Daughter’s tribute to father who was shot down and killed on his first mission with Bomber Command while his wife gave birth back home in England
- Credit: Archant
It’s a story you could not dream up. A committed young pacifist refuses to have any truck with a ‘crazy war’, but changes his mind and joins Bomber Command.
The swinging ’60s are giving way to the 1970s. Nearly three decades after losing her husband – widowed, incredibly, on the same day she became a mother – Pat Gaywood is getting married again. Daughter Janet helps clear her mum’s council flat of paraphernalia that had formed the backdrop to her own childhood. It’s the end of an era, and there is sadness at the thought of throwing out a coal scuttle with a rusty lip. It might have seen better days, but Janet remembers the pleasure felt as an eight-year-old. She’d staggered in with the coal and lit a fire to welcome her mother back from work. It had made Pat so happy.
And then she notices some old school files and folders, among a pile of paperbacks, rent books, bills and bank statements. They might be her mum’s – after decades using her typing and shorthand skills in dull Government offices, the indefatigable Pat trained as a teacher – but they might equally be important relics of her own childhood. Janet stuffs the bumf into a fraying hessian bag and takes it home.
Later, she goes through the pile of paper. Most ends up in the bin. But sandwiched within some sheet music is a shabby leather writing case with three books inside. No wonder her eyes grow wide as she realises what she has stumbled across: the wartime diaries of the dad she never knew.
A photo of Jim had enjoyed pride of place in her childhood home – “The Man on the Mantelpiece”, in an art deco-ish frame – but she never knew these precious written-down opinions, facts and reflections existed.
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This isn’t the time to talk to her mother about it, not now Pat has a lot on her plate as a married woman in her late 40s. After a quick read, Janet puts the diaries away safely, vowing to give them a more in-depth examination later.
And then life gets in the way.
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Janet had grown up in south London. She went to grammar school and then worked for about six years as a nurse, midwife and health visitor.
In 1965 she married Steve Denny – a member of the family that owned the Southwold tailoring business that began life in 1851. Today, Denny of Southwold is still in the hands of a branch of the family, with its high-quality clothing emporium in Market Place.
Steve’s grandfather had been the town’s mayor, but Steve himself was born in Australia and spent his first 10 years there, before his parents returned to England.
“I married the preacher’s son!” Janet laughs. Steve’s inspirational father was minister of their congregational church at Eltham. She stopped work once the children started coming along – two sons and a daughter.
Steve worked for an import company in London. When he became unemployed, the family had to move in 1977 from a rather nice house near Sevenoaks to a derelict 15th Century farmhouse outside Rye in Sussex.
They moved in, says Janet, “full of enthusiasm, and absolutely penniless, with three children under nine. It was quite an adventure. I learned quite a lot about restoration and repointing brickwork.”
The couple ran a bed-and-breakfast from there for six or seven years, and for about 25 years had a chain of shops selling mid-range gifts. Life can be cruel, though. In 2000, son Andrew died of a brain tumour. Four years later, Steve was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He died in 2006.
“When I was packing up my home after Steve died, I thought ‘I’ve lost my son, my husband’, and I suddenly thought ‘I’ve lost my father.’ He was the third man I’d lost. I remembered I had those diaries. I read them and thought ‘These are really precious.’”
Jim – an intelligent and idealistic 18-year-old – starts on the day war breaks out. On Sunday, September 3, 1939, he writes: “I have begun this diary by calling this war a crazy war. So it is.” His reading of the situation was that the Great War had achieved nothing.
The Treaty of Versailles had left many Germans feeling quashed – the country “encircled and her vital space and trade kept from her”. People were angry at having to wear “paper for leather”, and did not see why they should go without. “And so,” Jim wrote, “we have the crazy situation of two countries waging a war which neither wants, and both fighting for those very things for which the war of 1914-1918 was fought, and which FAILED! It has been proven that nothing can be settled by war, and this war may be the end of civilisation…”
Jim came from a working class family in south London. Brothers Jim and Len, however, had earned places at grammar school, with its black and gold blazers and caps.
