Saturday, June 16, 2007


On the subject of being a hero...

My father joined the navy in 1941, aged 17.

As a child growing up I loved to hear stories about snow on the bows of his boat (he was on the Arctic Convoys), or the time when he was in Sri Lanka and met a tarantula on the loo. His stories were invariably light hearted and funny, and he poked fun at himself for having been such a poor seaman he never made it to officer level (in fact he took his officer's exams just before VE Day).

He kept his medals in a drawer and made light of them. Oh I only got the ones, everyone gets, he used to say. The ones for just being there. He always made light of it all. And shrugged off any suggestion of bravery. As far as he was concerned he had never had any beef with the Germans, but Hitler had to be stopped. And that was that.

So it was something of a surprise one Christmas, to be sitting round the table only for my father to stand up, his voice cracking with emotion, raising his glass to the memory of the Scharnhorst. My knowledge of naval history is hazy, to say the least, but I had vaguely heard of the Scharnhorst, and Spouse who is keen on such things knew it was the flagship of the German navy, sunk off the Cape on 26 December 1943, 5o years to the day before my father's toast. My father's ship HMS Scourge was one of the destroyers present at the sinking of the Scharnhorst, and he described in vivid detail how the ship went down, and how so many brave men died.

He was clearly shaken by this memory, but I was, I am ashamed to say, slightly embarrassed by this revelation. I didn't quite know how to react to my father's emotion, nor to the realisation of the deep sense of horror which clearly remained with him, even after the passage of so much time. I wish now, of course, I had asked him more. (I do have one regret actually - it is that I never thought to ask those questions).

I wonder now if that's what he saw in those nightmares that plagued him his whole life. He frequently fell asleep in his chair (having endured very little sleep throughout his navy career, he resolved that whenever he got a moment he would always sleep), and I can remember him asking me to wake him if he seemed to be dreaming. I used to be frightened watching him twitch and shout out. He never once said what he dreamt about.

In June 1994, my father and his naval pals decamped to Normandy for the 50th anniversary celebrations of DDay. Spouse and I couldn't stay for the day itself, but we did stop by and see him pick up his medal at Caen Cathedral. It was a proud moment. He laughed it off as getting another one for just being there.

My father might not have told me much, but talking to other veterans, who like him, were only 20 then, I realised for the first time quite what a big deal just being there was. Here were these ordinary lads, taken away from their families for months on end, pounding the shores of Normandy for a whole month (I doubt I hit anything, my father, the gunner, quipped), sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe.

In fact, my father was lucky to make it back in one piece. Apart from the fact he went on the Arctic convoys eleven times, which was extremely hazardous, one of his stories involved the blackout before DDay began. A German plane flew overhead and they heard it dropping bombs in the water. One, two, three, my dad was counting in his head. The plane flew past, four, five six, he breathed out in relief as the plane flew away. From the base of the ship, someone shouted, Cor, I f***ing prayed. My dad, who was devoutly religious always laughed at that. If I'd gone to meet my Maker, he used to say, I'd have been saying three...

They were so brave. And so unassuming. All just doing their bit.

With the advent of the internet (how he would have loved the internet!), I can of course, now find out much more. I have come across maps which pinpoint the Scourge's position. But it is so frustrating not knowing exactly how or why he came to be there.

I do wish I has asked the right questions.

But I think perhaps he wasn't quite ready to tell.


Dumdad said...

My father was a soldier in WW2 and, as a kid, I'd often ask him if he'd killed anyone. As kids do. He always joked he was a terrible shot so never carried a gun. Except his service pistol was in his desk drawer for many years after the war.
His generation just didn't talk about the dreadful things they'd seen or done. And my father was a historian! I'll never know exactly what he did during the war. He started as a despatch rider in France and ended up as a major in military intelligence in Greece. He never wrote about his war, only other people's.

Jane Henry said...

My fil on the other hand talked about it a lot. He smuggled his service revolver back and hid it up the chimney!

His many stories were absolutely fascinating. He was one of the D Day dodgers having ended up in Italy with Anzio etc. I used to type up his letters for his reunions, which is how I know.

They were an amazing generation.

Maybe one day (when its all out of official secret stuff) you'll be able to find out what your dad got up to. I'd love to have a go at finding out what my dad did, but I don't think the records are released yet. My bil has found out an enormous amount about his grandfather's stuff from WW1

Political Umpire said...

Hi Jane,

Very interesting post. I had the privilege to meet a veteren of the Arctic convoys a couple of years ago. He was a fascinating character, who would tell some fascinating stories, but always recoiled when it was suggested that he might write down some of his memories or at least allow someone to record him telling them. As you say it was just not done by those who had to live through it. Another friend of mine went to her grandfather's funeral about two years ago. She was amazed to find a guard of honour being formed by the parachute regiment - it turned out that he was a decorated Arnheim veteran. She vaguely knew he had been in the army, but not that he had such a distinguished record - he never thought to mention it.

Schanhorst was sunk off Norway's North Cape - I have heard that it was the northernmost naval engagement in history. I'm not sure if she was the flagship of the Kriegsmarine, would have to check. Only about 30 of her crew of almost 2,000 survived. I did see an interview on tv some time ago with some of the British vets of the engagement. Asked why the survival rate was so low (aside from the freezing waters), they simply remarked impassively 'Hood' - namely that they'd lost friends and colleagues aboard the British battlecruiser and weren't in the mood to be charitable to Germans caught in the same predicament.

I'm not surprised your father would have suffered from all the memories, though that generation is associated with being so much more stoic than ours'. After all, some veterans of the Zulu wars, right at the height of the Victorian 'stiff uppper lip' age, suffered terrible post traumatic shock syndrome.

Jane Henry said...

Hi, PU, thanks for coming by.

It was 36 of her crew who survived. According John Winton in Death of the Scharnhorst, the reason it wasn't more was because a) the Scharnhorst never surrendered, and b) the danger of U boats meant no one could stay long in the waters. I am sure the Hood had something to do with it, but from the little my father said about it, he and his comrades were appalled at the loss of life and shattered that they couldn't help. It is something I would like to research a bit more, really, as the more I read about it, the more I realise what a big deal it was. We went on the Belfast two years ago, and seeing the pictures of it covered in snow, brought home to me some of the stories my father told.

Interestingly at the sixtieth DDay celebrations, David Dimbleby touched on the point about veterans not talking to their children about what they had done, but how sometimes they spoke to their grandchildren.

I think probably what happened in my father's case was that he put it all behind him and got on with the business of living. But when he retired, and just before he had his heart bypass, he got back in contact with his best friend from his naval days. They met up regularly till his death, and it was at that point the stories started to come out.

Maybe age and time leads to a reflective period?

Now, I would ask so much more, but the changeover was rather unexpected and it was a bit tricky to know how to follow it up.

Anonymous said...

Your dad and my dad pinched a crate of oranges and were chased all over the Scourge!

Anonymous said...

Hello, Ms. Henry,
Did your father ever talk about HMS Scourge's operations on D-Day, June 6, 1944?

Georgia Swift said...

Grandad wrote a book " I was an HO" about his time in the war especially on board scourge

Georgia Swift said...

My grandad Billy Swift was instrumental in the reunion of many shipmates from 23rd destroyer flotilla. In June 2014 my dad arranged a memorial off sword beach Luc sur Mer where scourge patrolled during the landings