A life lived large

This is my granddad, Hector:

I’ve had this photo in my possession since I was 14. I did a family history project then, which was the beginning of my genealogical research. That was nearly 20 years ago now.

See the eyes? They were a bright, piercing blue; my son has them. And those pointed, slightly buck teeth? Same in my mouth. My dad got his black hair from granddad. Luckily no one else in the family has inherited that nose – you can’t see it in the photo but it was large and hooked. You can see the smooth confidence this young man exudes, he’s an open book.

All I knew previously was that this photo was taken around 1943 or 44. But now I know more.

“We went into town, got drunk, and had our picture taken.” This was 1944, at the end of granddad’s training for the paratroop regiment. He was 17. He tried to join the army the year before but his mother followed him down to the recruiting office, gave the recruiting officer a serve and dragged granddad home by the scruff of his neck. “If you must join up, you’ll wait until you’re 17 and for Christ’s sake, stay off the water! Get into something with wheels on.” This was his father’s lecture. He’d just returned from five voyages to Dunkirk. He knew what his son would be confronted with. And he knew how vulnerable being on the ocean would make him.

Granddad did get into something with wheels on, but only because of a slight tall tale he rattled off. Upon signing up at 17, when asked by a superior what aspect of duty interested him, granddad mentioned he knew how to drive a bren gun carrier. A lie of course, unless you count the one time he and his mate accidentally drove a bren gun carrier into an Air Raid Warden’s hut. “Which side are you on?” shouted the Warden. “Silly little buggers.” They were 15 and had no licenses.  But that was war, that was the way things went in London in those days. The superior officer was impressed and assigned young Hector to drive trucks. He had a day’s lessons, no real driving experience, and then he was put at the wheel of a first world war Leyland Lynx, a huge monstrosity of a vehicle that required some clutch skills just to get into the next gear. Which was a challenge for Hector as he didn’t actually know how to change gear at all. Luckily his superior and the mechanic were riding up front with him and taught him as he went, with 30 troops in the back, complaining all the way about the bunny hopping.  Off they trundled, in convoy with another truck, across from the far north east of England, Newbiggin by Sea, to Kirkcudbrightshire, just over the Scottish border further west.  They hit the notoriously bad weather in those parts, and the second truck broke down.  This is where destiny begins to show itself in granddad’s life.  He suggested to the officer in charge that they put the 30 troops in his truck.  And against his better judgment, the officer agreed. So now he had 60 troops, two officers, and the mechanic.  The others stayed behind with the broken down truck. The mechanic mentioned they might make up for lost time if they removed the speed limiter the truck was fitted with, and granddad liked this idea a lot.  They came to a sign at the top of a steep incline. “Use low gear”.  Granddad ignored it.  He took off down the hill, spun the truck and overturned it into a tree, the troops having abandoned it halfway down the hill and the mechanic hiding in the footwell. Broken gear stick.  Disaster.  He hadn’t even been in the army three months, and this was his first driving assignment.

So even though it wasn’t his fault, although he could have been more cautious, he was reprimanded and sent off to peel potatoes all day as punishment for two weeks. It didn’t seem much of a punishment.  He and his mate (he always had one with him) were on their lunch break.  They’d snuck off beyond where they should have been and were having a smoke and watching the planes coming in over the downs doing bombing raid practices. And suddenly they saw one plane land roughly and crash nearby.  Without thinking, they rushed across and dragged out the pilot and rolled him in the dirt to put out the fire on his suit, shortly before the whole plane exploded. They disappeared as soon as the fire brigade showed up, hoping their little stunt might go unnoticed. The pilot remembered them and pointed them out.  They were transferred to another unit, “got rid of”, sent back to London on a week’s leave with orders to report back to the CO.  Apparently they had been labelled as ‘good round aeroplanes’, so to their shock and confusion, Hector and his mate, who he refers to as Bennett, were sent up to Marlborough and then Leicester for paratrooper training.

There’s more to the story, so much more, but this is just a little snippet of my granddad’s extraordinary adventures, taken directly from his own narration on the tapes I’ve been transcribing which he recorded in 1996. Unfortunately, as I think I might have mentioned before, I got to the second recording only to discover it’s unintelligible. All is not lost though, as I’m going to try and adjust the sound with some software.  I am desperate to hear about how he met my grandmother.  All I know is that they met at a dance sometime around the end of the war and he told her he’d marry her during that first dance and she laughed and said there’s no chance. I can imagine that.

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Author: curiosikat

Writer, editor, linguist, social historian...

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