Tag Archives: #WWII

Off The Beaten Track 7

Remembering The Ten

Seventy-five years ago on February 22nd 1944 ten USAAF servicemen perished, when their American B-17 Flying Fortress crashed in Endcliffe Park Sheffield England. The plane was returning to Britain badly damaged after a sortie over Denmark, and probably flying with only one functioning engine. The park offered the only green oasis in a heavily built up area, and would have given the stricken craft a safe area for a crash landing. However, a group of boys from two rival schools had gathered there for a fight. They were familiar with the sound of aircraft overhead, but this one didn’t sound right. It flew over them low, circled and returned, and one of the crew signalled to the children to get out of the way. Not understanding the gravity of the situation, the children without moving waved back. The next time the plane circled it barely missed the roofs of housing and crashed into a wooded area. One young boy who witnessed that traumatic event never forgot the sacrifice those men made, so that he and his friends could live. The guilt he has felt over this has only intensified over the decades since.

Tony Foulds was almost eight years old when the aircraft with the call sign “Mi Amigo” crashed on that fateful day.  As a seventeen year old he began making a very personal homage to the fallen men, visiting the crash site, planting and tending flowers and tidying around. When a small memorial plaque was finally erected by the Sheffield RAF Association in 1969, Tony continued his pilgrimage to the ten by keeping the memorial in good order and visiting almost on a daily basis. Tony didn’t want those men forgotten and honoured them the best way he could. His dedication over the years virtually went unnoticed, until a chance encounter with BBC presenter Dan Walker.

Tony Foulds at memorial. Photo credit @mrdanwalker

On January 2nd this year whilst walking his dog in the park, Dan came across Tony and stopped to ask if he was ok. He took the time to listen to Tony as this amazing story was revealed, and heard that the old man’s dearest wish was for the “Mi Amigo” crew to be honoured with a flypast on the 75th anniversary of the crash. Dan said “leave it with me” despite having no military contacts. He took to Twitter after this fateful meeting and his tweet went viral, and so began a lot of background negotiations with relevant groups. Twenty days later, Tony Foulds sitting beside the US Ambassador to the UK Woody Johnson in the BBC Breakfast studio, heard that his flypast wish would come true. The memorial steps have also been fixed and a flag pole erected too.

https://twitter.com/search?q=%40BBCBreakfast&f=videos&src=tyah

Today on the 75th anniversary I watched a BBC special news report from Endcliffe Park, where thousands of people had gathered to witness this special occasion. Flanked by relatives of the “Mi Amigo” crew, Tony was in tears as he waved and greeted the flypast. The planes taking part were F-15E Striker Eagles from RAF Lakenheath, KC-135 Stratotanker, MC-130J Commando II, CV-22 Osprey from RAF Mildenhall, Typhoon from RAF Coningsby and Dakota from RAF Coningsby. They made a wondrous sight as I watched through a veil of tears myself. It was so nice to be able to celebrate such a sad yet uplifting news report. Having read around the story online, I saw somewhere that Tony has lived with Parkinson’s disease for a number of years. This makes his virtual daily visit to the memorial even more remarkable.

Tony thanked everyone for coming, saying the event wasn’t about him but the fallen ten servicemen. Tony truly believes he lives because they died, and his very humble thanks resulted in 66 years of personal homage in honour of that brave sacrifice. I salute Tony Foulds who grew from a traumatised boy into a dedicated champion of the “Mi Amigo” crew. Let’s celebrate that #tonygothisflypast and #RememberTheTen (Endcliffe Park memorial order) : John Kriegshauser, Lyle Curtis, John Humphrey, Melchor Hernandez, Robert Mayfield, Harry Estabrooks, Charles Tuttle, Maurice Robbins, Vito Ambrosio, and George Williams.

