The Dog With No Name

For those who are not old and sere, this is a Lancaster bomber, as used in World War II and in the foreground is the canine mascot of one of the squadrons – 617 – whose men flew them over Germany and occupied Europe.

Casualties were high…nearly half in Bomber Command as a whole, just under thirty per cent of those who flew Lancasters. My mother, sent for a break from her job in London to the East Anglian countryside, watched in horror as an American bomber unit returned to base…the line of ambulances awaiting them, the broken bodies carried out on stretchers, the smell of blood…These men paid the price for the overthrow of a foul regime.

I think that, now, we would class those airmen who took part in the bombing of Dresden, of Hamburg, as war criminals – all the more so those who engendered the project and gave the orders, but at the time, well, war was war, propaganda ruled – and the victor’s justice of the Nuremburg Trials was yet to impose itself.

It was a period when emotions were repressed…when one coped with what arrived on one’s plate…and this was exaggerated among the fighting forces. As my father said after a rather nasty firefight…if you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined. Not that there was much choice in the era of conscription. You were called up and you went where you were sent.

There was comradeship, of course, though not a given….but an animal could permit the expression of emotion that was frowned on in human contact. I think all those who have served in the armed forces could give witness to the importance of a dog – for example – in giving an outlet to the human emotions. Just look at the lengths to which servicemen will go to bring home an animal with whom they have served.

This dog gave those who served with his owner a great deal of comfort…

He was their mascot…their good luck charm.

617 squadron, made up of British, Canadians, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders, was given the task of breaching the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams, which supplied water and power to the highly industrialised area of the Ruhr, using a special ‘bouncing bomb’ developed to address the topography of the dams. To accomodate the bomb, which hung in the bomb bay below the fuselage, much of the internal armour of the ‘plane was removed.

Two of the dams were breached, more than a thousand people were killed, including French, Belgan and Russian prisoners of war. By Protocol 1 to the Geneva convention, passed in 1977, such action is outlawed except in exceptional circumstances, which, by the speed of German recovery, would not have met the criteria – had they been in force at the time.

Of the one hundred and thirty three aircrew involved, fifty three were killed.

But one other met his death. The dog, the squadron mascot, was run over and killed just before the operation took place. His owner, the squadron commander, ordered that his pet should be buried as his aircraft started the attack, and used his name as the confirmation that the dams had been breached.

The dog was buried as he had ordered…a tombstone was placed over his grave.

And there he was laid in peace, though his owner died later in the war as a result of friendly fire and the world resumed its diurnal round.

Except that now the dog has lost his name. The Royal Air Force has replaced the stone with another in which he is referred to simply as ‘the dog’.

Why?

Because he was known and loved by his name…..Nigger. And that might give offence in this era.

What should give offence is the deliberate pauperisation of the less well off….the wilful starvation of the National Health Service…the ruin of state education, all of which affect the underprivileged, of whatever race or colour they be.

Divide and rule has always been the measure adopted by the powerful….and it works! You can feel yourself to be LGBT, black, brown, muslim in the society of Great Britain or wherever else you be, all of which works to reinforce your disadvantage….but what the oligarchs fear is that you should feel solidarity…to work together to make your childrens’ lives better.

To live with the past, not try to relive it.

To accept that a much loved dog had a name of its time and in its place and understand that the world has moved on and we need to fight today’s battles – oligarchy, modern slavery, wars for control of a fossil fuel that nobody nowadays needs – without dividing ourselves at the behest of those who seek to keep us divided.

Home again, home again, joggety jog.

alfred

It has been a busy month or so…off to England for mother’s one hundredth birthday, to Spain to check on the house, back to England and then finally, blissfully, home, to meet the latest dog to arrive on the doorstep, a little mite named Scruff.

Although my mother’s friends were organising a party for her, on the day itself she had another appointment…one with her friends of seventy five years ago….those she met following the outbreak of World War II.

The dead.

She was still marching past the Cenotaph in her early nineties, so she knew – through the grapevine – what had become of her friends in the ATS…..but after her basic training she had first served in Winchester, alongside the Royal Greenjackets and the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and so many of the men she had known (though not in the biblical sense) had perished with no further word reaching her….

Apart from the Light Bobs, she and her friends had met a young American army engineer, a history buff, while waiting for the opening of the church that had once been the chapel royal of William the Conqueror’s palace in Winchester and had signed the visitors’ book together. He had run tame in their families’ houses, a boy far from home….but he disappeared shortly after D Day.

st-lawrernce

She has his letters to this day…a young man whose frankness and charm seduced all the watchful mothers, some of whom had sons serving far away from home too…

We had booked an hotel in the centre of the city..the Royal Winchester Hotel…which mother remembered from her time there in the war: nothing could have been better. Super staff, a specially adapted room, and a peaceful garden in the heart of the town.

hotel

Somewhat better than her original billet with a maiden lady on Oliver Cromwell’s Battery whose gentility disguised an ability to use mother’s rations to feed the two of them which would not have disgraced a modern banker.

