If Only I Had Asked…

If Only I Had Asked. If Only He Had Lived Longer

My father never mentioned the war! I was 21 when I lost him to a sudden heart attack. He had told me he was proud of me the night before and that is my last memory of him. He was gone before I even got to know him, he was gone before I had the maturity to ask and he was gone before I could understand his reluctance to talk about his experiences. 

I knew he had been a pilot during WWII and had flown in Europe and Burma; I knew he had flown transport planes but nothing like the ‘exciting’ stuff seen in the John Waynesque Hollywood propaganda films of the time – the fighters, the bombers; and I knew that he had been in his early 20s as a pilot.

It was my mother who told me not to ask anything. When I was 12, my teacher told us that as ANZAC Day was approaching, to ask our parents what they did during the war. Of course, I asked mum first and she proudly told me that she had been a nurse looking after the returned wounded soldiers at Sydney’s Concord hospital (it turned out to include soldiers from the Fall of Singapore). But almost in the same breath, she told me not to ask my father anything because he didn’t like to talk about the war and especially not to ask him why he never walked in the ANZAC Day parade in the city or, in fact, never went to any ceremony. So I just did as I was told. 

Forty something years later and mum has recently passed away as well. I was going through her old photos albums and memorabilia recently and came across two things that jumped out at me. The first was a collection of letters written to her by my father throughout those war years. Every letter, every telegram, every photo he had sent, all documented in an old scrapbook. The tears started to well as I turned the worn pages. 

The second item I found in my now slightly shaking hands was dad’s flight logbook. And so, with ANZAC Day once again around the corner, I decided to have a closer look at what he had done – better late than never I suppose.

This short video shows the collection of letters sent from the war to my mother, then my father’s fiancé.
In this video, Paul finds that his late father had been part of the D-Day Invasion during WWII
Vic English, my father, as a young pilot in WWII

There in his neat handwriting, were all the missions and hours he had flown along with a column for the reason/ destination. Most of the entries appeared to be listed as routine transport missions around the UK. But then, I turned one particular page and the date struck me — June 1944! My nervous finger traced across the entry for 5thJune and there, in the destination/ reason space was written in his hand ‘Operation Tonga’. The next day held the entry ‘Operation Mallard’. Could it be? Had my father flown over the Normandy beaches, over that horrendous battle?  

Wikipedia held the answer. Operations Tonga and Mallard were indeed part of the Normandy Overlord D-Day landings involving the towing of gliders behind enemy lines by defenceless transport planes. I read that quite a few of the gliders crashed with high numbers of fatalities but that many of the transport planes also suffered losses. Those soldiers who had survived the glider landings had played an important part of securing strategic locations and establishing communications. My father had been part of one of the most significant battles in WWII and had never said a word. Subsequent entries show numerous other perilous missions he had flown including supplying the troops and evacuations of the wounded in the following weeks and months as the troops found their way towards Germany. 

So why am I telling you this? Because I never really had the chance to ask him about his experiences but you might be able to ask someone you love about theirs — whatever the war or involvement. I don’t know why my father didn’t want to talk about his experiences but I can imagine. Sadly, he was lost too soon and I was too young. If only he had survived and I had been matured enough to understand him better, we may have had a conversation. So my advice to you, don’t leave it too late. With ANZAC Day around the corner, ask the question, have that conversation. The professionals at Life Stories Australia can help record and document memories, even posthumously so when you are ready and need some help, visit www.lifestoriesaustralia.com.au

Paul English 

Paul is a founding member and the current President of Life Stories Australia. His first project many years ago was producing a film of his mother’s life that was played on the occasion of her 90thbirthday.  

W: www.mbmsfilms.com.au  Tel: 0432 857 857  e: info@mbmsfilms.com.au

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