Apologies, I haven’t written anything for a couple of weeks. Life, as John Lennon once said, has a habit of happening when you’re busy making other plans.
A series of incidents halted the whole family in its stride, life changing incidents that take centre stage. My mum had to be rushed into hospital after a major artery to her heart became blocked; emergency paramedics saved her life. Seven days later my husband’s mum died.
My mother-in-law May Alice King would have celebrated her ninety-first birthday on 12th April. Although I’ve known her most of my life it seems I’ve never really known her. During the Second World War she served in the Women’s Royal Air Force as a flight engineer. The wartime shortage of men, metals and materials meant aircraft were delivered in kit form from the USA to special hangers on the west coast of Britain where teams of ladies put them together then flew them to active stations. May always said she enjoyed the war, from a very enclosed life growing up on a small farm in Kent she travelled across the country and met people from all over the world.
When clearing her bedroom we found RAF manuals under her bed, marked Top Secret. We also found a box of love letters belonging to May, from the man who would become her husband. George King earned the engaging title of Grumpy Grandad from his grandchildren, because his attitude was always so awkward, it hardly seems possible the same man poured out such sentiments as those in his letters.
George spent nearly five years as a prisoner of war in Poland. At 20 years old he was sent to France with the East Kent Regiment (Buffs) in June 1940 as part of an allied attempt to hold back the advancing German army. With a unit of four men operating a single Bren gun even this raw recruit realised they didn’t have a chance. While the British Army was being evacuated at Dunkirk George was guarding a bridge in Arles. A Panzer Division smashed through without stopping. George and the two other soldiers still alive after seeing action ‘legged it’. They spent two weeks wandering around northern France trying to find some means of crossing the Channel until they were rounded up by a German patrol and marched off to Poland. Many men died during that march across Europe. Food was scarce and most prisoners had suffered injuries before being captured, George lost both his friends.
When they arrived at their destination (Thorn) they had to build their prison camps. Hardly any wonder that during most of our lifetime he never mentioned the war. The first we knew about his time in Poland was when our son moved there in 2007, by the strangest of coincidences David’s apartment was within site of Stalag XXB where his grandfather had been interred.
Finding these letters has been a revelation. George tells in detail what everyday life was like in the prison camp. And he wrote every week, not sad letters, just honest and full of hope. He is surviving when so many lives are being lost, surviving the bitter cold Baltic winters and lack of proper food. There were many comrades to share his troubles.
One of the few people left who remembers George’s home-coming said he couldn’t speak for months, they organised a party but George couldn’t face it. And the first words he spoke were to his cousin, ‘Have you got my football boots?’ Before the war George was signed to play professional football and hoped to take up where he left off. He never got the chance because his knees were too badly damaged.
We still have lots of boxes left. Who knows what we’ll find? They belonged to a generation who didn’t like to talk about the past and certainly wouldn’t air their emotions, not even to family. And that’s the real sadness.