The way it was always told to me, not long after Chamberlain had declared war on Germany, my grandfather – barely 19 years of age – had hotfooted it around to the RAF recruiting office to sign up. He no doubt fancied himself kitted out with one of those stiffened scarves and leather goggles and chewing on a choice cigar from the comfort of his cockpit as he strafed a few Heinkels with a careless flick of his thumb on the joystick.
And who wouldn’t? The RAF, even before the Battle of Britain, had an air of the glams about it. I mean, dash it all, but those chaps were just plain dashing. Why yomp across France when you can sit at the controls of possibly the best plane ever built and let a Rolls-Royce Merlin carry you all the way to the theatre of battle in style?
But the RAF didn’t want my grandfather. They told him in no uncertain terms that he didn’t have the brains to be a spitfire pilot or any other kind of pilot. He wasn’t made of the right stuff, see. He wasn’t educated properly. He’d made it through a decent enough school but he was indelibly working class. As far as the RAF were concerned he was a yomper if ever there was one. They no doubt looked at him through their steely monocles and muttered under their breaths, “Not one of us.”
And so despite, the urgent country-wide call to arms, the RAF declined my grandfather’s enthusiastic offer and the legend of The Leamington Baron was shot down before it even got off the runway.
If my grandfather was ever embittered by this show of classism he never showed it. He was resilient and perhaps just plain pragmatic enough to depart the RAF recruiting office with a cheery wave and an “Okay gov’nor” and hop over the threshold of the recruiting office immediately next door and find himself signed up by the Royal Navy. They snatched his hand off and had him rated as able-bodied before you could say “hard to starboard”.
He loved his time in the Navy. He loved the travel. He loved the camaraderie. Not that he was blinded by his love – he didn’t like the torpedoes, or the magnetic mines or the time his ship had its stern completely blown off and they had to rely on luck and the skill of their captain to limp them miraculously to the dicey safety of a Maltase port – but I can see from his war photos that the Navy changed him. It broadened his outlook. It completed his education in a way that a stint with the RAF would never have done. So he was never a member of a gentleman’s club or got a nickname like “Squiffy” or “Ack-Ack”... but he got to see India, North and South Africa, Malta, Iceland, even a few Russian ports.
He saw parts of the world that a boy from the working class slums of Leamington Spa would not ordinarily have got to see. And though the officers on board ship were just as high born as those of the RAF there was a closeness and equality (of sorts) born of spending months and months together in the equivalent of a tin can with no other company than the burly chaps around you. The respect that was engendered went both ways. In that respect war is a great leveller.
If it wasn’t for my Nan’s reluctance to travel I have no doubt my grandfather would have left these shores far behind him after the war and I’d be writing to you from South Africa. My grandfather loved his shore leave there and often spoke fondly of it in the years before his death in 2009. Not that he particularly regretted staying put in Blighty – he and my Nan gadded about quite a bit during their retirement years and saw as much of the world as they could – but I’m sure he occasionally dreamed of what could have been; if things had been different.
For all that though my grandfather did well for himself after the war. Yes, he did manual work but he was well paid for it. He aspired to be comfortable and he achieved it. He ended up owning his own house and car and was as far removed from those childhood slums as it was realistic to expect to be.
At the end he could have looked those RAF officers in the eye and got a polite nod in return. He’d earnt his wings.
The first casualty of war might be innocence but one of the last was class.