Monday, November 2, 2009

The Generosity of Others

I spent a long time the other night on the phone to the UK.

As an aside I find that natives of England tend to refer to their homeland as “England”. Whereas in my experience, people from the other lands in the British Isles seem to be as likely to say “I’m from the UK”. They then say as if an afterthought “I’m from…” and insert Scotland, or Wales etc. as necessary. I often wonder what causes the different approach. Surely the Union is not more beloved by the non-English subjects of Her Majesty’s domain.

I’m straying off my point. As I said I was on the phone to the UK. This is not an infrequent event, as I have a much loved brother who resides in Coventry and we talk frequently (as far as I know he was not “sent to Coventry”). On this occasion I was not chatting to my brother. Rather I was talking to a gentleman (and I use the term advisedly) by the name of Don.

Don is in his eighties and is a Royal Navy veteran of WWII vintage. I had the privilege of being introduced to Don (via telephone) by my brother.
For close to an hour Don talked to me about his war time experiences.

Don served on HMS Narborough, a Captain class frigate.
HMS Balfour a "Captain class"
Captain class frigates were built in the US and supplied to Britain under Lend-Lease. The Captain class frigates were named after captains who served in Nelson’s navy. A quick note about the photos on this post, all are available on Wikimedia Commons click on each photo for a link to its source.

Serving on HMS Narborough Don went on the perilous “Murmansk run” to Northern Russia. They went up during winter in atrocious weather and continual dark.
Arctic Noon taken on HMS Sheffield
At one point Don says the sea was so rough that he was seasick 28 times in 24 hours.

He also talked about Exercise Tiger when during a D-Day rehearsal an Allied convoy was attacked off Slapton Sands. The attack resulted in the deaths of 749 American servicemen.
The Slapton Sands Memorial
The disaster was hushed up at the time for fear of compromising the D-Day invasion. As a part of the “hush up” Narborough was dispatched to the middle of the Atlantic and spent the next weeks steaming in circles providing weather reports.

HMS Narborough returned from the Atlantic in the teeth of the gale that almost postponed D-Day. After oiling and storing they crossed to the British beaches with the invasion fleet.
50th Division landing at Gold Beach
Don described having a "ringside seat" while watching the landings.

On D+1 they were off Omaha Beach. When the USS Susan B Anthony was hit by a sea-mine The Narborough was one of the ships tasked with getting 2,689 soldiers and crew off..

Don says it is a heartbreaking experience watching a ship going down. The Susan B Anthony "reared up and then went straight down stern first. Like an arrow fired at a bullseye."
Don was relieved that on this occaision all were rescued without loss of life. However, he added the rescued soldiers were immediately transferred to landing craft and landed on Omaha Beach “without a rifle between them.”

US First Division Troops Landing on Omaha Beach D-Day
Post war Don took up a scholarship to Cambridge University and later worked as an engineer. He is articulate and concerned that his and others experiences are recorded for posterity. As a result he is a mover in the museum dedicated to the Captain class ships. He has also recorded a great deal of information for the Imperial War Museum.

It was in this spirit that he most generously shared his time with me (and offered to not only share more but also to put me in contact with other veterans).

As a fiction writer my main tool is imagination. However, that imagination is stoked and supported by research. I read personal accounts and formal histories endlessly. For WWII history I also can get access to invaluable resources such as photographs and film. Yet, for me, it is always personal accounts such as Don’s that are the most potent spurs to my imagination. Ten minutes speaking with a veteran can be worth a years’ research to me .

Over the years I have been privileged to speak to many people who lived and survived through those years. For most a lot of the experiences are still traumatic, even after all this time, and some can or will say little. In such cases the silences are often as informative as what is said. But some, like Don, are not only able to share the events but do so absolutely candidly. Of course for some the war years were a highlight in their lives, not only a time of privation but also a time of certainty, of shared purpose, of comradeship. Whichever is the case, I am enormously honoured by the generosity of others, in sharing their stories, their memories, and a portion of their lives with me.

So to Don and to all the others I have spoken to over the years, thank you.


Kathleen Jones said...

I love talking to people for research - you meet the most amazing characters. I once had to interview a 97 year old lady whose memory was better than mine! She made the past come alive for me - so I do understand the feeling of priviledge that you have when someone shares this - it's quite magical - a kind of time travelling.
Hope you've recovered from your traumas. I think the work that you do is fantastic.

Simon said...

Al a great post,sadly these old gentlemen are passing now and it is people like you that help to retain the human stories behind the horror of war.I have on occasion been to the Imperial War Museum and believe all schoolchildren should visit.You come away from a visit perplexed as to why humankind still resorts to this method of resolving an argument.

Simon said...

In answer to the English thing,well as an Aussie you will know we are a funny lot!I think it comes down to the Act of Union which finally put an end to centuries of border conflict between England and Scotland.Talk to most Scots and they will tell you that England is a peninsular to the south of Scotland.Talk to an Englishman and he will tell you that his taxes go north of the border to support the Scots.Both statements are true.There is a love hate relationship,but at the end of the day we are better together than apart.We are a small island people who traditionally are suspicious of Europe and thus very independent of mind.I feel a post coming on!

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

What a great story Al... thanks for posting this.

hmsgofita said...

This was a great post. It's so important to collect these stories from those who experienced them. Thanks so much for sharing.

Lisa said...

For all that has been written and told about this war, there always seems to be something new to learn, particularly when you can get it first hand. My husband's uncle was one of the guys that never was able to talk about it. He actually saved seven men when he crawled out into a no-man's land to pull them back to safety. But no one in the family would ever have known about it if one of the men serving with him had not made it known to the family.

Rebecca said...

Hi Al,
love this incrediable story,the pictures are awesome, always something new to learn.

and yes I'd be delighted (in responce to what you said in my comment box, drop me a line just click on my email)

Al said...

Hi Kathleen,
Characters is the word! That direct link with the past is all too precious.
I am essentially well and truly OK. It's not nice (understatement of the year) but it happens, the main thing is to take time to look after yourself and I've learnt to do that.

Hi Simon,
Oz is littered with war memorials, but somehow we don't learn.
Careful mate! an Aussie never needs prompting to call Pommies odd! :)
Have fun with the post.

Hi Christy,
You are most welcome! I just had to share, people like Ron are an inspiration!

Hi Heather,
Thank you! You're right such events vanish into the mists of time if we aren't careful.

Hi Lisa,
Wow! Your uncle(uncle-in-law?)must have been so brave. So often people won't or can't talk about what they have been through. Almost always the brave don't see what they have done as special. Usually their line is "any one would have don it in those circumstances". Not true of course most of us keep our heads down.

Hi Rebecca,
Thank you.
I've sent you an email.