Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lest we forget

As it's Armistice Day and we're remembering the sacrifice of all those who have fought to keep us free and safe, I thought it might be nice to mention my two grandfathers. Sadly, neither are with us any more but they both did their part for the war effort in their own ways.

I wrote about my paternal grandfather Edward Grimson Colgan a couple of years ago here. He was in the Royal Navy and served on a succession of destroyers and motor torpedo boats. He was involved in the campaign to sink the Bismarck and the D Day Landings and, throughout it all, he documented his war in poetry.

Ted and my Dad 1942.

My maternal grandfather, Fred Dawe, had an entirely different experience. He was in a reserved occupation as a farmer and was not required to sign up. However, he did join the local defence volunteers (The Home Guard) and quickly became their Captain because he was the only one who owned a shotgun (True!). His main job was to guard Brunel's rail bridge that links Cornwall to the rest of England; Cornwall is pretty much an island and the road bridge wasn't yet built (1961). He was tasked with either (a) preventing the Germans getting into England if they landed in Cornwall, or (b) preventing an invading force from England getting into Cornwall.

You'd think that he would have had a pretty quiet life being so far from the action but that wasn't the case. He lived in Landulph, just outside Saltash, and just over the river Tamar from Plymouth. The naval dockyards there were a major target for the Luftwaffe and Saltash was constantly suffering air raid warnings as the result.

There are so many stories I could tell you about Fred Dawe. He invented the muck spreader - he really did! - and sold the patent for enough money to live comfortably the rest of his life. Despite this he wanted to work and collected milk churns from local farms to take to the dairy. He also went hunting and fishing at all hours to supply his friends and family with fresh meat - rabbit and pigeon mostly - during the bleakest hours of rationing. But there is one particularly splendid story I'd like to share about him.

Me and Fred on the milk churn lorry circa 1965.

The Dawe family very kindly took in three young brothers who'd been evacuated from London, Vic, Ern and Les Cummings. Vic and my mum became lifelong friends and, when he died recently, his sisters passed Mum a memoir that Vic had written about the war years. I have a copy of it and it's wonderful reading. One story stands out for me and I'll reprint it here in Vic's own words:

'Sometimes a bombing raid would occur during the daytime and we could be anywhere on the farm, too far to return to the shelter. We would watch the vapour trails criss cross in the sky and try to identify the Spitfires from the enemy bombers. Sometimes we'd see a plane begin its plunge towards the ground and a parachute fluttering from it. It was a feeling of great elation when we knew it was an enemy bomber.

One day I was with 'Uncle' Fred and a daylight raid began. We took shelter under a heavy iron steam roller parked on a verge in the lane that led to the farmhouse. A German Messerschmitt appeared suddenly and seemed to be just feet above us as it roared overhead. As it passed over, Fred fired a couple of shots at it. We later heard that the aircraft had crashed on the other side of the Tamar. Did Fred shoot it down? We'll never know. But he was happy to tell the story to all who would listen.'

Vic's memoir is ful of stuff like that; damaged Spitfires landing in the farm fields and German pilots being captured. Boys Own stuff. And all of it true.

Fred lived into his late 80s and was active until the day he died, playing cricket and his beloved bowls regularly . He was, at one time, the champion Over 65 bowls player in the UK.

A truly remarkable chap.

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