Monday, December 14, 2009

Silent Night

My grandfather would always walk out of the room when he heard this carol. It was bizarre. Up he’d get and storm off grumbling to himself. I can remember my Nan smiling sadly to us all and explaining it away with “he just can’t bear to hear it; it’s to do with the war”.

It puzzled me for years. Sometime in my teens I thought I had it figured. Silent Night is a German carol. That must be it, I thought. The Germans, the war time foe. Though his reaction was so extreme this hardly seemed a decent explanation.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that he finally told me the reason. Before his illness and old age robbed him of the ability and the will to tell me stories of his war time experiences he just came out with it one lunch time while we were tucking into fish and chips.

My grandfather was a seaman in the Royal Navy and took part in a great number of the convoys that carried and fetched supplied to and from South Africa, Europe, Malta and the Med, etc. His ship, H.M.S. Kelvin, saw a good deal of action and was one of the ships celebrated for breaking through the curtain the Germans and Italians had put around Malta – it was certainly the exploit that he spoke about with the most ease and pride.

This other story though was more painful and was one he’d carried around with him for more than 60 years without speaking much about it...

I believe his ship was part of a night convoy in the North Atlantic. It was winter and bitterly cold. A man overboard would be dead within minutes – from the cold rather than drowning. The going was cautious – German U-Boats were about and very active. The ships were effectively operating under black-out – no lights, engines only and no radio communication. Anything to minimize the possibility of a U-Boat picking them up. Another stipulation was that the ships were not allowed to stop. Not for anything. Not even to help a comrade fallen overboard. They had to keep going; they had to get through.

The ship ahead was unlucky. A U-Boat picked her off sometime in the small hours and she went down spilling her crew - hundreds of men - into the water.

The other ships, including my grandfather’s could not stop to pick up the survivors. They knew this. The men in the water also knew this and very softly sang Silent Night as the convoy and their comrades continued on into the night and away from them.

I cannot imagine the pain of having to live through that night and of having such a memory bubble to the surface for every Christmas that you experience afterwards. If not for his reaction to the carol we would never have known.

When I hear Silent Night now I too will feel sad and an aching sense of pain though for different reasons. And I shall remember all the Christmases when my grandfather disappeared out into the kitchen to bang about with the kettle until the carol had finished.

And I shall feel regret and I shall feel sorrow.

But mostly I shall feel pride.


45 comments:

The Crow said...

"But mostly I shall feel pride."

And rightly so, Steve. What a wonderful man is your grandfather.

Martha

Steve said...

He was, Martha, and contained some immensely deep feelings and memories. I am so sad that his store of them has now come to an end.

Marie said...

Such an amazing story. To carry something like that around with you for all those years, well I just can't imagine what it must have been like. My grandfather was in the navy during the war and I feel sad that he didn't speak more about his experiences. It must have been very difficult to talk about some of those experiences though.

Gina said...

Oh gosh, that's one of those stories that will stay in my head and keep repeating on me at unexpected moments. I am good these days at predicting which things will do that. It is such a haunting image.

Strange re Silent Night because I always sob if I hear that carol and have been known to leave the room - simply because it reminds me of my grandfather as it was his favourite carol. He would sing it in English and my grandmother in German - at the same time which sounded odd in some ways but rather nice too.

Mark said...

Astonishing, moving story.

Steve said...

Marie: I wish I'd made more of my time and got him to tell me more... but one never likes to pry too hard, especially when the memories may be painful. He did tell me lots of other stories - some quite funny and rude - which I may one day post here.

Gina: it's a lovely carol and coupled with In The Bleak Mid Winter which always made my Nan cry I think the Christmas music CD might be a bit of an emotional minefield this year!

Mark: it's one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Inchy said...

This is how it works.
He passes on a, quite frankly, incredible story like this to you, Steve, and you in turn will pass the tale on to your kids as they grow up.
He lives on in the stories and anecdotes that you and your family will invariably tell every year from now on.

As you know, I lost a family member close to Christmas last year, so at least when the anniversary of his death comes around, you'll be spending time with other people who knew and loved your grandfather.

It helps.

Steve said...

Inchy: thanks - it does help.

ArtSparker said...

Sounds like your loss occurred at about the same time as mine. Hope it was as peaceful as my family member's. I can't imagine having to live with that memory year after year. But sometimes making tea is all anyone can do.

Steve said...

ArtSparker: tea is a great cushion for the heart and mind. My grandfather went in his sleep and without pain - I'm thankful for that. Sorry to hear you've had a loss too. Not sure is this time of year makes it harder or easier... there is certainly an element of bittersweetness...

Owen said...

What simply beautiful story Steve... thank you for sharing that... what a horrible business wars are. How they mark people. My wife's father, now gone, would never talk about his experiences as a naval officer in Indochina.

skatey katie said...

what a memory.
the men in the WATER sang silent night?
i am empty X

Gypsy said...

It's not often that I am brought to tears by a piece of writing but today I have big tears rolling down my cheeks. For your grandfather, for those fallen men who knew they would die and for all the men and women who have ever had to go through the hell that is war.

I most especially feel for you dear Steve and want to congratulate you on a fitting tribute to a man who sounds worthy of your pride. Beautifully written....sob.

Steve said...

Owen: one of the things I regret most is not knowing all those other stories that he had, the personal history... but then, not all things can be shared; some things have to stay personal and owned by only one person.

Katie: astounding isn't it? Just ordinary men like you and me and yet in the extremes of war, life and death their spirits soared.

