Friday, June 05, 2009

65th anniversary of DDay

Sixty five years ago my father was a gunner aboard HMS Scourge, pictured above. As a child I can remember seeing pictures of him aged 20, tall, dark, handsome, usually with a fag in hand, photographed on deck with his pals. They were always smiling and laughing, and my dad's tales of the navy tended to dwell on the lighter side: meeting a tarantula when he lifted the toilet seat in Sri Lanka, stopping somewhere in Russia and exchanging food and fags with the local peasants, sailing through snow in the Arctic.

His most memorable tale involved DDay itself. Before the bombardment started, there was a blackout. As they waited in the dark, they heard the sound of a German bomber overhead. As the bomber dropped its load, my father counted them off. One, two, three, four... phew a gap, five, six etc. The ship was in a state of electrified tension as the sound of the plane flew off into the distance. When it had gone, from the bowels of the ship, came the voice of one of the crewmen, renowned for his foul mouth. Cor, I fuckin' prayed, he said. At which point the boat dissolved into laughter. My father who was immensely devout always joked that had he gone to meet his Maker that day, he'd have been counting to ten. Like I say, in common with nearly everyone I know of his generation, he made light of it.
As a teenager though, I can remember him frequently dozing in the afternoons (on board ship he only ever got four hours sleep at a time, so he and his mates resolved that the rest of their lives whenever they got an opportunity to sleep, they'd always take it), and having quite clearly terrible dreams. It gave me an inkling that his wartime experiences weren't so very sunny after all, and thinking about it was probably some kind of post traumatic stress syndrome. When HMS Sheffield went down in the Falklands, I can remember him commenting, that terrible as it was that twenty people died, at least they were able to save the majority of the crew. It was the first indication he gave of the horrors of watching boats sinking and being unable to rescue the men on board, either through lack of time, or not having enough room to take survivors.
In some ways, I think he was lucky. Fil, who was in the army saw some terrible sights, particularly during the Italian Campaign, which to this day doesn't get the recognition it deserves (the soldiers used to sing a song about being DDay Dodgers, so resentful did they feel at the lack of acknowledgement about what they'd done). I can remember him telling us how after one battle, the casualties were so great, and so many men and horses were mortally wounded it fell on himself and another officer to go through the battlefield and put them out of their suffering. They drew lots as to who got the animals and who the men. To his great relief, Fil got the horses, which he found bad enough, but he never asked his companion what he had had to do.
My father by contrast, told us when we went to the 50th celebrations of DDay with him, that as a gunner, he spent a month pounding the beaches, and had no idea if he'd even hit anything. He was a merciful remove from the damage he'd done. However, it was clear as he got older the memories of the sights he'd seen haunted him deeply. The Christmas before he died, he suddenly stood up after dinner one night and made us drink a toast to the men of the Scharnhorst.
The Scharnhorst was the leading battleship of her class in the German Navy and in 1943 was attempting to attack the Atlantic Convoys (which my father was part of) which were vital to ensure the movement of food and supplies between the Allies. The Allies decoded the Scharnhorst's plans and HMS Belfast, Norfolk were despatched to destroy it. You can read more about it here. HMS Scourge was one of the 13 allied ships which encircled the Scharnhorst, but I don't know if it was involved in the sinking of it. However, my father was certainly there to witness it sink. Only 36 men survived, and I think from the little my father said about it, it was the worst thing he witnessed in the war. Like all seamen, he knew it could so easily have been the other way round.
In 1994, the year before he died, my dad travelled to Normandy to meet up with his old mates, and take part in the celebrations. Spouse and I had been visiting mil's family in Germany and were able to come across to see him getting his medal at Caen Cathedral. (We unfortunatelyhad to miss the ceremonies on the beaches thanks to work commitments).
The ceremony itself was fairly short, but very moving, and I was immensely proud to have been there, and met some of those incredible men who did so very much for us. The thing that struck me most was how young they all were - we met one old boy who mused, I was here 50 years ago, when I was 20. I'm much happier to be here now. That generation have such a gift for understatement.
I don't have many regrets about my relationship with my father, which in the main was a good and happy one. But I do regret that I didn't ask him more, when I still could. I know roughly were he went and thanks to the internet, I've even found this account of the Scourge's actions here, but it's not the same as asking him. Although, even at the end of his life, I'm not quite sure he'd ever have been ready to tell.
What I do know, though is this. My dad was not a military man. He wasn't by his own account, a very good seaman. He joined up for one reason only, to stop Hitler. And that's what they did. All of them. That magnificent generation. We owe them such a lot. And for that reason we should never ever forget.
And today, you can also Plant a virtual flag as I did in honour not only of my father, but all the brave men on HMS Scourge and all who took part in Operation Overlord. We wouldn't be here without them.


hydra said...

A fascinating and moving historical account that affects each and every one of us.

Anonymous said...

My dad was a sea ate of your dad Joe.