Remembrance and Redemption
Someone recently remarked to me how much she’d appreciated a column piece I’d written several years ago about my late father. Her own dad, like mine, had flown in a particular mission with Bomber Command. I’d intended to send her a copy only to find the original has gone AWOL. Anyway, I may be biased but I think it’s story worth telling again.
Time was when I was a child that every household had someone who could reel off hours of wartime memories.
Our grandad Tudor could keep an audience of neighbourhood kids rooted with stories from the Great War. It was only when his accounts moved onto machine-gunning enemy positions in Palestine that my mam would come running in from the kitchen lest he get to the really gory bits.
My dad, on the other hand, seldom talked about his war. Despite incessant pleas for details he would only ever say that he had been a radio operator. He would then try to distract us by teaching us morse code. It didn’t sound at all glamorous. My uncles had much better stories about Arctic convoys and the desert war in North Africa. Over time, it gradually dawned on me that my father carried the burden of having served with Bomber Command.
I only vaguely knew of places with names like Essen and Dresden but I’d later learn from documentaries that there had been at least 300,000 deaths resulting from a deliberate campaign of attrition upon civilian populations.
His was a generation who had done their duty as young men but who would never be celebrated or honoured in the same way as others.
We learned as we grew up that it was better not to mention the war around my father. However that changed one Sunday morning when I popped over for a coffee to find him holding a letter and what looked like a painted ceramic tile
Like me, you’ve probably never heard of Operation Manna.
At the closing stages of WWII, populations in the Netherlands faced starvation. Things reached such a critical stage that it was agreed between combatants for aerial food drops to take place over still-occupied territory.
Named after the sustenance which miraculously descended from heaven in the Book of Exodus, the weeklong operation saw a total of over 11,000 tons dropped. All this happened at dangerously low altitudes to ensure each precious payload survived the fall.
This humanitarian engagement has never been forgotten by grateful communities. They made it their mission to trace those who flew in that life-saving action and send messages of thanks. Accompanying the letter was a memorial tile depicting a bomber dropping food. I watched a weight fall off my father as he talked about the mission. It was only a small part of his three years in uniform but it was huge in terms of recognition. In later years he would give talks to pensioner groups about his time in “Lancs”. One anecdote was how he used to sneak a piece of armour plate to sit on during ops. His skipper caught him once and “confiscated” it for the rest of the duration.
Then there was the time, just after hostilities ceased on the Italian front, where troops were being airlifted out. My dad was helping soldiers on board when one of them said, “Hello Bill”. It was his brother Joe who he hadn’t seen for almost four years.
Operation Manna however was always the story he enjoyed telling most. History has widely differing views as to what effect the sustained bombing campaign of civilian targets had upon the outcome of the war. It was a horrendous policy on the ground and cost the lives of nearly half those who flew.
It’s probably for that reason that it took until 2012 before a national memorial to Bomber Command was finally installed. It was, in my opinion, due and proper recognition for the aircrews, ground crews and controllers who had served. My dad died in 2000. For the record, he was Warrant Officer W.H.Bailey and flew with 550 Squadron, North Killingholme, Lincs.
He was a quiet, decent man who, like so many of his contemporaries, did what was required of him in the service of his country. He never saw himself as special but he was every bit my hero.