My grandmother’s war

In a sense I am a product of the two world wars. If they had not taken place it is unlikely that I would have been born. The wars shaped the lives of my parents and grandparents. Both sides of my family were extremely fortunate. No close relatives died. My two grandfathers volunteered for the Army as very young men at the start of the First World War. They survived the Western Front and served till 1919, returning to Scotland, eventually marrying and starting families. They were the only sons in their family old enough to fight. In the Second World War the children on my mother’s side were too young, and on my father’s side only he, the oldest child, was old enough.

Grandpa Christie was in the Territorial Army between the wars. Shortly before the start of the Second World War his regiment was mobilised and he was a full time soldier once again. His regiment was stationed in Fife, across the River Tay from his home in Dundee. On Sunday 3rd September the UK declared war on Germany. Grandpa was granted an afternoon’s leave and Grandma took the three children over the river to see him. Dad had turned 16 a couple of weeks earlier. His younger brother Duncan was nine and sister Dorothy was six. The family went for a walk together and Grandpa said something I’ve often thought about since Dad told me the story. Reflecting on the start of another war Grandpa said to Dad, “the only consolation is that you’re going to be too young for this one”. I wonder if Grandpa really believed the war would be over that quickly, or if he was trying to be as optimistic as possible in front of the children.

Sadly it was not a short war. In 1942 the time came for Dad to join up, just after his 19th birthday. My grandmother took it badly. It was hard for that generation of women who experienced the horrifying casualty rates of World War One, then saw their children having to fight the next war. Grandma was a music teacher, an intelligent and educated woman, who wanted only the best for her children. She was very distressed at the thought of her firstborn child going off to war. For Dad’s last meal at home Grandma blew the family’s whole meat ration for the week on a huge plate of bacon and eggs for Dad. Once in the Army Dad volunteered for airborne forces and was assigned to a glider artillery regiment. I suspect he didn’t consult his mother about that decision!

Two years later in August 1944 it was Dad’s 21st birthday. By then he had been in North Africa and Italy. His regiment was recalled to England and was stationed in the south ready for the invasion of North West Europe, for D Day. Dad told me of his astonishment on 6th June 1944 when he woke up and discovered D Day had taken place without his unit, 1st Airborne Division. Britain’s other Airborne Division, the 6th, had been used in the Normandy landings and 1st Division was being held in reserve for the next big operation, Arnhem as we now know.

Dad in 1944, aged 20

Dad in 1944, aged 20

Grandma was very upset when the day of his 21st birthday came. She took her youngest child, my Aunt Dorothy, and they went down to the main railway station in Dundee, just to watch the trains arriving with soldiers coming home on leave, thinking of their son and brother. Meanwhile, Dad had unexpectedly been given leave at short notice. There was no time to send a telegram, and the family didn’t have a phone. He jumped on a train north, but missed Grandma and Dorothy at the station. When he got home Grandpa, who had been discharged from the Army on health grounds, told him that Grandma and Dorothy had gone down to the station, so he dashed back to find them for an emotional reunion.

A few weeks later when the 1st Airborne Division was surrounded and cut off at Arnhem my grandparents knew that Dad must be there. They were following the grim news with horror as the lightly armed and equipped airborne soldiers fought for their lives against the tanks of the Waffen SS. At the end, after Dad escaped across the Rhine, the survivors were issued with special pre-printed postcards saying that they had been in action. They filled in their families’ addresses and simply ticked a box to say whether they were unhurt or were wounded. Dad had been lightly wounded. Shrapnel had penetrated his steel helmet, gashing his scalp and concussing him, but he told a white lie, that he was unwounded. The postcards were then rushed back to the UK, to be delivered with the highest priority. My grandparents received theirs the next day confirming that Dad was safe. I doubt if the mail would get through that fast even today. It’s hard to imagine the relief and joy that families would feel when that postcard arrived, instead of the telegram from the War Office that they dreaded every day.

This simple account tells all I know about the experience of my grandparents seeing their son go off to war. They are just a few scraps that my father told me at various times. When I was a child Grandma was a loving grandmother, but she could seem rather stern and austere. These stories give a poignant insight into the strain parents had to endure in wartime. My family was extremely fortunate, far more so than most. Yet they lived with fear and stress of a sort that I have never had to deal with. For women like my grandmother life in wartime must have been hard and painful. We never forget the men who fought, but we should remember their families who suffered quietly at home.

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4 thoughts on “My grandmother’s war

  1. Moving story. As a mum I read it from your grandmother’s angle but they were terrible times for everyone. Thank you for sharing this. x

    • Thanks Anne. When I first head these stories I was moved not just by the insight into my grandmother’s experience, but the realisation that this was being repeated in millions of families, and in so many cases there wasn’t the happy outcome my family were so fortunate to have.

  2. Great story, Jim I was reminded of my mother’s telling of the day war was declared in September 1939. Being early in the month, she had not yet gone back to school in England. She said she remembered it was a Sunday, because the family, uncharacteristically, did not go to church, but instead waited at home to listen to the Prime Minister on the BBC. Her mother, (Mary’s and my grandmother) burst into tears. As Mum recounted the three siblings were all astonished by their mother’s tears. But of course she knew better than any of them what it meant. She lost her two younger brothers just over 20 years before. And now her son, soon to turn 18, would be in the middle of it.

    • Thanks Elizabeth. Your story really reinforces my point. Sadly the experience of your family was probably more typical than that of mine. I think Grandpa Christie was the only one to survive of the group of friends who joined up at the start of WW1.

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