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My Father’s War

War does incredible damage to individuals, even those who appear on the surface to be unaffected.

I remember standing at a window with my father as we watched a Remembrance Day parade. He was crying. I asked him why he didn’t take part but he just shrugged. For some reason I remember a phrase from around the same time: “Sorry to rain on your parade but …”. Whether I had seen an advert or a programme on the television I cannot remember. I also remember a young girl and something about the Burma Star Association. Maybe, in retrospect, I am remembering a combination of various images and news items , the origins lost in time. I cannot say.

My father served in India and then in Japan with the occupation forces. In Japan he was based in Kure. He had photos of Hiroshima and seemed to have been involved with the clean-up of the city but he talked little about his service. I also know he was in REME and worked on generators. I remember there were also photographs of him and his mates, seemingly happy and laughing about something or other, at Angel Falls in India. What I wasn’t sure about was why he cried quite so hard during the Remembrance Day parade. Didn’t every soldier who survived fighting the enemy end up occupying a foreign country?

Whether the images were of different programmes or adverts or not I seem to remember that the image of the young girl and the phrase “Sorry to rain on your parade” had something to do with the way troops returning from the Far East were treated. My father returned in 1947 sporting a shattered ankle. He mentioned that one of his most vivid memories of the summer of 1947 was that you could recognise returnees from the Far East because they wore greatcoats while everyone else was dressed in very light clothes because the summer that year was so hot.

His most vivid memory, however, was being treated as an embarrassment. Most people in Britain had been through the European war and wanted to forget it. They wanted to enjoy the peace. Life for ordinary people was changing quickly; a new Labour government was talking about introducing a National Health Service and other major developments in social security. No wonder nobody was particularly interested in returning soldiers. It must have been even worse for prisoners of war who suffered under the Japanese. The public had seen the horrors of the Holocaust on their cinema screens and the horrors seemed to have inured them to suffering. Soldiers and prisoners returning from the Far East were a sight too far. But, for so many soldiers like my father, the memory of being ignored was heartbreaking.

For me, there was something else I did not understand. My father was an assistant in a grocery shop in Kent yet hadn’t been called up to serve in the army until the latter half of 1944. Why? I desperately wanted to know. I knew my mother had been in Air Raid Precautions but I knew nothing of my father’s role. Had he been a spiv, making money on the black market? It didn’t seem likely, knowing my father. There was something else, though. Talking to him now and again revealed the odd comment that suggested an incredible knowledge of unarmed combat, killing techniques and explosives training far beyond the training given to soldiers joining REME. Further attempts to pierce his silence, however, apart from those odd mentions during unguarded moments, revealed nothing.

I had to wait until after he had died before I was able to find out more. Among the few items left after his death were a number of diaries, some written during the years 1939 to 1944. Some of them seemed to have been written in a code. It took a long time to decipher. There were references to meeting ARPs and the Fire Service. References I found most strange mentioned regular meetings with the Chief Constable. Why would a grocery assistant need to meet the Chief Constable on a regular basis? Curious. I had no inkling of what the diary entries might mean until I saw a television programme years later. It concerned groups of trained killers known as Churchill’s Auxiliary. The role of Churchill’s Auxiliary was to act as a resistance should the Germans invade. The auxiliary was disbanded in mid 1944, after the D Day invasion.

Suddenly, it all made sense. The unarmed combat, the secrecy, the refusal to take part in parades. I remember him saying something along the lines of: they aren’t interested in saying to people that war is awful and harms people; they were, he said, saying: look at me, I served my country, aren’t I wonderful.

He suffered many health problems in later life. His leg was amputated when his shattered ankle, a constant physical reminder of his army service became gangrenous. I remember hearing that he was referred to a psychiatrist because of mental problems. He left, supposedly for the appointment, but returned so quickly it was obvious he hadn’t kept it. He must have been either afraid what he might reveal or, more likely, afraid of what he might do if his old memories were drawn out of him.

My father’s experiences left me in no doubt that it doesn’t matter how much people suffer, as long as they are part of a large group or population which has suffered the same experiences they can eventually cope with the trauma. The smaller the group or more dispersed the population, the harder it is for them. Maybe, had he just served in Japan, he could have coped. His earlier war experience together with his Far East service, his feelings of rejection and being sworn to secrecy about the Auxiliary left him isolated and prone to mental torture no one should ever have to endure. The smaller the war or the less people affected by it, the more severe the mental trauma. It’s no wonder soldiers returning from wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer so much post traumatic stress disorder. Wars are instigated by politicians and public opinion. Soldiers, sailors and airmen are not there because they want to be. We should have learned by now to respect and understand returning soldiers whether they appear normal or not. It is a disgrace that they are still too often left to cope alone.

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