Intriguingly, Jim had been to Germany that summer and so was well-placed to gauge the temperature of the nation. He’d learned the language at school and had a German penfriend, Ernst, who had stayed with the family. In 1939, the English teenager had saved enough money to fund a return visit, to the Ruhr. Jim had grown fond of this family, and was not going to fight. Killing was no way to change the world.
He had left school at 16. University was a non-starter – he needed to boost the household income – so he got work as an invoice clerk in a rubber factory near the Thames. He quit after war was declared because it was making insulation for submarine cables. “He felt badly about it, because the family needed the money,” says Janet. After being out of work for a while, Jim got a job as a clerk in a sugar factory.
“He was a very deep-thinking man, my father, and very well read. What made him into a pacifist I don’t know. My uncle doesn’t know. He didn’t share those views.”
Jim was a very left-wing young adult. He sold Peace News on Eltham High Street and went to meetings of the Peace Pledge Union. “He didn’t belong to the Communist Party, but international socialism was his thing. He thought it would break down all the borders. And, of course, Russia was the icon for a lot of young men. Although he had no time for Stalin, he thought socialism was the way forward.”
And then Jim changed tack, for some reason. He applied to the RAF and became a bomb aimer, of all things. A premature call-up to begin training prompted Jim and sweetheart Pat to bring forward their wedding. They’d met at infant school, but became serious in their late teens. Dreams of a Christmas wedding had to be abandoned. Instead, they married at Woolwich Town Hall in October, 1941. Less than 48 hours later he was off, on the 6.51am train.
We switch, now, to Janet, a few years ago ? wondering if she could make something of this powerful material her father had left.
She and Steve had several times been on activity holidays – literary workshops for her, art for him – and on one trip to Italy she took a transcript. Author Blake Morrison (who has a home in Suffolk) was enthusiastic. “He said ‘You should do an MA!’” laughs Janet, now 72.
Having lost Steve, she was in the process of moving to Sussex, to be near her daughter. Blake said there was a good creative writing course at Chichester. So… “I had to go to my first interview in over 50 years! I was definitely the granny of the group!” Janet graduated last year. Her dissertation included a few chapters of a putative book. She got a distinction, and markers said she ought to get the story published.
So she has.
There’s been lots of research. Lots of talking to family members. And a fair bit of travelling, as Janet went to the places where her dad had trained and walked in his footsteps, diary in hand.
In Yorkshire, she had a guided tour of a reconstructed Halifax bomber. “I actually got to lie down on the bomb aimer’s couch and looked down through this transparent nose. He’d have had to press this button to drop the bombs.” How did that feel? “I just thought ‘I am looking through this nose at a patch of oil on a concrete floor. He would have been looking down at a conflagration in the Ruhr valley, which is where his penfriend lived, knowing he’d got to press that button and add to that conflagration… and kill people.’
“I don’t know what he would have felt, but from what I know of him, he probably thought ‘I’m here. I’ve got to do my job. I can’t let the rest of the crew down.’ Probably he shut off his emotions and pressed the button. But who knows?”
On his first mission, the plane was shot down over the North Sea by a Messerschmitt. Jim was killed – on the same day in 1943 that Pat gave birth to their only child.
Baby Janet arrived later than expected. She thinks about how he’d have got compassionate leave had she been born earlier, and therefore might not have been on that fateful raid.
Pat “didn’t hear anything I think it was for three days, but she said ‘I knew’.” The regular letters from her young husband had stopped.
The couple had been granted such little time together as husband and wife. “She could probably have counted the nights they’d spent together.” Both were aged just 21 when their worlds changed.
The young widow and her child simply went home to Eltham. Just the two of them. No friends came to stay and help her deal with the trauma? Janet asked, as she wrote her book. “No, dear. I wasn’t the only one in this position, you know,” her mum replied. “You just had to get on with it. And you slept in a drawer beside the bed.”
Pat is now 94 and living in a care home. “There’s no flies on her. Always very strong and giving. I owe everything to her. She’s been a brilliant mum,” says Janet.
So was Jim never really talked about at home, when she was a child? “It’s hard to remember, but Mum just said that he was a lovely man. He was just, always, ‘a wonderful man’.
