A memory of shoulders
Wearing lightly, bravely,
The tunic blue.
The roar of squadrons already roaring out Over our last farewell.
For Essen? Sylt?
The marshalling yards at Ham?
(‘June 1940’ by Norah Watts)
At dusk on 12 June 1940, Wing Commander Joseph Watts held his wife Norah tight. He was off on another bombing mission over occupied Europe. Hitler’s forces had just stunned the world, sweeping through France, Luxembourg, Holland and Belgium.
The British had escaped, just, from Dunkirk, and now the bombing raids were the only way for them to strike a blow against German forces. Watts was fairly sure he was not going to survive the war.
He was exhausted, he had watched a procession of his friends and comrades shot down in flames, Messerschmidt fighters pouncing on their plodding bombers, or their airframes shredded by ground fire.
He had broken down after one raid, on Kristiansand in Norway, when around half of his squadron had failed to make it back. He always told Norah not to attend his funeral if and when he died.
Tonight he was going to strike the Low Countries. Just before they parted he asked Norah, if she still thought she might be pregnant. She had told him a day or two before that she thought she could detect the very early stages of a child growing inside her. She replied, yes, she thought she was. He looked thrilled and headed for his aircraft.
The bantering voice,
The tender clasp
Altered not a whit.
His heart beat warmly against mine
For seconds longer.
The strong hand gathered, pressed me hard Against the dear familiar serge of blue,
Holding to him extra tightly
The atom in me on which
We pinned such hope and love,
A brother or a sister?
Norah was right. Eight and a half months later, John was born. A little brother for 5 year old Gillian. But he would never meet his father. Joseph had never returned from that raid in June. His aircraft, a Hampden bomber, P4345, had struck a barrage balloon cable over Felixstowe docks on the early morning of 13 June, on his return from the night’s sortie.
80 years later John reached out to History Hit after making an exciting discovery. He had never actually seen a Hampden bomber before, there are only a handful left in the word. However he had just found out that the RAF Museum in Cosford is in the process of restoring a Hampden, one that, remarkably, had actually flown in his father’s squadron.
As soon as lockdown loosened up sufficiently he and I hurried to Cosford and I was privileged enough to accompany him into the workshop where he came face to face with the aircraft.
I watched the splendid back
Walking with grace and swiftness.
Never a backward look,
Into the summer scented June.
I watched him down the hill,
My life contained
Beneath that tunic.
The forage cap jauntily poised;
The four-lined cuff.
When John saw the Hampden he staggered. He had been waiting all his life for this moment. He placed his hands on the pilot’s seat and told me that this was the closest he had ever felt to his father. 80 years after his father’s death the rawness of his grief was palpable. The war is long over, but its trauma endures.
John’s father has been, he told me, a golden ghost to him. A smiling, encouraging presence as he went through life as a child, then a student and a decades long acting career. John is also so aware that he was talking to me as a representative of an entire generation of people like him, who never knew their fathers.
A powerful reminder that the losses of the Second World War are still so real for thousands of people alive today. Men and women who grew up without fathers or mothers, or were raised by veterans who bore the scars of what they had seen and done.
Before early summer dawn
Over the Belgian bridges
He fought with his crew Desperately
John’s mother dealt with her grief by leaving the RAF family. She refused to attend his funeral, refused to go to Buckingham Palace to collect his gallantry medal, she sold all their possessions, moved her little family to London and got a job in an antique shop.
She lost contact with Joseph’s family. We can feel her grief through her poetry. Jaw-droppingly powerful verses that, I believe, should be canonical, listed alongside the great war poems of the English language.