My wife and I went up to the Royal Air Force Association Holiday home in Weston-Super-Mare on Sunday to celebrate my father’s 88th birthday.
He introduced us to his three new pals, three men as old as he. They had been placed at the same dining table for the week’s holiday and clearly hit if off immediately. Peter was from Malta, Jimmy from the Midlands, Bill from Wales and my Dad fromLondon. The only thing they had in common was that they had all served in the RAF during the Second World War and had all chanced to be placed on the same dining table.
Yet there was more. They had a defiant and good-humoured grasp on life, a willingness to try out new things and stretch their resilience.
I spent some time talking to Jimmy. He looked frail and was in a wheel-chair. His hearing was bad. He had the most impish, naughty smile and was clearly a favourite of the female staff.
He told me that he had been a rear-gunner on a Lancaster Bomber. I calculated that he would have been twenty one years of age at most. On one of the raids the plane was shot to pieces and the crew had to parachute out. He landed badly. Indeed all of the crew were injured in one way or another.
‘It was at Eindhoven,’ he said. ‘Eindhoven in Holland.’
‘What happened then?’ I asked, expecting him to say that he had become a prisoner of war.
‘I don’t remember much,’ Jimmy answered. ‘The next clear thing I remember is waking up in hospital in Roehampton.’
‘Roehampton?’ I said. ‘How did you end up there?’
‘Dutch partisans,’ he answered. ‘They got every one of us out, injured though we were.’
He leaned forward and touched me on my knee. ‘I’ve been very lucky,’ he said. ‘Very lucky.’