Tuesday, 30 November 2010

I'm so proud of my Dad

During the 2nd World War dad was conscripted to the RAF at aged 18. (He is now 87). He was a Mid Upper Gunner in the Lancaster Bomber and served with 100 Squadron for his 1st tour and 97 Squadron for his second, the Pathfinder Force. He completed 2 tours and went out on 47 missions.  Considering alot of the young brave airmen didn't reach 20 missions, this was an incredible achievement. Can you imagine just how scared those brave young men would've been just before going on a mission .......

Dad was awarded the DFM which was announced in the London Gazette on 15th September 1944. The recommendation for his award dated 16th June 1944 was as follows:-

"This NCO has completed 32 operational sorties, 11 of them with the PFF.  As a gunner in one of the squadron's outstanding crews, he has flown against many heavily defended German targets.  He has at all times displayed great keenness and offensive spirit in his work and by his keen and quick action has several times enabled his pilot successfully to evade fighter attacks.  I strongly recommend that he be awarded the DFM"


2 years ago dad was contacted via 97 Squadron Association by Belgian Historian, Dirk Decuypere who was conducting research for his book, "De Luchtaanvallen Op Kortrijk En Wevelgem" detailing the air raids on his home town of Kortrikjk in Belgium. Once dad had given him all the information he could from his log book and own personal memories, Dirk said he would keep dad informed as to when the book would be published.

On 6th November dad received an invitation to the book launch in Belgium on Friday 26th November.  As mum and dad had never had a passport before (only a visitors' passport which doesn't count) they had to apply as a first application which usually takes 6 weeks! Once Chris got our local MP involved, the whole situation was speeded up somewhat, dad fighting for the country and all that!

We boarded the Eurotunnel to Calais (parked the car on a train as Chris said!) and had a drive through Dunkirk - mum had always wanted to go there. Standing on the beach you just couldn't get the image out of your mind of those poor souls who were trapped on the beaches there during the Second World War and then you could almost picture the little ships sailing in to rescue more than 338,000 British and French soldiers aboard around 700 different vessels - "Operation Dynamo".

It was freezing cold and windy by the way!!

Just as we were passing through the Belgian border it started to snow heavily and I was beginning to think that the shovel in the boot of the car might have to come out!  We made our way (using our brilliant SatNav and Chris's wonderful driving skills)  to our B&B in Ieper (Ypres). Another interesting fact is that dad seems to remember his dad fighting in WW1 in Ypres!

I was so thrilled to have found and booked at such short notice this wonderful hotel! This is just like a picture postcard scene and I love the reflections in the lake. 


The hotel is situated on Menin Road, the former front line during World War I. It breathes history. It has old WW1 trenches, a concrete bunker, several mine craters and a few unexploded shells dotted around!

 Dad gingerly entering the Bunker

 You can't really see the depth of these trenches or get the feel for them from these pictures but when you're there it is totally unimaginable the horrors that went on there *shudders*




A selection of unexploded shells *eeek*

After we had looked round the fascinating grounds of the hotel we visited the beautiful city of Bruges. It was freezing cold and the weather wasn't very kind to us as it decided to snow again quite heavily, so sadly we were unable to take a boat trip along the Canal.




Later that evening we went to the book launch in Marke, just outside of Kortrijk. What an amazing night that was!  We got there early so we could meet up with Dirk before he got "busy". He was absolutely thrilled to see us all as I had been keeping informed about the passport situation which was touch and go up until the Monday 22nd and we needed to go on the Thursday. *Much nail-biting took place*.  You could see tears in his eyes when he met my dad as he was so thankful to him for helping him in his research and genuinely thankful of dad's efforts during the war.

The book presentation was given mostly in Flemish so we didn't understand much of it. Dirk called dad up to the front and presented him with one of the first books. There was a huge round of applause. Dirk was an absolutely amazing host, full of energy and managed to speak to everyone who was there - what an incredible man and it was a real honour to meet him.





Dirk then called up a man whose story was very sad - this is him below (Dirk on the right). During one of the raids of Kortrijk this man was a baby in his mother's arms. When the bomb hit he was blown from his mother's arms and later rescued. Sadly his mother died. This man was actually sitting next to dad and shook his hand when he was presented with his book and wanted dad to sign it for him - how humbling? He thanked dad for bombing them! The Pathfinder Force minimised civilian casualties due to their accuracy in lighting up the targets, the target in Kortijk being the marshalling yards. Kortrijk lost 570 civilians but this could have been so much higher.


