myself who ring up one day out of the blue.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 08:57
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A lot of it I think is because grandchildren are suddenly showing an interest.
Spot on. WW11 is very much on the primary school agenda- has been for 15 years. There was a Granddad who was very well known to me at school because he was on pickup duty a lot. Served in the RN in the war. Turns out he was on one of the ships that went down with few survivors (Hood?). He was pulled off with 2 other shipmates days before the ship was sunk. Obviously a profound sense of loss and probably survivor guilt.

He never spoke about it to his wife and daughter (my boy's Mum). Then, because of his studies, the grandson simply did the, "Grandad, what did you do in the war?" thing, and he just told him the whole story. The Mum was absolutely gobsmacked. His response: "You don't tell those things to your little girl."

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Old 20th Jan 2016, 09:41
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Your OP is beautifully written.

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Old 20th Jan 2016, 09:46
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His response: "You don't tell those things to your little girl."
There is the nub of it. Rather than the initiative of grandchildren or their schools per se, it is rather the initiative of the survivors that has moved the goal posts I think. Danny grasped the white heat of technology to tell his tale on the Pilot Brevet thread, and encouraged his peers to do likewise. We are forever in their debt. The tales are engrossing, informative, and above all pull no punches of how terrible war is, especially one of the intensity and scale of WWII.

This is the story behind the stories. Why did we wait this long to read the minutiae of the experiences of millions like us, rather than the dramatised or fictionalised accounts that begin in a dockside hut or a Cotswold Cottage? Now we know that it was Lords Cricket Ground, seaside boarding houses, and many other unlikely venues that were the opening scenes for obtaining that highly prized brevet.

Thank you Danny for starting this thread that underpins the best ever thread which was started on 5th June 2008 by Cliff Leach. He was encouraged to do so, he had the means (this very forum) to do so, he had the will to do so (or never to do so?). It was he though that elected to be OP, and it was the same with those who chose to tell their stories in turn after him. Thank you all, past and present, for through you we have studied war, its triviality, its impersonal nature, its very personal effects, its comradeship, its terror.

There is not glory but there is worth, and that outweighs all else. We value that worth, we value those who ensured our freedom. We now must value that freedom or the worth becomes worthless.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 09:53
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A very timely post describing something I have often thought about. My father was the chief officer of a small coastal steamer that had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy. He was a BI Merchant Navy officer now in the RNVR.

They left Singapore on 12 February 1942 at 19.30 with orders to proceed to Batavia via the Durian and Banka Straits. There were nearly 500 people on board, mainly women and children, and they were grossly overcrowded with people sleeping wherever they could, on floors, hatchcovers, decks etc.

They dodged bombs and managed to get as far as the Banka Strait just off Muntok. There they ran into the Japanese fleet at night. Two other similar ships had already been sunk, some of the survivors being picked up by my father's ship. They were ordered to stop and surrender. They did so, after destroying all the secret equipment and documents, feeling they had very little option with so many refugees on board.

The passengers were interned in Sumatra and suffered horribly - you may have seen the BBC series 'Tenko'. My father was sent back to Singapore where he spent the war in Changi jail. He survived and eventually returned to England in October 1945.

He never talked about it other than to tell my mother rats were a delicacy. And I remember him becoming exceedingly cross whenever I left food on my plate. Later, as an adult, I understood why!

The reason I now have so much detail is that I have been researching those events so that I can write it down for my grandchildren.

But I have a question for Danny42C (I have admired your writing very much; thank you) my question is how do you think he and his crew must have felt? Not only for the reasons you have so eloquently described but because they must have felt terrible for having surrendered, even though they had good reason. After the war, when details emerged about how terribly so many prisoners had suffered, he must have felt so responsible - no satisfaction from having done glorious things, only terrible memories.

He died when I was ten years old, I will never know.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 10:02
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Didn't get on with my pa so didn't ask him but I did talk to my mates dad. He flew spits with 317 Wilno. I asked him about his experiences in Siberia just before he died. I also asked his wife what he told her. He did talk about "The Long Walk" down to Persia then India. He talked about training and flying. The Magister and the Martinet featured strongly. He was the one who got me into it. Interestingly he said spitfire for sheer fun but Hurricane for security and a stable gun platform.

He said a few things about other people's suffering and deaths but never complained about his own. The things that stuck in my head were the attitudes of NCOs to the poles during basic and the treatment of Poles etc. during victory parades and celebrations.

