MY DAD kept his medals at the bottom of his sock drawer. As a boy, I would sometimes sneak in to his bedroom when he was out to have a look at them. They were in a battered presentation case that, even then, spoke to me of how things had been more finely made in earlier times. The stiff woven cotton of the ribbons — rich red and royal blue, bright orange and green, vivid purple and sombre olive — conjured something unknown and noble. The studded oak leaves, though I did not know it then, told of gallantry.
Dad would never talk about the war. It was, I now see, too grave a matter to embark on to satisfy the excited curiosity of a child. After he died, when I was still at school, I learned that he had been at Dunkirk, where he had escaped with his life but without his belongings. One of his aunts never forgave him for having left behind the jumper that she had knitted for him. She had as little understanding of the horror of seeing men die around him as I would have had as that curious schoolboy.
Then, five years ago, at the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I wrote an article unveiling how one day I realised that, whenever I scrutinised black-and-white photographs from the Second World War, I was, without being conscious of the fact, always looking for my father. I never knew where he had been.
My cousin contacted me after reading it. She knew. She had been told by her mother, who was my dad’s big sister, and one of the very few people that he ever told. A year after Dunkirk, he had volunteered for special service as a commando, and had fought behind enemy lines. What he had done there, she did not know; but she knew that, regarding himself as a good Catholic, my father had been troubled by the moral ambiguity of killing in war. No wonder he had never spoken to an uncomprehending child.
She knew, too, where he was on D-Day. Reattached to the Royal Engineers, he had been sent to Scotland, months before, to work on the prototypes of the Mulberry harbours: the floating platforms which the Allies had stationed just off the coast of Normandy to allow the disembarkation of heavy guns and supplies for the invading force.
A year later, I travelled, with my own son, to that same Scottish peninsular where the rise and fall of the tide were similar to those of Normandy — and where my father had worked, in secret, on the construction of the platform for the liberation of Europe from the horrors of Nazism. An old local man there spoke of how, as a boy, he had watched the constructions, and then woke one morning to find that they all had vanished. They were being towed down the Irish Sea to arrive in time for D-Day.
My voyage around my father was not complete — I do not suppose that it ever will be — but I felt, long after I had passed the age at which he died, that I had somehow travelled a little further.
Read our feature on the diary entries of a D-Day chaplain
You can also read more on the D-Day landings in our archive:
Day for the Church: The Baptism of Fire (By a Lay Communicant)
D-Day 1944: King George to His People: ‘Not Our Will But God’s Will’