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

Gunner Robert Christie, 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, 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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A soldier’s letter home – with a difference

Today I received this remarkable clip from Dundee’s Evening Telegraph in 1945. It came from a writer who is working on a book about my father’s regiment. It is based on a letter from my father to his parents describing his visit to the Royal Palace in Oslo. 15 ordinary servicemen were selected from the Allied forces in Norway and my 21 year old father was picked.

I can just picture my grandmother rushing down to the newspaper offices with the letter! She must have been bursting with pride.

It’s not easy to read the image, so I’ve transcribed the article below.

Dad in the Tully

There are a couple of minor mistakes in the article. Firstly, Dad arrived in Norway on VE Day itself, when there was considerable nervousness about whether they would meet opposition from the German forces. The second mistake is the article saying that Dad volunteered for Airborne duty on his return from the Italian front. He joined a glider artillery regiment after finishing his training and served with them in North Africa and Italy.

The letter home is fascinating and it gives a glimpse of a very assured, mature and articulate young man, which is probably why he was chosen for this honour.

Had tea with King Haakon – Dundee soldier describes his visit to Norway’s Royal Palace

A Dundee lad has had tea with King Haakon in the Palace.

He is Lance Bombardier RK Christie, 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, elder son of Mr and Mrs RK Christie, 41 Waverley Terrace, Dundee.

He went to Norway two days after VE Day and the description of his palace visit was contained in a letter home this week in which he writes:-

“757 Christie, RK, Ma Christie’s boy was invited to tea with His Majesty King Haakon the Seventh of Norway.

I had flown back from Oslo late Monday night. Next morning I was in the MT class when a detail came from the office telling me that I was to be presented to King Haakon the next day, Wednesday. I fell out, pressed my best suit, packed my kit and was whisked off to the airport at Sola.

There my authority of air travel awaited me, and off I bowled in a Dakota to Oslo. The trip was the fastest I have done to Oslo so far.

For the first time the weather was good enough to take the direct route over the mountains. Bleak, bare and snow-flecked they offered little chance on a forced landing. But an hour and a quarter saw us safely at Fornebu, the Oslo airport. A jeep was waiting to take me to Allied HQ where they provided me with a a billet and instructed me to report back at 0900 next morning.

By this time it was 8pm so when I got to the billet I cleaned up and had supper at the Allied Forces Club, a large restaurant requisitioned by the Norwegian Government for us and our girls.

Next morning I was told I was free until 4:30pm when I had to be ready to go up to the Royal Palace. So I buzzed off to see some more of Oslo, a town that I like very much.”

Party of 15

“Four-thirty came and I reported back to HQ and found that I was one of a party of 15 Allied servicemen being presented to the King. Three Airborne, two RN, two RAF, one USN and seven US Army. We were to have tea there too. Eyes lit up! The big scoff.

All very informal. Our orders were to get into the staff cars provided, drive up to the front door and ask for the King. We did so. On the way I discovered I had put my eating irons (knife, fork and spoon to you) in my hip pocket as usual.

The King’s British ADC took us in and we clumped up stairs at the head of which King Haakon and the Crown Prince Olaf were waiting. We shook hands with each in turn. When the last had been introduced the King grinned and said “Let’s have a cup of tea”. The motion was passed unanimously.

We adjourned to a room the size of the Morgan gym. And there it was, da grub. The King waved his hand, said words amounting to “dig in” and I was there first; yes, as usual!

There were smørrebrød (sandwiches without a lid, unlike NAAFI which have no centre), buns, tarts, slab cake, cream cake, pastries and sponges. Neither the occasion nor the location blunted my appetite. I had a darn good meal.

The conversation went very easily, in fact we were very much at our ease the whole time.

After tea the Royal cigarettes were produced, complete with the Royal cipher. Very nice too. We sat and talked for some time after that until an equerry got up and went round to the King. He spoke to him and then the King got up. We followed suit and the Crown Prince and he came round and shook hands again. And that was that.

We breezed out after an hour and three quarters in the Palace.

That’s it Mom, and the date was Wednesday 11th. There is one thing more. When I went to Buckingham Palace you chewed me up because I didn’t notice what the Queen was wearing. This time I did remember. The King wore naval uniform and the Crown Prince, service dress.”

Was at Arnhem

The tone of his letter suggests that this episode will stand out in the memory of Robbie (as he is known at home). But it will have for company other interesting experiences.

A Morgan former pupil, Robbie was a student librarian in Edinburgh Public Library for a year before being called up to the Royal Artillery in November 1942. He served in Africa and Italy and on returning home volunteered for Airborne. He was one of those who took part at Arnhem and was in the Arnhem parade at Buckingham Palace.

Although not amongst those officially presented to the King, he did not go unnoticed. He and three others at the back of the hall sneaked forward when their friends were being presented with medals, and when walking around afterwards the Queen told Robbie and his pals that she had seen their dodge.

Robbie’s father served in the Dundee Field Artillery in the last war and from its formation until 1939 was Company Sergeant Major in Searchlight Company, Royal Engineers (Territorial). He served with the same battery in this war until discharged unfit.

His mother is probably best known as Mrs Dorothy Christie of the Dundee School of Music.