I know he saw some dreadful things and did some. But he never explained and never complained. I asked my mate what he told them and he said that he was brought up with the horrors of Auswitz not Vorkuta. When he was a little be asked his mum what dad had been through and she said that he didn't have any lavatory paper. Figure it out! I know now that he was tortured in Russia, starved and beaten in Siberia and suffered typhus and minus 51c temperatures. His wife tells of feeling his spine through his stomach and he had been in the RAF a while by the time she met him.

His grand children are now showing an interest and my mate now feels comfortable talking about him.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 10:48
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My father in law, a REME staff sergeant, went over to France on about D plus 3 and went right through to Northern Germany in the next 13 months. Until he succumbed to Alzheimers he would talk at length about his war experiences which did not seem to have affected him adversely, even though he witnessed some horrific events.

More surprisingly, when I had a shop, a regular customer was a chap who had been a POW under the Japanese. He must have been unusual but he seemed to have coped extremely well with the experience, and had just made up his mind when he got home to accept his good luck in having survived and get on with life. He was well into his 80s when I knew him, and fit and well. He was happy to talk about life in the camps, and interestingly he attributed his small stature (only around 5'5") to the fact that the Japanese left him alone pretty much alone, as they took a delight in picking on tall men.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 11:14
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I did an Arnhem battlefield tour with a chap who piloted a Horsa there. He couldn't remember much (or chose not to) about his actions from landing up to his final position fighting on the Oosterbeek perimeter. Finally the guide asked him what actually he did remember. "I remember the bastard paras left without telling me"

For my part I knew little of my father's part in WW2 until after his death when I was given all the letters he had written to my mother. Whilst not going into much detail so as to not frighten my mother its interesting to see by how he writes how the war changes his mood from excitement at the start, through despair as the fighting starts, to resignation as the war takes its toll of his friends. Through all this humour seems to have been his defence, to the point of dismissing a close call with a mortar round which shredded his trousers as being the reason he attended a COs 'O' Group bare arsed below the waist.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 11:48
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There is the nub of it. Rather than the initiative of grandchildren or their schools per se, it is rather the initiative of the survivors that has moved the goal posts I think.
That initiative manifests itself in many different ways. My children's primary school has an annual visit by a group of Pathfinder aircrew who flew from a nearby airfield. There is the occasional telling of stories from the war, but on their insistence they concentrate on reflecting their wartime teamwork and camaraderie, and continued friendship post-war, in the presentation to an individual or group within the school for achievement that year. The "Pathfinder assembly" is one of the most looked-forward to events in the school calendar, made all the more special a couple of years back by a display by the BBMF Lancaster over the airfield and local church on the day after the assembly.


Last edited by potter_bb; 20th Jan 2016 at 13:29. Reason: Added link to news story
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 12:03
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My dad was in the Paras during WWII, served in Greece and in Italy, and after the war in Palestine when the King David hotel was bombed, before he was demobbed.

He didn't talk much about his experiences, but I know he had performed combat drops, and he did say that his time in Palestine was a lot more dangerous than what he went through in the war. He never had a good word for the Israelis up to the day he died.

I understand why he found it difficult to talk about it, particularly to his family, and I totally respect that, but it does not stop me wishing I knew more about it.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 12:35
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As a post-war 'baby boomer' it was my parents' generation who went through WWII and I have a slightly different experience to most as it was my mother who was in uniform, my father being medically unfit for service.

Mum was a Wren and a 'Bomb Range Marker' at naval air stations from St Eval in Cornwall to Donibristle in Fife, Scotland ending the war as a CPO. Whilst she, obviously, never saw 'active service' she was closely involved with naval aircrew who did. She managed to log quite a few hours in Swordfish, Albacores, Barracudas and even a Grumman Martlet! I believe she sat on the pilots lap! Or so she told me.
As a small child in the 1950's she told me of various experiences from her time in the WRNS many good, but some less so, like having to comb the beach at Inskip with her 'girls' to collect pieces of the crew of an aircraft that has crashed during training. And the time she ended up wearing a pilot's 'mae west' after helping to extract a pilot from a burning aircraft and using her uniform blouse to wrap around his burns.

