“We kept our faith with ourselves and with one another: we kept faith and unity with our great allies. That faith and unity have carried us to victory…”
His Majesty, King George VI, May 8th, 1945
May 8th, 2020. Britain’s two minutes silence has just Fallen. My VE Day is a very personal affair. My extended family served in a variety of capacities during World War Two, but let me focus on two of them, my paternal grandfather Clifford, who survived the war, just, and my great-uncle Walter, who did not. My thanks also to my father who helped me prepare this piece.
My grandfather finished his long and original service in either 1937 or 1938 serving aboard the destroyer HMS Mallard. However, as he was on the Naval Reserve he was recalled, probably in May 1939 as hostilities became likely after the Nazi occupation of Prague. He served mainly on destroyers doing escort duties in the Channel and during the war he was sunk twice, each time by mines. He was invalided off active service in 1943 due to health problems caused by swallowing fuel oil whilst fighting for his life in the sea. For the rest of the war he was confined to shore duties where he did spells at the Signal Station on Plymouth Sound Breakwater, then at Mount Wise Signal Station overlooking the entrance to the Dockyard.
Interestingly, during a visit to the Royal Marines a couple of years ago I was just below where he ended his many years of RN service. He left the ‘RN’ just before the end of the war in 1944 and we went to live in Dulverton, Somerset, from where my great grand-parents hailed. My father thinks he may have been at Dunkirk. The only occasion my father was taken to see him depart was at Millbay dock in Plymouth and at the time he was seconded to a merchant ship that was transporting Canadian troops to France to relieve the troops there. When he got back my grandfather looked absolutely shattered, after having picked up as many survivors as he could.
My great-uncle Walter was killed on HMS Quail, which he had joined when she was newly commissioned in Glasgow in January 1943. He had previously served on HMS Kandahar, a K class destroyer that was part of a squadron commanded by Lord Louis Mountbatten aboard HMS Kelly, which was sunk in the Channel. HMS Kandahar was mined in December 1941 escorting a convoy to Malta and eventually scuttled. HMS Quail was mined outside Bari Harbour (my family seemed to attract mines), and may have been involved in a clandestine operation. Nineteen were killed, including Walter, who is buried in a in a military cemetery near Bari.
There is a twist to this tale. During a visit to Dulverton a few years ago an old gentleman kept looking at my father and me because it seemed he saw the family resemblance. We eventually got talking and he told us he had been one of Walter’s closest friends and had spent the night before my great-uncle’s return to Devonport Dockyard in a Dulverton pub. Walter never returned. Today, his name is on the Plymouth Naval Memorial, which I have had the honour to visit on many occasions.
Faith and unity in Great Allies is as important today as it was then.