Gypsy: thank you, from the heart.

KAZ said...

Oh - poor grandad.
It's such an emotional sounding tune anyway.
I now feel ashamed of shedding a tear in Wilkinson's yesterday when David Essex was singing 'Only a Winter's Tale'.

Steve said...

Kaz: Greg Lake's and Jona Lewie's Christmas offerings all have the same effect on me. There is no such thing as shame at Christmas. Well, unless it involves you, your boss and the office photocopier...

Selina Kingston said...

I'm in tears too.

What a hero your grandad was and how difficult to have had to leave his brave, brave comrades behind gone and be reminded of it every time he heard that carol. And you write even now with such pride and love for him and I feel your loss as if it were my own.

You have led me to think of those I have loved and lost. And all those brave service men and women that died for our country back then. And the continuing roll call of those youngsters still dying today.

Thank you for a beautiful, heartfelt post.
x

Steve said...

Selina: I don't know what else to say but thank you.

Tenon_Saw said...

I can only echo what others have said.

Steve said...

Tenon_Saw: it's much appreciated.

French Fancy said...

That made me cry - imagine not being able to stop, knowing that your fellow sailors in the water would not last very long. I just can't imagine that.

Oh Steve, the memories that come to mind when people die. It's heartbreaking.

Julie

Brother Tobias said...

That's a very moving story, Steve. No wonder that generation didn't talk about those days much.

Even though he was a merchant seaman, I wonder whether your grandfather may not have served in the Royal Navy 'hostilities only'. HMS Kelvin was a spanking new destroyer with quite a distinguished record in the Med (she carried Churchill at one point). I haven't been able to trace any merchant ship called 'SS Kelvin'.

Steve said...

FF: it must have been an awful weight to live with...

Brother T: you may be right and I may have got the facts wrong - I have my granddad's Navy registration card somewhere... sounds like he may have joined the Royal Navy - which would back up another story he told me: he originally applied to join the RAF but they told him he wasn't intelligent enough so he went nextdoor to the navy recruiting office instead...

Suburbia said...

wow, quite a story. So glad he managed to tell you, heartbreaking though it is. A very powerful image, he must have been a very strong man.

Such a difficult time to loose someone, not that it is ever easy.
Thinking of you.

Steve said...

Suburbia: thank you.

The Sagittarian said...

How fantastically tragic. I reckon there must be heaps of untold stories, hidden away in families such as yours for years. If perhaps they could have been spoken, maybe there would be no more wars...(yeah, right...)
Thanks for sharing that Steve, would be delighted to hear anymore gems your darling grandad may have passed on...

Steve said...

Amanda: I'm sure a few more stories will emerge as time goes on and I feel able to write about them...!

Löst Jimmy said...

A proud you should be Steve, I reckon such reflections heightens the sense of that we are all moulded by hundreds of experiences and thus memories. It is recollections such as you describe which will keep your Grandad memory alive.

Steve said...

Löst Jimmy: I shall certainly try to keep some idea of him alive in my kids as they grow up...

The Dotterel said...

I have a lump in my throat, Steve: what a moving story. We shall indeed never see their like...

Steve said...

Dotterel: and each year they're becoming more and more rare...

EmmaK said...

what a touching story xx

Owen said...

Steve, best wishes for some happiness at the holidays despite everything... thinking of you...

A Write Blog said...

What a touching story and beautifully told.

There must be so many untold stories from people who underwent all sorts of experiences during that war.....and others.

Makes you realise how lucky we are. Men like your Grandfather endured what they did to ensure our way of living.

We sometimes forget that so it is as welkl to be reminded.

Thank you for posting that.

It is uplifting to reda something like that especially at this time of year.

Have a wonderful Christmas Steve.

John

Steve said...

Owen, John: thank you both and thank you for your many thought provoking comments over the last year.

French Fancy said...

I hope it's just the run up to Christmas that is keeping you away. I can imagine with two little boys you are very busy being Santa getting ready with their presents

if we don't swap lines again before Christmas I hope you and your family have a good time, although I realise it will be somewhat blighted this year. It does get better- my ma died Christmas Day and it took about three years for me to put that to one side and just get on with it.

All the best Steve
Julie

Steve said...

FF: thank you. Funnily enough I was just composing a new post as you sent your comment. I have been keeping a low profile I must admit - I haven't felt much up to writing of late but the old itch it beginning to build again. Hopefully after Christmas normal service will be resumed!

Heather said...

Bloody hell man, you've got me in tears here. what a powerful story and an awful memory to have to live with.

Steve said...

Heather: I'm honoured you followed the link back and spent the time reading it. Thank you.

Eoforhild said...

I came here from the link you posted on Heather's blog.

What a memory to carry.

Trish @ Mum's Gone to... said...

Found your post through Heather's today. Very moving. I can see why she has directed people to it.

Amber said...

It amazes me to know that my grandfather, like yours and like so many others, carried this trauma with them their whole lives. How it must have coloured and changed them to have spent their youth at war. I am so grateful that I did not have to have that experience, and especially so to the men like our grandfathers.

Steve said...

Eoforhild: thank you for taking the time to drop by and read.

Trish: thank you, that's very kind.

Amber: we owe a huge debt of gratitude to our servicemen. Not just for what they did but for what they have to live with (the lucky ones)...

Anonymous said...

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Is this possible?

Steve said...

Anonymous: you don't fool me, Keeley, I know it's you. If you want my phone number all you have to do is ask.