My father, Dennis Wall, was in the RAF Regiment as a private soldier from 1940 until the cessation of hostilities in Europe. My dad always wanted to be a soldier and he “joined” up just after his seventeenth birthday. He didn’t talk much to the family about “his” war because he always thought - wrongly - that we would be bored.
Dad was in France with the British Expeditionary Force and guarded RAF airfields that were equipped with the dreadfully vulnerable, slow and obsolete Fairey Battle medium bomber. The Luftwaffe fighters shot them down like picking apples from a tree and most of the pilots never came back. Dad told me that at one of his airfields he experienced what was the first air raid on an RAF base of the whole war.
One day he was sent with a truck to get some supplies and when he returned the whole base had packed up and left for the Channel ports. Dad managed to find his way to Dunkirk, or some port near it, and was eventually evacuated. He was always scathing about the propaganda and the post-war glorification of the evacuation exercise that was, in reality, a bloodbath. He told me that the many films showing cheerful Tommies going home were actually of soldiers going out to France months earlier. You could tell, he said, the real films of the evacuation because everyone was exhausted and nobody was smiling.
Dad was an adoptee living with his adoptive mother, Sarah, in Aston, Birmingham. An illegitimate baby of the daughter of a well-to-do family he was given away and I am not sure the adoption was ever official. Dad met my mother, Doris Bannister, for the first time in the pub across the road from Sarah’s home after the evacuation. He told me that no Dunkirk veteran ever had to buy himself a drink and he was generously supplied with cigarettes by the RAF. With what turned out to be tragic consequences he persuaded my mum to try smoking. His first two postings after Dunkirk was RAF Henlow in Bedfordhire. He was also at RAF Cranwell for a time.
Dad’s was an unspectacular war. He lost his only promotion to corporal after being found lying drunk and incapable on a runway at a Gloucestershire airbase! He won no medals for bravery, although several for good conduct and for various campaign medals. I know little about his progress after Dunkirk, but the extent of his travels can be judged by the fact that I have photographs of him at Belfast (Northern Ireland) in 1940; Biltan ( Egypt); Brussels in 1944; Volkel Airfield (Holland) 1944; and Copenhagen in 1945. I know he was in Paris before Dunkirk because he told me that it was in a whorehouse there that he lost his virginity!
Dad told me that he became the driver for a Scottish colonel for a while in Germany in 1945. He was told to drive somewhere to collect the colonel and decided to take a detour. That was April 16th 1945. En route he saw a place called Belsen just one day after it was liberated. After the war the colonel offered my father a job on his Scottish estate but he turned it down. How different my life would have been had he accepted it.
After he was demobbed, my parents settled into a council house in Aston and my older brother - also Dennis - was born in 1945. My dad told me just before he died that he had wanted to be a soldier all his life and wanted to continue his service career after the war. Mum put her foot down and so they reached a deal that we would remain a reservist which would entail his being away at training camps for two or three weeks a year: his annual “fix” of soldiering!
|I was born in 1952 and my parents were allocated a new council house in Shard End on the eastern outskirts of Birmingham. One of my earliest memories is of my father coming home one day (I don’t know from where) in uniform and my mum crying because she thought he would be “called up” for the Suez Crisis: this then was 1956. My father told me just before he died that on one of his army training absences in Cumbria he received a message that his adoptive mother, Sarah, was very ill. The CO encouraged him to visit her and offered leave and a travel warrant. My dad so loved his army “holidays” that he refused. Sarah died days later and my father died with that on his conscience.
Dad never articulated any animosity towards Germany or its army, beyond the usual feeling of irony about its post-war “economic miracle”. He reserved what little venom he had for the France of General de Gaulle that in his view air-brushed the part of Great Britain played in its liberation from its memory, preferring to think that they did it all themselves with a bit of help from the USA!
I don’t know when Dad stopped soldiering altogether. In 1957 my mother was admitted to hospital with what I could not to know was terminal lung cancer. She died at home in 1958 aged 32. Mum had, in the language of the day, “smoked like a chimney”. My father’s largesse with his cigarettes after Dunkirk led, as he himself admitted, to mum’s dreadfully premature death.
Dad remarried in 1961 to someone that brought some money and a great deal of unhappiness into his life and lived an otherwise uneventful life until he died of a heart attack in 2008, aged 86. Until the day he died he loved the RAF and thought of the war as being the best days of his life. He had travelled extensively, smoked, drank - by his own admission sometimes demanding drink at rifle-point - whored and made friends. I have no idea whether he ever killed an enemy soldier or even fired his rifle in anger. His was an active, albeit largely defensive, role so I suppose he must have done, but he never said so.
This is the story of an everyday soldier who fought almost throughout the war in Europe. Nobody called him “hero”. Nobody put out bunting to mark his safe return. Nobody thought he needed “counselling”. He was just one of the squaddies that got on with it, managed to stay alive and return, complete with “demob suit”, to a country of austerity and limited opportunities.
Birmingham where I was brought up was bombed badly: it wasn’t only London and nearby Coventry that “copped it”. Huge bomb sites were around in my city up until my teenage years. A factory in nearby Castle Bromwich was one of the largest producers of Spitfire aircraft and it was still derelict when I left the area aged 17. The Civil Defence Corps were still practicing with barrage balloons during my childhood.
Why do I place this little story here? Well, as I studied the boards at Little Snoring Church it struck me that such men as fighter pilots left their mark on the world. Theirs was a war of one-on-one combat and feats of derring-do. Even a bomber pilot would not have his achievements recorded in this way. And then there were the the little men, like my father, in their hundreds of thousands who “did their bit” and were quickly forgotten. As survivors they were not listed on war memorials or recorded in our parish churches. Nobody has lists of the brave men who risked their lives for years on end and managed not to get killed. Dead = hero. Survivor = forgotten. Funny when you think about it. I can’t help reflecting that nothing I have done in my lifetime comes close to matching the remarkable experiences of him and millions like him from dozens of countries during that period. It just makes me feel very humble. We weren’t close - my stepmother saw to that. Nor am I going to pretend he was my childhood hero - lots of us kids had ex-serviceman dads so it wasn’t seen as a big deal - but as I have got older and more thoughtful I have huge respect for what he did.
It’s a good feeling that the internet gives me the opportunity to commemorate in some small way the lives of my two very ordinary parents who lived through an extraordinary time.