Monday, 30 March 2020

Beggars and Gentlemen—part 1

My sister, Eelin, and I once discussed how much fun it would be to go together to India and explore all the places from our family past, but it never happened. At my prompting as to whether they would like to go back, my parents gave very differing reactions. Jim expressed a vague interest in seeing how things had changed, but accepted that it would never be financially possible. Eve was dead against any thought of a return, even for a nostalgic visit. 
“I would hate it,” she said. “It would be too sad. Everything would be different.”
Actually, it wouldn’t have been that different, only the world she lived in was gone, the rest of India was remarkably unchanged. There is an immense inertia in India against change for its own sake. We tear down city buildings and put up new ones every generation or two. In India, there is an abandoned city that hasn’t changed since the sixteenth century. In the 1980s I showed photographs of Simla to an aunt who had lived there half a century before. She could identify every building and claimed that it hadn’t changed one bit. 
Of course under the surface Simla had changed; the buildings were not used for their old imperial purposes and the statue of Queen Victoria at the top of The Mall had been replaced by one of Gandhi, but the physical presence of the town was identical. What my mother meant by “change” was not physical, and not even large scale. She didn’t want to return because she thought her culture—which in any case was an artificial, transplanted one and even at the height of the Raj made up only a tiny piece of India as a whole—had vanished. Even that was not entirely true and, as I was to discover, there were tiny remnants of the Raj, sometimes in the most unexpected places.
St Andrews Church, Simla
Despite the best efforts of my missionary great grandfather, Christianity never really took hold in India; there are only about 28 million Christians distributed among India’s 1.324 billion population. Still, it has left the most obvious remnants of European rule. Churches in India range from the soaring neo-gothic edifice of the Anglican All Saints Cathedral in Allahabad to the modest, sensible, red brick, presbyterian St Andrew’s in Simla. Some are still used for their original purpose, others have been repurposed (St Andrew’s was used for evening classes at the University of Himachal Pradash when I visited), and some have fallen into ruin, like the Rosary Church in Shetihalli which is flooded when the water rises in the nearby dam every monsoon season. 
The dour Scottish Presbyterian monotheism of my ancestor’s Church never had a hope of supplanting the rich, vigorous Hindu culture that, some say, offers 330 million gods. Today there are a mere 8 million Protestants in India spread amongst a surprising array of 31 denominations. The Catholic church, both Roman and Eastern Orthodox, with its mystery and ceremony was always more attractive and has garnered two-and-a-half times as many converts. Christianity is, perhaps unsurprisingly, most in evidence in one of the oldest enclaves of imperialism. But it is a tiny piece of the subcontinent that was never a part of the British Raj.
In December 1961, a two day war in India resulted in 52 deaths and the end of 451 years of European occupation. In 1510, the Portuguese defeated the local sultan and established a colony at Velha Goa, or Old Goa, on India’s southwest coast. It rapidly became a centre for missionary activity led by Francis Xavier who voyaged as far as Japan and established the Goa Inquisition, which was notable for the enthusiasm with which it tortured and burned Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and lapsed Catholics. All of this religious fervour has left a World Heritage site of impressive churches, some ruined, some still in use.
My visit to Goa in 1987 coincided with that of a Soviet Naval Commander who strode hurriedly around the Archaeological Museum amidst large security guards in ill-fitting suits. Afterwards, I was sitting in the cool of the vast Se Cathedral when the church deacon introduced himself with, “Excuse me, sir, I’d like to ask your advice,” only time a member of any church has asked my advice.
Apparently Se Cathedral had been on the whirlwind agenda of the Soviet naval officer. He had come in with his retinue and asked if they could go up to the altar. While the deacon went to check with the priest, the visitors had gone over the low railing designed to keep people away from the altar and posed for a group photograph. This was what was upsetting the anxious deacon. “Had they blasphemed, sir?” “Am I at fault for failing to prevent them?” “Will my job be in jeopardy?” I had not the slightest idea how to answer his questions, but tried to reassure him as well as I could. It seemed to work, as I met him later in the garden where he cheerfully offered to share his lunch with me.
The Portuguese stubbornly regarded their colony at Goa as a detached but integral part of their country, which was why a war was necessary to make it a part of India. Even at the height of the Raj’s power, the British never felt that. For the sahibs and memsahibs, India was always the other—an exotic alien culture that offered wonderful opportunities for those adventurous enough to brave its harsh climate and terrifying diseases. However Britain, specifically it seemed Eastbourne or somewhere else on the south coast, was always ‘home’. While I loved Goa with its almost Mediterranean feel, ruins and spectacular beaches, it was the British experience that I sought.

