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.