In later life she was a proud member of the Royal Naval Association and enjoyed meeting with other veterans. She passed away two years ago at the age of 97 after a pretty full life.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 13:02
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Many many times at 'the old aeroplane flight' you would hear "he never mentioned this before" or "this is the first time we've heard that" etc. It was always amazingly humbling to hear first hand the experiences that those who went through the mill of WW.2 had to say, and also to see their families responses. I think they opened up because we were servicemen, there was a kindred spirit and a shared interest.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 13:10
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Thank you Danny.

BTW, I assume that you and your comrade aircrew know about this:

Project Propeller: Project Propeller 2016
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 13:41
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My Father, a Wireless Operator flying Lancs with 57 Sqn, very rarely spoke about the war, particularly any of his missions. However a few years before his death, he was reunited with his pilot and the conversation & recollection of shared memories went on for hours. Crews have a very special bond.

His pilot, Bill McRea , wrote an autobiography called Chequer Board of Nights. In it, my Father's role is described in detail. The book describes some incredibly dangerous and arduous missions that my Father never, ever spoke about.

I only found out by chance last week that a movie is being made of one of the missions described in the book! I am really proud that my Father and his mates are being honoured in this way. If anyone is interested, the status of the movie can be found in Facebook, under the same name as the book.

His brother, put a landing craft ashore six times during D-Day. We only found out on the day of his funeral! Another quiet hero.

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Old 20th Jan 2016, 14:57
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My Grandfather, was at Dunkirk, this I knew, but that was it. Apart from the odd hurrumph, if a war film was on. Oddly, I was on leave at Christmas in the mid 80's, and while everyone was at midnight mass, bar ourselves. He began to talk, the fall back, crap tanks the chaos,. How he was sure the French were shooting at them at the port. Turned out he was a territorial and had answered a call for volunteers with motor skills to join up, attaching to the Cheshire regiment and out with the BEF.
Once they'd been recovered being about 30, he was sent to the Orkneys or the Shetlands, I can't remember, and three weeks later he died, so never got the chance to dig any further.

On the wifes side, no opportunity at Grandparents other than we know know he joined in 1914 was part of the September 1918 assault on Vierstraat Ridge by the Hampshires. And that was the end of that.

Her father was a guardsman - he guarded royalty and parts of London for the entire war - I'm led to believe they were on ceremonial at commencement and therefore stayed there - But dont know if thats the case.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 14:57
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My Grandfather, was at Dunkirk, this I knew, but that was it. Apart from the odd hurrumph, if a war film was on. Oddly, I was on leave at Christmas in the mid 80's, and while everyone was at midnight mass, bar ourselves. He began to talk, the fall back, crap tanks the chaos,. How he was sure the French were shooting at them at the port. Turned out he was a territorial and had answered a call for volunteers with motor skills to join up, attaching to the Cheshire regiment and out with the BEF.
Once they'd been recovered being about 30, he was sent to the Orkneys or the Shetlands, I can't remember, and three weeks after the converstation he died, so never got the chance to dig any further.

On the wifes side, no opportunity at Grandparents other than we know know he joined in 1914 was part of the September 1918 assault on Vierstraat Ridge by the Hampshires. And that was the end of that.

Her father was a guardsman - he guarded royalty and parts of London for the entire war - I'm led to believe they were on ceremonial at commencement and therefore stayed there - But dont know if thats the case.
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Old 20th Jan 2016, 16:02
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Danny, you are the most excellent writer! Thank you for the scope, intelligence, insight, clear expression and most of all - the heart of kindness and understanding behind your thread.

I'm on the "other side of the counter" - often bewildered about how to express my admiration, gratitude and respect for those, like you, who fought the war that they were given. Often, I am not sure what I can say or how I should say it, how it will be received or what their hurts are that hinder a reply. The best I can manage seems to be a handshake and a "thank you" to a vet wearing some symbol of their former service (hats, patches, etc.)

In the US, many veterans have returned with what I would call the "hidden injuries". And, not all returned from a war that the public considered "righteous". But it was no less the war they were given to fight. The citizens of my country, as well as those of yours, are obliged to receive these veterans with gratitude and understanding, and also kindly help them in every way they need (fellowship, employment, medical care, housing). We more easily grasp the need for sacrifice and service during the conflict than we do shouldering the debt we owe these veterans after the conflict ends.

Press on, Danny. Please help us get our act together. And, by the way, thank you for your service, during and, now, after WWII.
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