Interlude 4—Dancing


My mother loved to dance.
Through the glittering ballrooms of empire
she danced;
through the sirens and the doodlebugs 
she danced;
through my unforgiving childhood 
she danced.

Now the damp grey air 
has sucked the colour from the world.
Around a bottomless hole
we silently remember
the happy bright woman
who loved picnics in the woods
and the smell of babies
and try to ignore
the hopeless embarrassing sobs
of a weeping aunt.

Am I the only one
who wants to dance?

Monday, 23 March 2020

Two Worlds—part 3

The lost world
Tensions in Europe steadily rose over the summer of 1938 as Hitler incorporated Austria into the Third Reich and gradually increased his demands to absorb the ethnic German population of Czechoslovakia. Politicians shuttled back and forth attempting to find a solution to an insoluble problem—as early as May 30, Hitler had ordered his army to prepare for an invasion of Czechoslovakia on October 1. 
Many people were convinced that war was going to break out that summer. It didn’t because the governments of Britain and France caved to Hitler’s pressure and, at 1:30 in the morning of September 30 in Hitler’s office in Munich, signed an agreement that dismembered Czechoslovakia and presented Germany with 25% of the armaments that were, within two years, used in the invasions of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain claimed that the agreement would bring “peace for our time” but few believed him. Churchill called the agreement a “total and unmitigated defeat” that would only be “the first foretaste of a bitter cup”. 
Amidst the uncertainty and rumours of war that summer, it was decided that Eve and the girls should stay in Britain for the time being. This decision was confirmed the following year when Jim returned in March for a brief leave. In September, as the German tanks rolled through Poland, my father returned to India and the responsibilities of protecting the Raj. He left Eve in Aberfeldy, north of Stirling with three young children and, although he couldn’t have known it at the time, pregnant with their fourth daughter.
As the war progressed, the family moved a few miles east to Strathtay. Life in Strathtay for Eve and her four young children (Fiona had arrived in the spring of 1940), wasn’t easy. I remember my mum saying how much she had hated the wartime bread and powdered eggs. Even with extra rations for the children, life was hard and making do was not something that someone trained to live in imperial India with all its servants, was used to. And yet, I recall my mother saying that those years in the Scottish countryside were among the most enjoyable of her life. It was a community of women and children and the war made everyone come together and help each other. The idyll came to an end as the war did.
Eve and my sisters in 1940
Eve and my sisters moved back to Edinburgh shortly before Jim returned home on leave on August 29, 1945 after six years away. This wasn’t a leisurely four week boat trip, but a hurried plane journey with only a brief stop in Egypt, and my dad brought bad news. Throughout the war, my mother’s cherished assumption was that something close to the life of privilege she had known in India would be continued after Germany and Japan were defeated. It was not to be. By 1945, the world had changed. It was obvious to everyone that India would be given independence in a very short time. Jim had work to do on the railways and helping with the handover to the new countries of India and Pakistan, but there was little point in bringing the family out. On February 15, 1946, James boarded a plane flying east for what turned out to be four year separation.
I know little about those postwar years other than one shattering event. 
An Egyptian stele from around 3,400 years ago is thought to be the first representation of a victim of the Poliomyelitis Enterovirus. The disease is transmitted through contact with human faeces. Ironically, in the days of poor sanitation, prolonged infant exposure to the virus accorded an immunity and the disease was rare. It was only after improved sewage disposal and the provision of clean water greatly reduced contact with the virus that polio epidemics became a factor in developed countries. Even then, in the days before vaccination, the majority of people exposed to the polio virus never even knew it. Of those who were diagnosed, the majority suffered fever, headaches and an upset stomach and recovered. In a few cases, the virus attacked the central nervous system and some form of paralysis resulted, and in some of these cases the paralysis was permanent. In a fraction of one percent, polio killed.