The lady below, Jackie Maude, the daughter of Flight Lieutenant Jack Skingley (bomb aimer) who sadly died with the rest of his crew en route to Kortrijk - lost without trace in July 1944. Can you believe that he was in the same Squadron as dad - 97 Squadron. Dad didn't recall her father but she was so happy to meet someone from her dad's squadron. *Cue another emotional moment* 

She was just 2 years old when her father died - that's Jackie in the middle

Next up was a brother and sister whose father was in the Australian Air Force, his plane crashed but he survived! He wasn't well enough to travel to Belgium to receive the book in person but his son received it on his behalf. A proud moment. *Cue more tears*

It turned out that the Lancaster propeller below actually came from their father's plane!



Chris and Dad

Towards the end of the presentation the Mayor of Kortrijk stepped onto the stage with one of his colleagues to demonstrate the Air Raid Sirens (video) which were used during the War. Cue more tears! That was just so moving and when I looked round there wasn't a dry eye in the room - there must have been around 300 people there, some obviously who remember the sirens well but for little old me, it truly was an emotional moment.

Throughout the whole of the evening my dad was asked by various people to sign their copies of  the book and some asked him to sign alongside where his picture appeared in the book too - how amazing - dad seemed to sign as many copies of the book as Dirk did! He really was treated like a hero by the Belgians! I hope that one day soon the book will be translated into English.

The following morning we went to a very emotional Memorial Service for the airmen who lost their lives in the raids on Kortrijk.  The service was delivered in Flemish and English. Jackie was called to lay a wreath beside the memorial in honour of her father - that was the bit that really upset me - it was so moving knowing her father's story. Towards the end of the service the Last Post was played and again there wasn't a dry eye in sight.

The memorial which was designed in the shape of the tail plane of the Lancaster.


After the Memorial Dirk took us around Kortrijk and showed us the marshalling yards which dad bombed. It was certainly a trip down memory lane for him albeit from a different angle!

We then went to the Passchendaele Museum, just outside of Ieper. The museum tells the story of the war in the Ypres Salient with special emphasis on the Battle of Passchendaele 1917. Sadly we got there half an hour before closing so would have liked to have more time there but the highlight was to actually enter a replica of dug-out which was used by the British and gave you a taster of how they had to live underground like moles ... just because there was nothing left above. Breathtaking experience!

Passchendaele Museum

When we were leaving the Museum the gentleman on reception said how sorry he was that we had to rush the experience and whilst chatting with him we told him of the reason for our visit to Belgium, whereupon he told us a story (with tears in his eyes) of when he was about 2 years old his house was bombed and his father rushed to get his trousers on in one hand and pick him up in the other, they both survived but his father lost his trousers! He also shook dad's hand and thanked him!  Everyone we spoke to had their own story to tell.

Our final goal was to be at the Menin Gate in Ieper at 8pm for The Last Post - another emotional and breathtaking experience.  I don't think I will ever get over seeing all those names engraved on the inside of the Gate which was dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives with no known grave.
 
The names of all the soldiers are written on every inch of space inside this magnificent structure


Last Post at Menin Gate (video)

Ypres by night

So that's our trip to Belgian documented for all to see! We will go back as there is just so much more to see.

I know we are in the grip of a freezing cold winter at the moment but when I think about the temperatures those young airmen had to endure in that aircraft it makes me shiver. Dad said quite often he had a sheet of ice on his chest which had formed from the condensation from his oxygen mask sitting in temperatures exceeding minus 30 degrees! Minus 5 is nothing!



Dad looking very satisfied after a lovely meal in our Hotel.
He made us laugh earlier that evening as he saw a sign outside a Cafe in Ieper which said "free wife". He said he fancied trying it! Mum's filing for divorce after 60 years!
It actually meant free wi fi!

This was certainly a trip which stirred up all sorts of emotions in me and indeed all of us and will certainly be talked about for a good while yet!


Dad, Me and Mum

I'm so proud of my Dad! Motto of 97 Squadron: Achieve Your Aim - how fitting!

P.S. If you ever find yourself in Norwich take a took inside the Cathedral as the 97 Squadron Standard is hanging inside it after the final disbandment of the Squadron on 1st January 1967.

Finally, I have just received this wonderful picture from Dirk which was taken at the Memorial Service in Bissengem. Dad was asked to read the Oath. Very touching.