Mother and I have not been the best of friends: our prejudices do not coincide, our interests differ. As an adult I might understand her frustrations but as a child I resented her attacks on my confidence, the undermining: the armour I erected against her – and the world – only crumbling when I found unconditional love.

But she is my mother. Rancour cannot reign. So I was ready to accompany her on her pilgrimage and to respect it.

As always, humour assisted.

On a boiling hot day our train was delayed….station announcements advised passengers to carry bottles of water while traveling and not to pull the emergency cord between stations…

Mother sniffed.

She remembered traveling north from King’s Cross in London on a wartime train so packed with passengers that each supported the other…the only drink on offer came at York when jam jars of tea without milk and sweetened with golden syrup were circulated – the men offering them to the women first – a train which, when the platform gates were opened, under bombardment, people desperate to leave London had run for the train, trampling over  those overtaken in the rush…she remembered the feel of bodies beneath her feet, impelled by those behind, petrified of falling in her turn.

However, our train was a delight….staff to install mother and staff to meet her at Winchester to take her to the taxi rank, thence  to the hotel.

She started her pilgrimage that afternoon…up the hill to the remains of the castle housing the Round Table. She remembered the hall being chock a block with stored furniture so it came as a great delight to see the Table clearly…with, of course Henry VIII enthroned within.

round-table

Going downhill again I was surprised that, despite the modern shopfronts, she recognised so many buildings: the tea shop that she and her friends frequented…the butcher…the shop selling honey…the Buttercross….

buttercross

The next day, that of her birthday, we started in earnest.

First to the church of St. Lawrence where the friends had signed the visitors’ book…behind the Buttercross. A tiny church, once part of the Norman palace and still the mother church of Winchester.

A fire in the 1970s had altered the church beyond mother’s recognition, but we were fortunate enough to meet one of the curates who could show mother photographs of the church as it was when she knew it and, more importantly, could draw mother out as to her experiences in the period.

A super lady.

On to the cathedral…

winchester-cathedral

I had to park mother outside while I went to enquire of the staff how best to assist her.

In that time two ladies asked her if she had been abandoned…makes you wonder just what goes on in Winchester…

Once my enquiries had been sorted, the head verger took charge : he opened the cases containing the rolls of honour of the two regiments and searched for the names she gave him.

He also put a fresh paper into the handicapped loo for mother…from the sublime to the cor blimey…with the same panache and care.

A super chap.

To our surprise, as we were about to leave the cathedral  red robed vergers on duty sang ‘Happy Birthday’….which reduced mother to tears of happiness.

No wonder she loves Winchester.

On to the Greenjackets’ museum up the hill in what had been the Peninsular Barracks…now private flats.

Mother remembered returning there after church parade in the cathedral: there were various army contingents present, but the light infantry had to wait until the others were almost at the barracks before they could set out as their marching pace, one hundred and forty to the minute, would have had them overtaking the rest in moments and causing an unseemly traffic jam.

She remembered the lung draining haul up the last stretch of the hill and the bugles  of the band  blowing fit to bust from their stance on the parade ground to accompany the troops.

greenjackets-museum

At the museum the big white chief – a brigadier general – came out to greet her and I was privileged to observe one of mother’s master classes in obfuscation.

He obviously thought he was dealing with a  little old lady…and she took agin him from the start…

I have always been of the view that aspiring barristers should be given the chance of an examination in chief of my mother. Getting blood from a stone would be childs’ play in comparison.

He made the mistake of asking the question exact…what did she do?

She replied that no one was ready for the girls, like her, who were volunteers.

But what did she do in Winchester?

No shoes…no uniforms..had  to dye our own blouses…

But what did you do?

Ah…now you’re asking.

Well..he had.

They didn’t know what to do with us…but they thought the invasion was coming so they sent us down to the New Forest to stop the German tanks.

So you weren’t in Winchester very long?

Oh, yes,  once they’d shown us how to blow up tanks…we came back.

And what did you do there, then?

Served.

He retired in the  face of superior force.

As I pushed mother’s wheelchair down to the hotel – via a super caff outside the museum which had the best pork pies I have ever eaten – she commented that the sort of chap exemplified by the brigadier general was what had ruined Britain…complacent, conventional…but holding power.

These were the people that she had voted against  in the post war election which saw Churchill out and Attlee in….but here they were again.

Needless to say mother had voted Leave in the referendum on  Europe…

We recovered in the hotel garden, a green oasis in the midst of the city and  at dinner mother was greeted by a group of the staff bearing a birthday cake….now that moved her: young people who did not know her had gone  to the length of making her a cake for her birthday.

It was as if she had not realised that her age brought with it any recognition.

But it was clear that the visit had brought to mind all the friends that she had lost…not being next of kin she had had no notification…just the names in the illuminated manuscripts seventy five years down the line…

And yes, on her return her friends had arranged a super party and had had the forethought to book the hairdresser for her to avoid her complaining that she could not go because her hair was untidy. They know her well.