In Britain, polio was at its worst in the 1940s and early 1950s, when it killed up to 750 people a year. Compared to diphtheria (which annually killed an average of 3,500 children in Britain before vaccination), tuberculosis (which accounted for between twenty and thirty thousand deaths each year during the 1930s and early 40s, many of whom were children), or, in earlier years, scarlet fever and influenza, polio was a relatively minor killer of children, but it was one of the most feared. Philip Roth strikingly captured that fear in his novel Nemesis: “Finally the cataclysm began – the monstrous headache, the enfeebling exhaustion, the severe nausea, the raging fever, the unbearable muscle ache, followed in another forty-eight hours by the paralysis,”
Before polio vaccine became widely available in Britain, I remember seeing and hearing about kids in iron lungs and wearing heavy leg braces that today would not look out of place in some weird steampunk science fiction movie. That was the image that horrified adults, a tiny fragile child trapped in a cold, unyielding mechanical contraption. 
When Salk’s and Sabin’s vaccines became available in the late fifties and early sixties, parents rushed their children in to doctors and clinics. Of all the vaccines I received as a child, the only one I remember was going down with Eve to the Russell Institute on Causeyside Street in Paisley to get my polio shots. It wasn’t because it hurt more or was more unpleasant than any others; it was because of my mother’s tension around each visit.
One morning in October, 1948, my eight-year-old sister, Fiona, complained of a headache and stiffness. My mother checked and discovered a fever. Aspirin didn’t do the trick and by late afternoon, things were bad enough for my mother to call an ambulance. The ambulance arrived and took Fiona to hospital just as her older sister was arriving home from school. Forty-eight hours later Fiona was dead.
The suddenness and horror was devastating, but it was not a devastation that I experienced. For me, my lost sister was a ghostly black and white photograph that sat in the living room of every house we lived in while I was growing up—and the urgency with which my mother took me to get my polio vaccine shots.
For the first eight years of their married life, my parents were apart a lot. That was the way it was in the Raj. In the days before air-conditioning, women and children escaped the brutal heat by taking refuge in a hill station such as Darjeeling, Mussoorie or Simla between May and October each year. The men remained on the plains except for brief visits to the hills whenever they could. The wives and children saw little enough of their husbands and fathers for those months, but they saw nothing at all if they went back to Britain between April and October, which Eve did in 1933 and 1934. 
My parents were used to being apart by 1938, but after that, things were different. In the twelve years from the end of April, 1938 to late March, 1950, Eve and Jim were together for no more than ten months—five in 1939 and five in 1945/46.
Renewing a marriage after a twelve year separation is hard on any relationship. How much more difficult is it if you throw in a world war, the birth and death of a child, and the collapse of the only world you know? My father took refuge in whatever work he could find and may have augmented that out of a bottle, but what was it like for my mother? 
Eve was part of a lost generation of women, one of the 45,000 or so European women living in India and Burma around 1947. Most returned to Britain, either before the war or in the years after independence. The vast majority were not independently wealthy. They came from middle class families; a list of the occupations of my ancestors in the generation or two prior to the move to India included a tailor, a baker, two blacksmith, a stone mason, and a cork cutter, whatever that was. They had been trained for little other than running a household full of servants within the rigid social structure of the imperial rulers. Back in Britain they were bereft of servants in a world they either didn’t understand or detested. They found themselves in a grey, wet country, struggling for money in an economically depressed climate, and surrounded by people who didn’t care about them, didn’t help them, and who they didn’t much like. The Raj and the rest of the British Empire was gone or rapidly going. Imperialism, in all its complexity, was dismissed as a dirty word, and those who had participated in it as grumpy, inflexible old fossils out of synch with the bright new world of hope that blossomed in the 1960s.
My mother wasn’t a storyteller like my father, although she did tell me about the earthquake and the time a rabid dog ran through the house and my infant sister had to endure a series of extremely painful injections into her stomach. Her filtering of the India experience through to me was more subtle. 