The “Mi Amigo” crew. Photo credit @IWMDuxford
Advertisements

Off The Beaten Track 6

BBC Radio 4 has a morning Book of the Week slot on week days, it’s not my usual listen, but due to intriguing descriptions in the Radio Times I’ve recently tuned in.  I’ve been enthralled by the stories concerning two remarkable women, one trying to escape Nazi occupied France, the other honestly chronicling the effects of living with early onset Alzheimer’s. Both have deeply touched me and I will definitely be buying the books, although I admit that the subject matter are areas I would normally shy away from, finding them upsetting to think about. But the indomitable spirit of both these women shone through the readings, and I found myself eagerly awaiting the next episode, in a kind of “wondering way”. Those ten 15 minute slots taught me more about life, survival, history and compassion than anything I’ve seen on TV.  The books are as follows:

NO PLACE TO LAY ONE’S HEAD Francoise Frenkell (Pushkin Press, £16.99)

My interest was caught when the Radio Times commented the book was initially published in Geneva 1945, and then seemingly forgotten until discovered in a French attic in 2010. A second edition was issued in French and now an English translation has been made. A firsthand account of a Jewish woman’s survival and escape from the Nazi’s in France, printed perhaps in the first few weeks of Europe peacetime in 1945, and then untouched until re-discovered in a modern day world.  Wow!

Frenkell came from a Polish Jewish family, was highly educated to degree level (I believe) having studied in Paris, and ended up opening a French bookshop in Berlin on discovering no such facility existed. Her clientele was illustrious, business brisk and successful and the future looked bright in early 1930s Berlin. Then the rule of Hitler and the effect of his policies kicked in. I listened as her beloved bookshop managed to avoid destruction as it wasn’t on an official destroy list. How she had to leave it behind and flee in the night, traversing through Europe from city to city, always somehow avoiding major crackdowns, or invasion, by a matter of days. Her skirmishes with authority and her escape attempts to reach Switzerland, finally successful. Frenkell’s words seem to be beautifully translated into an eloquent yet matter of fact way, and I listened with my “heart in my mouth” most of the time. I punched the air when her escape was successful and breathed a sigh of relief. My overall feeling was one of admiration for Francoise and her determined nature to survive in an intolerable society. But there was anger as well at the same society for its blinkered rule of law. It seemed to conveniently ignore, no doubt because of her Jewish ethnicity,  the fact Frenkell had all the necessary documentation (residency papers, visa) to live peacefully in France and to travel with ease to Switzerland.  My listening ended with Francoise setting foot in Switzerland where she survived the war to write her memoir, about her life before Nazi rule in Europe and her escape from it. The French publishing company Gallimard discovered Frenkell passed away in Nice in 1975 at the ripe age of 86 but could find no relatives.

SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW Wendy Mitchell (Bloomsbury £9.99)

My listening journey with Wendy began with her describing a “fog in her head” and inexplicable falls whilst she was out running. Doctors suggested she could have had a stroke, having discovered a heart condition that was fixed through surgery. The fog continued and eventually a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s was made after a seemingly painfully slow series of visits with health clinicians. Her description of looking at online videos of people living with the condition was searing, the initial thought of “but these are old people nearing the end of their lives” before finding one of a man in his late 50s like herself, who described his experiences in a mirror like fashion to her own.