9 comments:

  1. I am too! (Proud of dad). I wish I could've gone, what a trip you had! Thanks for doing this, Sandy. Fascinating story and amazing how warmly the people of Belgium welcomed Dad. You made me laugh and cry equally.
    See you soon
    xxx

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  2. What a lovely Blogpost. Really enjoyed reading this and made me realise that I must ask my dad to recall his own time in the RAF x

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  3. What a wonderful trip you all had and what an amazing man your Dad is.

    Thanks for writing this brilliant post, Sandy.

    Laura x

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  4. Great post sandy ,took me sges to suss out how to find this.Was at mums today got the Tommy beer and glass .
    lm glad l found the 97 squadron website that started this off.
    Dad didnt need a passport in 1943/44 only a parachute that luckly he didnt have to use .
    Love bro Dave x

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  5. Love your comment, Dave!
    What a fantastic blog. Must make a documentary about all this stuff some time.
    You write so well- must run in the family I think! Just call us the Bronte Sisters (and brother xx)
    Just lucky we're more good looking than them

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  6. The horror of World War I and II is for real,the stories of many dad's like Sandy's dad who give their lives for freedom is a heroic acts that everybody should not forget.Europe has many memorable sites to show,like in Flanders area,especially Ypres where many tourist attraction is located like bunkers, war museum,war frontier, and old hotels,Nice blog...

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  7. Hi There Sandy!!

    My name is Damien English and I am the Website Manager for 100 Squadron Association RAF. I came across your article via Google. (What a great article it is!)
    Obviously your blog mentions that your Father served with 100 Squadron. I am currently in the middle of creating a brand new website for the Association and I am always on the look out for photographs from RAF Waltham(Grimsby). If your Father has any photos or stories that he would like to share with the Association, then please do email me at: damien.english@hotmail.co.uk.

    Kindest Regards
    Damien

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  8. G'day Sandy

    We are fortunate that we are able to make these kind of trips with our Dad's. It looks like you got as much out of that trip as I have done on this trip with my Dad.

    My wife's Dad died before I met her, and next year is the 70th anniversary of he and his brother getting out of a POW camp in Italy and walking over the alps to Switzerland. With a number of her siblings, we are heading to Italy next year to retrace those steps and it is unfortunate that their Dad will not be with us.

    Sounds like you had a great time at East Kirkby too. I'd looked into going to East Kirkby but in the end there was only so much we could do in our time and as a private VIP tour of BBMF at RAF Coningsby had been organised for us, I left East Kirkby for another time. When ever that might be.

    After reading about your Dad I looked up 97 squadron, seeing how he was a Pathfinder. There are so many squadron numbers that most don't make a connection but that one seemed familiar and then I saw that they had been at Woodhall Spa for while, like my Dad's 627 mob, so I looked up the RAF Woodhall history book I have.

    Our Dad's were part of the same Group at the same time, mine flying from Woodhall while yours was next door at Coningsby. By comparing the 627 and 97 ops lists, it can be seen that the squadrons were mostly on the same raids, with 97 flare marking and illuminating the targets for 627 to lay their low level markers. It seems reasonable to conclude that our Dads were probably both on the same raids numerous times.

    It's a pity we didn't know this before Green Park. Dad would have enjoyed meeting your Dad and comparing notes. My Dad is the last man standing from 627, as it didn't have a lot of aircrew due to there only being two men per plane and Dad was much younger than the other guys on 627.

    Another similarity our Dad's have is that my Dad was also in a foreign book about one of his raids. He was contacted and interviewed by a Norwegian bloke who wrote a book about 627's New Years Eve raid on Oslo. He sent Dad a copy but it was in Norwegian so we just looked at the pictures. Then Dad ended up in a Norwegian TV doco this year about the Oslo raid after a TV producer in Oslo who was working on the doco heard my interviews with Dad on the 627 website. Again, apart from Dad and a couple of other short English interviews, it was in Norwegian. We hope they will do an English subtitled version of it.

    Hope you enjoy your visit to BBMF. Using Dad's Pathfinder credentials, we got the VIP treatment and were able to wander in amongst and under the planes. They were getting the Lanc ready for the Green Park poppy drop, so I felt rather privleged to be able to get under the plane and into the bomb bay and stick my head into the fuselage. My pic of the Lanc dunny that I put on Facebook got the thumbs up for answering a question many had wondered.

    I am currently reading a book I picked up at the shop at BBMF, called Mosquito Pathfinder, written by a bloke who flew out of Little Staughton and spent numerous evenings in the pub in St Neots.

    Looks like you live in a lovely spot. It was my frist visit to England and I thoroughy enjoyed driving around the English countryside and staying in the small towns and wandering around them and the old RAF Woodhall drome site.

    Cheers

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