I sometimes confounded my school friends by getting the doodh (the Hindi word for milk) from the fridge. Of course, whether they realized it or not, they themselves used many words that the British had derived from Hindi: bangle, bungalow, cot, dungarees, jungle, khaki, loot, monsoon, pyjamas, shampoo, thug, typhoon, veranda. But there were many that were in common usage in our house that they didn’t know: begum (a high born lady, usually used by my mother for someone with ideas above her station), choky (a chair), palavar (an unnecessarily long discussion), ghee (clarified butter), chota peg (a small drink), burra peg (a large drink). 
Eve and Jim's sister, Helen, making the best of it in Scotland
I grew up firmly closing my mouth when passing a bad smell in the street, looking with fascination at women who smoked in public or wore bright lipstick because both were signs of low morals, and being far too conscious of class distinctions that only existed in my mother’s mind. 
I once got into terrible trouble from my mother for suggesting out loud that we were working class, which from a financial point of view, of course, we were. 
I learned to talk in the Isle of Skye. I spoke with a soft, highland lilt which was derided when I went to school in Paisley outside Glasgow in the lowlands. I had to learn to talk differently at school and I had to remember to change the way I spoke when I went home because, to my mother, a west coast lowland accent was lower class.
All my school friend’s parents were much younger than mine and seemed to understand the world that their children were growing up in. Not only were Eve and Jim older, but their lives in the fossilized society of the Raj added an extra generation to the gap. 
I often felt that I was growing up in two worlds, my home life and everything else. I wished for a life identical to my peers and didn’t appreciate until much later what I had been given. Growing up in two worlds teaches you to always see the other side, to never take things at face value, to always distrust the person who has a simple answer and is convinced that he or she is right, to be skeptical. It is probably no coincidence that two of my favourite authors since I was a teenager are George Orwell and Albert Camus, both independent thinkers who grew up in two worlds, Orwell in England and Imperial Burma, Camus in Algeria—then a colony of France.
My mother hated Britain, and that gave me her other great gift. Scotland in the 1950s and 60s was the anti-Raj. Where India was bright and colourful, Scotland was dull and grey. Where India was sunny and dry, Scotland was continually overcast and rainy. Where India glittered and was vibrant, at least for the rulers, Scotland was drab and listless.
It didn’t help that my parents were always struggling to make ends meet. Jim’s pension from India was never paid and his first venture in Scotland, running a hotel on the Isle of Skye, failed. He worked in shipbuilding on Clydeside until technology made engineers of his training and background redundant. He ran a
Royal Alexandra Infirmary where Eve worked and
where they removed my tonsils and appendix
driving school, managed gas stations and operated a hardware store. Eve worked shifts as an Auxiliary nurse in the children’s ward at the Royal Alexandra Infirmary in Paisley. It was always tough and my mother’s constant theme was what a dreadful place Scotland was. My sisters all left the country for Australia, Africa and Canada and I was repeatedly told that, after I had an education, I had to leave and make my future elsewhere. Of course, the unstated subtext was, “Go out into the Empire, young man,” but when I opened the door to leave and asked which way the empire was, there was nothing left. It didn’t stop me moving and that is the other thing I have to thank my mother’s Indian imperial experience for, a love of being in different places. 
I doubt if my parents intended to raise a skeptical storytelling traveller, but that’s the way it turned out. Of course, growing up, I didn’t know the directions I was going or the influences that were steering me, but my parent’s lives in India, had, in ways that I am still discovering, an immense formative influence on the person I was to become. 
At the beginning of April, 1982, Eve had a stroke. According to Jim, she had had several before that had changed her personality and made her a bit difficult to live with, but this one was massive and sent her into a deep coma. I flew home from Canada to be with my dad in the small cottage my parents owned in Letham. Early in the morning of Good Friday, April 9, the hospital in nearby Forfar called to say that Eve had died.
Three years later Jim was dead and my last direct link to his and Eve’s world was gone. All that remained was that boy sitting shyly in the corner of the room listening to incomprehensible tales of a magical lost world and all that was left for me to do in order to try to make sense of it all was the obvious. I would do what my parents, sisters and aunts and uncles never did, I would go to India and see what remnants were left of their world.

