Meet Uncle Joe. I never did, by the way. He died many many years before I was born. I recall his photograph sitting on my Nan’s sideboard. It was, in all honesty, an ornament to me as a child, another ‘thing’ which I did not understand the significance or provenance of, but which seemed to carry with it a certain ‘taboo’, as though it was not to be spoken of.
Some 30+ years on, I now understand the gravity of this image, and I hope to repay Joe for my infantile ignorance by bringing his story to the world. Every family has a hero – Joe is undoubtedly ours.
Joseph was the eldest of 4 children (my dad being the youngest by some 9 years or more) and was doing very grown up things when my father was still, quite literally, in short trousers.
He went off to war as an eager young teenager and spent a year or two in intensive training in the RAF. He qualified as a gunner, and over time was promoted to Flight Sergeant and became a gunnery instructor.
There were many young men like Joe, so why is he so remarkable to me? Well, apart from the obvious fact that we were directly related, what makes Joe’s story stand out is the fact that he wrote it all down for us in a series of letters home to his mother and sister. These letters were rediscovered only recently by my aunt as we chatted together about the purpose of SaveEveryStep and our family’s history. The letters were sitting in a plastic bag, untouched for 65 years, in my aunt’s spare bedroom. My dad did not even know they existed, and since he had never really known Joe in the way brothers should, was understandably nervous about the emotions which might be stirred by reading them.
The letters sit in their original envelopes. They include two-way correspondence both from Joe to home, and his mum’s replies. They talk of Joe’s chums, training regimes, night flying, the cold of the aircraft (Lancaster Bombers) and of his love for a young teenage girl. They are written as a boy would write, since that’s exactly what most of these young men were, and are mostly light-hearted and light.
On the first active bombing raid mission which Joe and crew took part in, they were caught in a dog fight and were shot down over the sea outside Holland. We have discovered an account of this episode, (miraculous coincidence), written by one of Joe’s crew members who recently passed away. This is not fiction, not a movie, but a real incident in which my own uncle was involved. A piece of history which must be treasured and preserved as part of our family’s and country’s heritage. Here is an extract. ‘Mac’ is Joe’s nickname……
“The crew reported in turn and then all that could be heard on the intercom was the sound of heavy breathing. I lay there with Mac, listening to the sound of our one engine, seeing the fuselage twitch as we rolled and yawed and the skipper corrected. There were no other thoughts except what if I broke a leg or an arm on impact? Would it hurt much? “4000 feet” called Harry. I signalled ‘4’ to Mac and just as I did this the engine coughed and went dead. The nose tilted forward. Just as suddenly the engine roared into life………”3000 feet“ said Harry. I signalled ‘3’ to Mac. This time the engine kept roaring. A few seconds after it cut again, only to roar into life when we dipped forward. It seemed to me that somewhere petrol was swilling into the carburetor pipes when we dipped forward……..I lay perfectly calm now, listening and waiting for what was now inevitable.
“Can’t see a bloody thing yet” called Harry, “we’re still in cloud”……….”2000 feet”. “1000 feet”. God, we’re going in fast, I thought. Sweat was breaking on my skin. Mac was looking at me with a frown and puzzled look on his face. I signalled ‘1’. Mac looked at me as though to say ‘what happened to 2?!’ I looked at him, gently held him closer and shook my head, listening hard. I felt Mac start to tense his body. He too probably knew we were going to hit hard.
“I see it – 400 feet. Stand by for impact!” shouted Harry. I squeezed Mac’s shoulder hard and we braced each other. I squeezed harder several times and turned my head quickly to Mac. I tried with my right hand to reach the side of the fuselage and then – WHAM!
The inside of the aeroplane then whirred with vibration. I wasn’t conscious of it stopping or slewing around, just a sudden surge of water from Lord knows where, and suddenly I was on my feet. Mac was already up. A wave of water poured through the escape hatch….. I glanced back and to my horror saw that the aircraft had broken in two just aft of the bomb bay. The tailplane and my turret were beginning to float away. Must get out quickly now……
At last I was on top of the fuselage. Harry was just pulling clear through the escape hatch which had been above his head…….For a moment he sat on the edge on top of the cockpit canopy with his back to us. He looked round as he pulled his legs clear. He was grinning at us. “Well boys, we made it” he shouted to us…….”
This account is written over some 17 pages. When I first received it (from a very nice lady at the Gold Coast Squadron Association), I was trembling. I waited all day before I read it, because I wanted to be somewhere quiet and uninterrupted. It is the first time I have cried for someone I never even met. It is the simple humanity embedded in the words which makes it so real, the ordinariness of being Bomber Crew – putting on a tie to potentially fly to your death, having to wear a heated air suit and finding that your sandwiches have toasted in your pocket, sharing the fear of pre-flight nerves. These are the things which are personal to each of us, and rarely get passed on through the generations.
Joseph survived being shot down. He also survived the war. He went on to serve in Singapore, still writing home throughout.
In 1945 at the age of just 22, with the cruelest irony, Joe died tragically from cancer. He never married his teenage love, and the letters ceased.
My dad has read and re-read these letters. He has made foot-notes and placed them in chronological order, to be clear in his mind exactly what Joe did, and when. He has transcribed the letters by hand. This is the work of a dedicated brother, wrought with new, raw emotions which had been long-since buried.
It was only as a result of the fire which the creation of this website (www.saveeverystep.com) lit underneath me, that I know anything more about Joe than I did back then as a child. The letters would remain in their plastic bag. My father would have gone to his grave without knowledge or understanding of his hero brother. We would never have known that the account of Joe’s ‘ditching’ existed.
Our children never ask us about our lives and so we never tell them. And there lies the greatest tragedy of all. Would that my Nan were here today to pour out the loving stories of Joe which only a mother could tell…I would transcribe every word and save them as tiny little audio heirlooms for our family’s future.
I implore you all, don’t leave it too late.