|James and Lillian Davis, circa 1945|
I left Washington DC on November 10th. At the National Airport, as I waited for my plane, all passengers were invited to Gate 1 where some WWII Veterans were about to arrive to visit DC and the various monuments. There was a large crowd of cheery young people and some people in uniform all ready to create a fuss. My usual avoidance of any activity involving crowds and jollity kept me at a distance, but I couldn’t help but watch. Many passengers joined the welcome; there was a senior Veteran playing marching tunes on, of all things, a French horn (and playing it beautifully, with the lively acoustic of the terminal helping).
The young people were wonderful: showing genuine warmth and gratitude to the Veterans as they arrived, many in wheelchairs, and for such moments one just has to set aside one’s current ambivalence about the value of military intervention in various parts of the world, and just remember those who served and suffered and lost friends in a global war that had to be fought.
World War II had a big impact on my family: my father served in the RAF, and I wrote the following a few years ago, which I will share with you here.
My father, Ross Arthur Davis, was born in Reading, England, in 1916.
|Ross, lower right, with his brothers|
His mother, Lillian Maria Penny, was the youngest in a large family of farm labourers in rural Wiltshire. His father, James Davis, appeared one day in Lillian’s neighbourhood, but no-one quite knew where he came from, or why. Lillian and James married and moved to Reading, presumably to make a better life for themselves, but really only traded a life of farm labouring for one of city toil.
They raised five children, of which Ross was the youngest, the smallest and quietest: he had a keen interest in books and in other intellectual endeavours.
At the age of nine he wrote the exams and won a scholarship to the prestigious Reading School, and did the same thing each year until the age of 14, but his family understandably considered his continuation in school to be forgone income, and he entered the workforce as early as legally possible.
Ross joined a gas company as an apprentice pipe-fitter, and he always had a healthy respect for people who fix the technical problems that the rest of us create.
About the time of the Second World War, Ross met and married my mother, Daisy Jean Archer, who had escaped from a life of very limited opportunity in South Wales.
|Ross and Daisy, circa 1940|
It was the war that provided Ross with new opportunities. He joined the Royal Air Force where his academic and mechanical prowess was recognized, and he was promoted in short order to Flight Engineer on a Halifax aircraft in 78 Squadron: captained by Alan Fergusson.
After one leave, Daisy walked with Ross to catch the bus: she leaned over her bicycle and gave Ross a kiss good bye, and he was gone, for a long time.
Whilst returning from a mission, Ross’s aircraft was hit. Here are some excerpts from the report of the navigator Arthur Beales:
It appeared that we had successfully penetrated through the fighter belt when suddenly without any warning we were hit by cannon fire from a fighter.
Ross, despite the fact that he was injured, attempted with me to get the fire out. Suddenly the aircraft went into a screaming dive and I was thrown into the nose. The situation was hopeless as the fire was increasing.
I put on my parachute and left the aircraft. When he left, Ross said that the aircraft was flying straight again and that Alan was still at the controls. Ross said he heard an explosion as he was floating towards the ground, and I think this was caused when the aircraft crashed.
Alan Fergusson always told me that he never expected to get out if we were hit, and I think he deliberately sacrificed any chance he had of getting out for the benefit of the rest of the crew.
|Ross, third from the right. Alan Fergusson is second from the left.|
As he drifted down in his parachute towards the German countryside, Ross was shot just above the heart.
He was picked up by the German soldiers, and put into a local children’s hospital. During his recuperation, the famous bombing of the nearby Möhne Dam occurred and my father helped the nuns keep the children safe when the hospital was inadvertently hit. The response was to seek out and publicly hang all wounded allied personnel. Ross was saved because the nuns put him among the dead in the morgue until the anger had subsided.
|Ross as POW, in 1943|
Eventually he was fit enough to be transferred to a Prisoner of War camp, where he remained until it was liberated by the Russians about two years later.
And my mother? She carried on at work and also served as a Red Cross Nurse. She didn’t know for several months if Ross was even alive.
Prisoner of War camp was rough on Ross: he wasn’t a tough warrior and he suffered from the cold and poor food. But he met people who would change the course of his life: educated men: American, French and British. Ross, for the first time, shared an intellectual camaraderie. They mentored each other, and formed study groups in their unit. The Red Cross provided books and crude correspondence courses, and even sent high school matriculation exams for those interested.
Ross later wrote an essay, in diary form, about his experience, and here are some excerpts from that:
Muhlberg, February 5th, 1945
200 men trickle out of their tiny home on the frozen snow, to stand in funfs in the biting wind. To my relief, no one is late, so there are no punishment parades. One of the “detaining power” counts us, then blows a whistle. We stampede back in to comparative warmth, and drink tepid Jerry coffee, sans milk, sans sugar and sans coffee. I spare myself three small chips of bread.
The Education room is a small space thinly divided from the Camp office. The Education Secretary struggles to light the tiled stove but we are still shivering when he gives out the exams at 9 a.m. sharp.
For the essay, I choose to dilate on “Pride of Ownership” although my immediate possessions are almost nil. My shoulder gets stiff – the rickety home made table is too low and the box I sit on is too high. I scribble on and finish with 10 minutes to spare for reading through. As I hobble out I realize my feet have been icy all the time, and I try to stamp them into life.
|Daisy in 1942|
After being liberated, my father was thin and emaciated, but was reunited with my Mother and was determined to go through a post-war accelerated program at a temporary teacher’s college, where that essay was written for the college’s magazine: here is how the essay concluded.
Kensington, September, 1945
I feel old as I mingle with the juvenile throng on the steps of the Great Hall. I think of those February exam scripts that never reached England, thus making a repeat performance necessary. We surge into the Hall and sit down to the very well equipped desks. The subject for the essay is “My Journey to the Examination Room”.
Ross became a mathematics teacher, and by all accounts he was masterful, interspersing the rigors of algebra with his sharp wit and snappy one-liners, and creating a fun and engaging learning environment for what many found to be a difficult if not impossible subject.
In 1950, Ross and Daisy had their only son, who was named after the pilot who went down with Halifax aircraft in order to save his colleagues.
|Alan and Ruth, 1953|
I joined my sister who had been adopted two years earlier. Ruth was named after a dear friend of my mothers who was married to Arthur, the navigator of the Halifax.
Ross taught high school for 25 years. My sister and I were raised with none of the hardships my parents endured, and my Dad lived long enough to see me off to university.
On St. Georges Day, 1971, Ross died at home after a six month fight with cancer. He was just 55, and I was 21.