Monday, 16 March 2020

Two Worlds—part 2

Eve and Jim's wedding on September 27, 1930 in Simla.
Eveleen Victoria Marguerite Dyer led a parallel but different life from my father. Jim’s father, John, had been the first generation of his family to go to India.  Taking his young bride Emily, he went out to Calcutta in 1902 where my aunt, Helen, was born later that year. My father followed in 1905. Unfortunately John’s life in India was short and he died in Calcutta in 1920. Eve’s family had deeper roots.
Dr. Dyer and Elizabeth in later life
In 1876, the British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, in an attempt to bind India more firmly to Britain, had Queen Victoria proclaimed Empress of India. On November 20 of that year my great grandfather, Dr. James Alexander Dyer, a Free Church of Scotland missionary and accomplished eye surgeon who had arrived in India only the year before, married Elizabeth Margaret Hay Scott in Calcutta. 
For forty-five years Dr. Dyer worked tirelessly with the Santal people of West Bengal. I have a photograph from the late 1800s of him dressed in tweeds on the verandah of a bungalow, operating on a patient’s eye, while others line up behind him. 
Dr. Dyer and patients
I also have an account he wrote to the Geological Survey of India about his experiences in Giridih during the Great Assam Earthquake of 1897. “On turning to look at the house I found extraordinary movement taking place…I could see most distinctly the heaving motion, and compared it in my mind to what might have been produced by an elephant under such a roof, if he had his back against it from north to south…We stood so long in the sunshine that I dreaded sunstroke, and ran for shelter and shade to a small house.”
Dr. Dyer’s oldest son Alfred was home in Britain when the Assam earthquake occurred, but he would have his own experience at 2:28 on the afternoon of January 15, 1934, when the Bihar Earthquake struck causing immense devastation and loss of life in Nepal and northern India. Perhaps his father had told him stories of the earlier quake to pique his interest, but Alfred filled two photograph albums with pictures of collapsed buildings, fissures in the earth, fallen bridges and rails snaking across the ground like twitched lengths of string.
What earthquakes do to railway tracks
The earthquake affected my father in a different way. When Jim was back in Scotland on leave in 1935, he went to see a movie in the huge Odeon movie theatre on Renfield Street in Glasgow. As he was settling down, he heard the deep swelling reverberations of a major earthquake. Without thinking, he leaped from his seat and fled up the aisle, only to realize that the building wasn’t shaking and that everyone else was sitting calmly looking at him. Sheepishly, he returned to his seat as the underground train out of Central Station rumbled beneath the cinema.
Only my mother, Alfred’s daughter, Eve, recorded an experience of the actual quake. As the chandeliers swayed and furniture crashed about her, my mother grabbed my two-and-a-half-year-old sister and fled to sit in the relative safety of the front lawn as the earth heaved and shook around her. The family Ayah (a servant hired to look after the children), was horrified to see the infant sitting in the afternoon sun without her hat, which had been forgotten in the panic. Despite my mother’s entreaties to never mind, she rushed back into the collapsing building to retrieve it. 
What earthquakes do to bungalows
Like my father, my mother was born in India, on September 11, 1912 in Samastipur. On October 18, 1922, the ten-year-old Eve with her father Alfred, mother, Victoria, and younger sisters, Dot and Marjorie, boarded the City of Marseilles in Liverpool after a summer of being shown off to the family back home. Eve was returning to begin her preparation for her role as a memsahib. The role didn’t require an extensive formal education, it was mainly picked up by watching the world around and with lessons in the more formal elements of protocol from older female members of the family. It was tricky to run a household of many servants whose duties were rigidly defined by each individual’s place within the immensely complex Hindu caste system. No less subtlety was required in organizing dinner parties so that none of the European guests’ noses were put out of joint by being placed out of their narrowly defined role in the ruling hierarchy’s caste system. It was a lot to learn and it didn’t suit the student for life in a world wider than the restricted confines of Imperial India, but that wasn’t an issue in the confident days of 1929 when Eve was considered ready to come out into society.
Coming out for a girl was code for finding a husband and the “season” of dances, parties and balls was when and where she would find one. If she failed in this task in the first two seasons or so, she became a spinster, doomed to settle for an unsuitable match far below her on the social scale or, if she was strong-willed enough and lucky, to find a measure of freedom doing something she loved on the fringes of society.
In 1929, Eve was strikingly good-looking with her hair waved in the latest style and wearing fashionable dresses from Britain. She once told me that she loved the social whirl of that season of balls and parties—and why not—she was beautiful, privileged and doing what she had spent much of her young life being trained for. The glittering world of the Raj was eternal and the idea that Gandhi and the Indian National Congress would ever force the British to leave must have seemed ridiculous. In photographs from that time, Eve looks happy and secure, looking out at the future with a slight, wistful smile. She never had any difficulty filling her dance card. 
Eve at 18
At the balls and parties that season, she met two handsome young men. One could dance beautifully and the other couldn’t. Dancing well was an important skill in British India society and the seventeen-year-old Eve was impressed. However, after much teenage agonizing, the less accomplished dancer’s sense of humour won out and, in Christ Church at the top of the Mall in Simla, on September 27, 1930, sixteen days after her eighteenth birthday, Eve married my father. 
It was a spectacular occasion with the service performed by the local Bishop. In the photograph afterwards, Eve stands in white holding a bouquet of lilies and with the train of her veil flowing out onto the ground in front of her. Her head is tilted slightly and that smile is threatening to break through. Jim stands staring straight at the camera dressed in his formal Scottish regalia. The couple are surrounded by family dressed in their best and all look out through the camera, with the rather odd exception of Alfred who is staring off to one side.
A year less two weeks after that splendid day, their first daughter, Helen, known as Eelin, arrived. Three years on, the second, Dorothy, appeared on the scene to be followed in 1937 by the third, Susan. Life in the Raj was broken up by trips back to Scotland, in 1933 and 1934/35. Traditionally, these trips  involved a four to five week sail from Bombay or Calcutta to either Tilbury or Liverpool in April, with a return in October. Jim stayed working in the heat of an Indian summer while Eve travelled alone with the children. The 1934/35 visit was different. Eve was pregnant and gave birth to my sister Dorothy in Edinburgh that September. Consequently, she stayed over the winter. My father returned on leave for the summer of 1935 and although they both travelled back to India that fall it was on separate ships. James sailed on September 13 on the S.S. Rawalpindi, a ship which was later converted into an armed merchant raider and was famously, as Jim told it, sunk in a hopeless battle against the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on November 23, 1939. The captain’s last message was: "We’ll fight them both, they’ll sink us, and that will be that. Good-bye.” Eve, accompanied by a nurse, sailed on October 26 on the much more mundane S.S. Strathmore
The next trip home, following Susan’s birth, was on April 29, 1938, once more aboard the Strathmore. Eve, aged 25, and the three girls arrived at Tilbury downriver from London. The voyage had been good. Eve later said that a young woman travelling alone with small children was pampered on the P&O Liners.
After the arrival formalities were completed. The four travelled by train up to Edinburgh where, as in 1933 and 1934/35, they stayed in a large, sandstone semi-detached house at 7 Lygon Road with Jim’s sister, also Helen known as Eelin. The visit was planned to be similar to the two previous trips, a five or six month opportunity to show off the children to relatives, and in this case to arrange an eye operation for three-year-old Dorothy—but this visit was different. Like many other passengers on the Strathmore, Eve put down her country of permanent residence as India, but she was wrong. Neither my mother nor my sisters would ever return to India.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Two Worlds—part 1