Wendy worked as a NHS administrator known for her powers of recall and organisation skills. Slowly she had become aware that her grasp on things wasn’t the same. When she told management of her diagnosis the only thing offered was early retirement, there was no procedure to try and enable her to work within her remaining mental capabilities, which were still considerable. Her co-workers brilliantly rallied around to make tasks less stressful and more easy to deal with, enabling Wendy to continue in her job as long as possible. With unexpected early retirement foisted upon her Wendy decided to use her time attending conferences, doing speaking engagements and becoming a leading advocate for those living with Alzheimer’s & Dementia. Through this work she hopes to educate people to have a better understanding of the condition. I was certainly educated as I listened to excerpts from Mitchell’s book. Hearing how familiar things can suddenly seem strange and confusing, city living becoming too noisy to deal with, the use of technology to help try and trick her condition, the coping strategies Wendy uses to deal with the sudden onset of panic. It was illuminating to literally “see the world through Wendy’s eyes” and to hear how her condition is slowly taking over her mind. Her articulation is heartfelt, honest and at times perhaps unconsciously funny with a wry humour, like her wonderment at experiencing a gliding session and how quiet the flight was, whilst knowing she wouldn’t remember a thing about the safety video if disaster struck. The realisation “if you don’t use it you will lose it” after taking a three week break from her work and finding the computer keyboard incomprehensible for a few hours. How the person she is today is someone she doesn’t really recognise anymore, yet for the joys she has lost (like TV shows, long novels, cooking) an appreciation for new joys (short stories, poetry, old familiar films). I shared Mitchell’s sadness and resigned acceptance when her extra income from government support was removed, having been deemed fit enough to function on a daily basis.  Much of the “medical tests” used depended on the person remembering how they were before, a ludicrous concept when you consider the nature of an Alzheimer’s condition. Wendy’s resilience and determination to live life to the full for as long as possible was utterly compelling. Once again I had found a woman living in a difficult situation, making the best of it and triumphing in a way against the odds. Somehow both Francoise and Wendy made me feel empowered too.

In closing, I will mention a book that has been on my bookshelf since 2001. It’s called HAPPY TIMES by Lee Radziwill (sister of Jackie Kennedy Onassis). I read about it in a Sunday newspaper supplement, and asked my husband to look for it in America when he visited a few weeks later. There is little dialogue in it and is mainly a gorgeous photo book, rather like a family album. I’ve delved into it many a time, but only really read the dialogue this week. I’ve been happily updating my photo album with recent activity pictures, and from Wendy Mitchell’s book there is a strong element of how important photo’s can be for memories. We live in such uncertain times; I’ve chosen to look for the joy in things as much as possible. Photography is a passion and a joy, and my husband suggested I look at Happy Times again and actually read it. A quote in the introduction says it all for me: “I believe that without memories there is no life, and that our memories should be of happy times. That’s my choice”.

One Woman, One Man in War

The woman referred to is Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt the First Lady of the United States during World War Two, and the man referred to is Simon Weston badly injured in the Falklands War. During an overnight visit to London, I became even more aware of the stories involving these two people caught up in two separate wars forty years apart.

Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt

In the small intimate setting of The Kings Head Pub Theatre, I attended the last performance of the one woman play Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Actress Alison Skilbeck had crafted this dramatic story having had access to Eleanor Roosevelt’s diaries. She performed all the characters within the play (including Churchill and The Queen Mother) with minimal props, but with an uncanny accuracy in accents.

The premise to the plot involves an elderly Eleanor living in the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As she laments the possible end to peace, and even the world, the audience are taken back in time to the former First Lady’s visit to war-torn London in October of 1942. Through flashbacks we learn about her tour around Great Britain, meeting dignitaries, attending formal functions on behalf of President Franklin D Roosevelt, and visiting US troops and ordinary British people. We also learn in part something about the private person, and how a traumatic childhood and a husband prone to infidelity had shaped Eleanor as a woman. It was fascinating to watch the play and I came to have a deep respect for Mrs Roosevelt, and all that she had tried to achieve.

Until seeing this play my only real reference point for Mrs Roosevelt in recent times was from the film Hyde Park on Hudson. A peripheral character in this movie, I got the distinct feeling that Eleanor was a somewhat cold, unfeeling, distant and slightly eccentric character “full of causes”. The President’s infidelity wasn’t glossed over, but you couldn’t help feel that he had good reason to wander!! However, having seen this play I can well understand why Eleanor devoted herself to causes, and perhaps seemed a bit distant at times. She had offered to divorce Franklin on discovering his first affair, but had been told that wasn’t an option as it wouldn’t be good for his political career. So Eleanor was effectively trapped by the necessity of keeping up appearances, and as a way of coping threw herself into campaigns not particularly fashionable at the time.