“I asked her, when I was writing the book and trying to work out the mystery of why he gave up his pacifism and joined up, and she said ‘Oh, I don’t know, dear. We didn’t talk about things like that.’ That was very much of the time.
“Looking back, I think my mother would have talked more, but I was always worried about upsetting my grandparents. Having been born on the day he died, I was very much a ‘replacement’. They did spoil me and I was very close to them. But I didn’t want to upset them.”
Janet tells a story about opening a cupboard in the empty back bedroom of their home, when she was little, and finding a rocking-horse. She’d run downstairs to tell Grandad. He told her it was Tipperary Tim. “Your dad used to ride him. That was the bedroom he shared with your Uncle Len.”
Janet says: “I can remember quite clearly the tears in his eyes, and thinking ‘I mustn’t upset Grandad any more.’”
She adds: “Mum would sometimes say things about my father. I knew they’d been incredibly happy. I think it was more on my side that I didn’t ask questions.”
The Man on the Mantelpiece is grounded in fact but Janet’s imagined some of the conversations that might have gone on between Jim and his parents, for instance. It’s a powerful mix.
Emotionally draining for Janet? Not so, she says.
“A lot of people have said to me ‘It must have been so emotional, writing this book.’ My answer is yes, it was emotional, but the emotion wasn’t grief or sadness – because I didn’t know the man. The emotion has been excitement at discovering who my father was.
“I’d never actually referred to him as Dad, but now I feel I can, because I know him well enough now.”
Janet wonders how her father’s life might have been, had he lived. She likes to think he’d have been a left-wing journalist, eyes burning with altruistic fire and using his prose to try to change minds.
“He was an idealist. I like to think he wouldn’t have changed too much. I like to imagine a little picture of him beside his article in The Guardian! That’s what I like to think he would have done.”
The men who shot down Dad
Amazingly, during her research, Janet found a photograph of the crew that shot down her father’s bomber.
It was the pilot’s 11th kill of his career and his record earned him the highest honour available to the Luftwaffe. A year or so later, with another 20 kills credited to him, he would himself be killed in action.
What does she think when she looks at their faces?
“I think they look nice young men. I showed my mum the picture. She said ‘They were just doing their job, dear – like your dad.’
“I would love to find out more about that man, his family and what happened. Did he have children? And about the penfriend’s family. I’ve got an idea for a fictional story…” she laughs. “One day I might get round to researching it.”
A kiss for each year
Janet has her parents’ last letters to each other.
Written in May, 1943, they were tucked in the things she took away from her mum’s flat 27 years later.
Both Pat and Jim finished by adding 21 xs – one “kiss” for each year of their ages.
From the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies, evacuated to Kent, Pat wrote: “Oh, Jim, please take care of yourself. Please. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.”
Three days later, writing from Yorkshire, Jim says he is waiting “confidently but anxiously” for news of their baby’s arrival. “What a happy family we will be!”
His last words to his wife: “This war will end, and I shall come home to you, my dears, and stay with you for always.
“Always I shall love you – always, my darling. Goodnight, beloved.”
The magic of Southwold
Janet Denny first came to Southwold in about 1961 or ’62, before she was engaged to Steve.
The town where his family had such strong roots was always the first choice of holiday destination when his parents returned from Australia. Now his wife-to-be was invited to the Suffolk coast.
Janet remembers coming at Easter, while she was still a nurse.
“My mother-in-law (to be) said ‘Don’t you think this is the most marvellous place?’
It was freezing cold, the east wind was blowing, and I thought ‘What are they talking about?!
But over 50-odd years I’ve grown to love it as much as they did.”
Janet, who has five grandchildren aged between three and 20 years old, splits her time between a home in Sussex and a little house in Southwold that she and Steve bought many years ago.
There’s a bench on the seafront dedicated to her late husband, too.
Read the full story
The Man on the Mantelpiece is £9.99. It should be available from bookshops in Southwold, Halesworth Bookshop, Aldeburgh Bookshop, Browsers in Woodbridge, Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum near Bungay, and via online sellers. It’s also available as an ebook at £4.79.