Airco DH9
Six weeks before and fifty miles to the south of where the dying Elsie Inglis landed at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, No. 107 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed at Catterick airfield. Although not supplied with aircraft until May of 1918, by which time the RFC had become the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Airco DH.9s of the squadron were busy as day bombers attacking enemy airfields, railways and, spectacularly in July, a large ammunition dump west of Reims. In 1919, the squadron was disbanded, but it reformed in 1936 as a light bomber squadron.
When the Second World War broke out, 107 Squadron was immediately involved, undertaking the RAFs first raid of the hostilities when four Blenheim bombers of the unit attacked German shipping in Wilhelmshaven on September 4th. The raid was not a success, with three of the planes shot down and one returning without being able to drop its bombs. The squadron also provided the first British prisoner of war when Sergeant George Booth’s plane was shot down on the same day.
In 1942, the faster, sturdier Boston’s replaced the Blenheim bombers and the squadron went on several daring missions over occupied Europe, including bombing shore batteries in support of the failed Dieppe Raid in August. On December 6, twelve Bostons of 107 Squadron took part in Operation Oyster.
The huge Philips Radio Works in the occupied Netherlands was supplying sophisticated radio and radar parts for much of the German army. Putting it out of commission would be a major blow to the Germans, but it would be a difficult task. The Philips works were a large target, but the two factories were in the middle of the city of Eindhoven. To ensure accuracy and minimize civilian casualties, the plan was to launch a low-level daylight raid using 93 aircraft of various types (36 Bostons, 47 Lockheed Venturas and 10 of the new Mosquitos).
Boston bombers on Operation Oyster
RAF cameramen on the raid produced stunning footage of the aircraft flashing over the north sea and the Dutch countryside at less than 50 feet, being fired at and firing on the anti-aircraft guns on top of the Philips complex, and of bombs exploding in the factories.
The first hazards of the raid were from panicked birds which rose in flocks at the sound of the low-flying planes and several aircraft returned with the remains of gulls, ducks and, in one case, a heron smeared over them. Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, the planes precision-bombed their target at 12:30, leaving many of the factory buildings in ruins under the thick cloud of smoke from the many fires.
Turning for home, the bombers had to run the gauntlet of the Focke-Wulf FW190 fighters that had been scrambled from nearby Schipol airfield. Pilot Officer Jack Peppiatt dramatically described what it was like: “…we were all down hugging the ground for comfort…as FW190s appeared…10 or 20 aircraft were screaming along, full throttle in a loose mass; no one wanted to be at the back where the Focke-Wulfs were coming in to attack and wheeling away for another go… I distinctly saw cannon shells hitting plowed fields in front of me…at one point a fighter slid past us and just sat to my right as he slowed—so close I could stare at the pilot…I was sliding and diving constantly. The astonishing thing was that we didn’t collide, as aircraft constantly criss-crossed in front of each other.”
Wing Commander Dutton
The raid was a success and the Philips factory did not resume full production until six months later. Because of the low level of the attack (between 1,000 and 1,500 feet), the bombing was for the most part very accurate; however, several bombs fell short, killing over a hundred civilians. Of the 93 aircraft involved, 13 failed to return. No. 107 Squadron lost three Bostons to Focke-Wulfs on the return trip. The last to be shot down was aircraft AH740, which crashed at 12:59 three miles off the Dutch coast killing all four crew. Their bodies were never found. 
AH740 was piloted by the Squadron Commander, Peter Hiley Dutton. He was twenty-nine-years old and left a young wife, Marjorie, and two infant daughters, Jane and Felicity. Marjorie and her girls spent the rest of the war in rural Scotland with her older sister, Eveleen Victoria Marguerite Wilson, my mother.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Interlude 3—Last Call