Eleanor Roosevelt championed women’s rights and the rights of black people in the US long before it was a common cause. And on her visit to Great Britain she insisted on seeing for herself how the ordinary man/woman/child coped and dealt with the effects of war. The First Lady’s itinerary included visits to factories, land girls tilling the fields, bombed streets, air-raid shelters, docks, WRVS and many other places the length and breadth of the country. Far from the cold and unfeeling character I thought Mrs Roosevelt was, I came away with a sense of someone with a tremendous empathy for those less fortunate. I was particularly struck by a small part in the play, when the First Lady speaks of the horror of witnessing bombed out streets. Her thoughts went along the lines of “although these houses were probably no more than slum dwellings (a civic wrong in itself), they were home for these people. Now they have nothing at all”. Compare that to what the Queen Mother said when Buckingham Palace suffered minor damage from a bomb blast, “glad of it, now we can look the East End in the face”. I was far more moved and affected by the consciousness from Eleanor Roosevelt than the pretentious uttering from our Royal family.

Aware of being someone of privilege, Eleanor Roosevelt strived to put her status to some good use by shining a light onto issues and concerns affecting those less well off, and using that status to try and change things. Only a First Lady could attempt to bring the issue of “wrong socks” for US troops, or black servicemen pay and conditions, to the attention of the US Army General. Through her speeches, news articles and publications Mrs Roosevelt brought many issues into the public domain.

After the war ended Eleanor became the chairwoman for the Commission of Human Rights and its inception, and announced the template for the Commission in 1948. She also became the US ambassador at the United Nations. Now as the Cuban Missile Crisis threatened to envelop the Western World, an obviously dying Mrs Roosevelt wondered aloud had she done any good during World War Two, and had she tried enough to make a difference. I think the answer is an unequivocal YES.

Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Image credit offwestend.com
Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London. Image credit offwestend.com

Simon Weston

The day after seeing Mrs Roosevelt Flies to London I went to the National Portrait Gallery, with the express intention of seeing the David Bailey Stardust photo exhibition AND taking a look at the new People’s Portrait of Simon Weston. Last year a competition was held to find a portrait sitter elected by the general public; (a first for the NPG); and Simon won the accolade. Probably he’d be the first to admit a wish that the circumstances which brought his likeness to canvas had not happened.

In 1982 during the Falklands Conflict Simon Weston suffered 46% burns to his body, when the ship Sir Galahad was bombed by the Argentineans. Miraculously Simon survived his ordeal but many of his comrades perished. Over the years Simon has been a tireless fund raiser for charity, and his badly scarred face has become a familiar sight on TV.

The artist chosen for the People’s Portrait was Nicola Jane Philipps, who I believe did a superb portrait of Prince William & Prince Harry a few years ago. I liked the royal picture very much so I was intrigued to see how Nicola would portray Simon. On setting eyes on the newly commissioned portrait I was not disappointed. I found the simple and yet powerfully styled setting with muted colours and soft lines very appealing.

In the portrait Simon is holding his medals, standing behind a chair that has a soldier’s beret sitting on it. Simon’s badly damaged hands are prominent holding the medals, a symbol of his (and other soldiers) courage and bravery. The beret on an otherwise empty seat is a tribute to those who have passed. The standing position of Simon could be interpreted as “standing for justice and fairness to all”, or as a position of strength I suppose. Dressed in a simple open necked shirt and jacket, rather than the pomp and circumstance of a full military uniform, Simon is shown as an ordinary humble man. The one thing in the portrait that I couldn’t take my eyes off were Simon’s eyes, which had a depth of colour and clarity to them that mesmerised me. The distinctive line and the striking blue colour of the eyes stood out from the fudged framework of earthy shades. The only other sign of bold colour in the portrait came from the patriotic medal ribbons (red, blue and white).

You could say that Simon Weston having endured horrific burns to almost half his body is aesthetically half the man he was, when he embarked on a ship bound for the Falkland Islands. But having survived that extraordinary experience, those eyes tell you that Simon Weston today is twice the man he was before.

People's Portrait Simon Weston. Image credit Nicola Jane Philipps
People’s Portrait Simon Weston. Image credit Nicola Jane Philipps