Eighty years on
J. Alan Smithreflects on his family’s experience of the Second World War
Writing this article in early August, I am looking forward to the Assumption Festival of the Epping & South-West Essex Branch of the Church Union, of which I am the Treasurer. It will take place on Saturday 15 August at St Alban’s, Romford, courtesy of the Vicar, Fr Roderick Hingley. The preacher will be Fr Darren Smith.
The date, ‘15 August’ has additional significance for my family. On 15 August 1935 my father, Francis John Smith, known as Jack, married my mother, Evelyn Laura Bird, known as Laura, at St Benedict’s Church, Scrivelsby, Lincolnshire, on the estate of the King’s Champion. Some four and a half years later I was baptized at the same Church.
After their wedding, Jack and Laura lived in Barkingside, Ilford, Essex: Jack was a schoolmaster at a school in Stepney. On 1 September 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, my parents accompanied the other staff and boys from the school where Jack taught and boarded a train bound, it transpired, for Colchester. This was a small part of the major operation to evacuate children from the cities and larger towns to avoid the air bombardment that was expected on the outbreak of war. This did not materialize and the evacuees gradually made their way home during the spring of 1940. For my parents, a highlight of their exile, I like to think, was my birth in December.
The Royal Air Force
In July 1940, Jack joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. He was called up in September 1940 and, after an initial posting to Bridgnorth, started his basic training at RAF Padgate, near Blackpool. Jack arranged for my mother and me to lodge with him in Blackpool. Apart from a natural desire to have his family with him, he wished to get us away from the bombing of London and the surrounding areas. In October 1940, he wrote to my mother in Lincolnshire: ‘You mustn’t go back to Ilford in any case, Laura, as things are still as bad as ever. I get to know as many of the men come from London, and ever so many have had to go home because their homes have been wrecked.’ In a later letter he touched on a domestic matter, revealing an attitude that has been transmitted to his son: ‘Before I forget, don’t bother about my vests and pants – I have to wear service underwear, which is quite good & warm, & I don’t see why I should wear out my stuff when I can wear out the governments.’
In early 1941, Jack was posted to an RAF Station at Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire. My mother had a great-uncle living nearby so it was easy to arrange another set of lodgings for us. It was in Sutton Bridge that Jack said farewell to his family on 22 May 1941.
While on the troopship, security considerations prevented his communicating his destination directly. However, he concluded one letter, posted at an unnamed port-of-call: ‘Give my love to your people, to Olive [Laura’s sister] and to Singer.’ The last name puzzled the family for a while; eventually they realized that it referred to ‘Singer’ Hall, an old Horncastle acquaintance, and was intended to reveal his destination as Singapore. After his arrival, he was able to inform Laura in a more conventional manner that he was based at RAF Seletar, Singapore.
On 7 December 1941, Japan attacked Malaya at the same time as the attacks on American forces in Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. Inadequate planning and supply led to a major British disaster: Singapore surrendered on 15 February 1942. Two days before, Jack had been able to send my mother a cable from Batavia, Java to let her know that he had been with those British forces that had been withdrawn from Singapore before the surrender.
For some fifteen months my mother heard nothing more, although she was writing regularly to Jack in the hope that eventually her letters would be delivered and not returned to her. Then, in early summer 1943, she heard from the Air Ministry that Jack was a prisoner. The relief was shattered by a telegram on 1 September 1943 that Jack had died in captivity. It was not until February 1944 that she was informed that he had died on 28 December 1942 in a POW camp in Japan.
The War with Japan ended on 15 August 1945, announced to the Japanese people through a broadcast by Emperor Hirohito. That day would have been my parents’ tenth wedding anniversary.
I have no conscious memory of my father. Yet there is one curious story to relate. My copy of Sybil is the onethat my father had had at school. However, it was long after I had become an ‘Altar, Throne, and Cottage’ Tory that I noticed that my father had marked the margin against the passage: ‘Rightly was King Charles surnamed the martyr; for he was the holocaust of direct taxation. Never yet did man lay down his heroic life for so great a cause: the cause of the Church and the cause of the Poor.’ND
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