A missed opportunity to ask questions

Last Call—Melbourne Airport, January, 1985

“Last call for Flight 16.”
To where? 
My future,
hopeful, solid, imaginable,
a chaos of children,
journeys unforetold.
Your past?
Unfamiliar, ethereal, strange,
a different world
that I can never know.

“Will passengers proceed through Gate 3A.”
I must go
while you recede through memories of 
magic ships in deserts—port out starboard home,
chota pegs beneath the waving punkah,
Mac, rabid enough to leave his teeth 
imbedded in your gun, 
great quakes of snaking rails, broken earth,
rescued infants in the Ayah’s arms,
hailstones large as tennis balls,
tiger hunts and ponies gored by pigs unstuck,
and freedom, dohti-wrapped, that sent you home.
To what?
Sad memories of childhood loneliness
half spent in icy Fettes baths
before apprenticeships to rule,
hotels unvisited so long they must be but a dream,
shipyards dying of old-age,
used cars and ironmonger’s shops,
and this and that,
until again the loneliness returns.

“Complete a customs form.”
Declare my memories
of one who loomed so large he could do anything,
although that “damned bad hip” precluded any games.
Not true,
you taught me chess, whist,
to never blink at a royal flush,
to see the world as something magical,
how to fix a car,
to hold a silence which could sometimes scare me more than any fist,
and how to live within myself,
you, who only really came alive
when conversations turned to thoughts of yesterday
across the world.

“I wish to hell I could come with you.”
There’s just this one embrace,
the only one in forty years,
awkward, forgiving
a tear
look away
security is beckoning.

My father stands
a heavy shape 
with only that damned cancer
for a friend.