What Did You Do In The War Dad?

In the last few weeks we have witnessed the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions and seen a concerted push to finally achieve reconciliation between those who fought in those grim days. There can be no doubt that the freedoms we enjoy now are a direct result of the bravery of those who spearheaded the invasion of France from Britain to expel the Nazi’s. But, for me the most touching part of the ceremony on the actual day was the greetings exchanged between the surviving veterans and Angela Merkel. A fitting finality perhaps? Lets all pray for the peace that those who fought in the great wars would wish. However, to my story…

When I was a child it was the standard question that every Father dreaded. Boys didn’t ask Mum ‘What did you do in the war’ because frontline service for females just didn’t happen – though many served as nurses and some fought in the espionage arena, often with tragic consequences. I have no documentary evidence but I understand from my Mother that she worked as a volunteer in the Ambulance Service in London during the blitz. My Father’s story is easier to tell as I have documents along with my memories of his answer to that question. So Dad, What did you do in the war?

Well, I can tell you that my Father never fired a shot in anger. He never directly faced any of this country’s enemies throughout the Second World War. As a young man he would rightly have expected to be called up in 1940 when Britain was mobilising its populace in response to the Dunkerque disaster. The Army, Navy or RAF were all clamouring for men. Dad told me that he tried to enlist but was turned away and that at the time he didn’t immediately understand why.

The reason is evidenced in the documents reproduced below. He was a skilled craftsman – an instrument fitter with knowledge of gyroscopes. The RAF wanted him as a Civilian Employee! He was attached to number 22 Maintenance Unit at Silloth but his work required him to share his skills with untrained RAF personnel and I understand that he moved from one airfield to another until he finished the war at Kemble – an airfield I’ve had the pleasure of flying into something like 20 years after he passed on and would have liked to have had the opportunity to take him there.

His work as he told me was to calibrate the flying instruments on a variety of types of aircraft but principly bombers such as the Stirling and Lancaster – he remembered that the view from the cockpit of a Stirling was a very long way down and you wouldn’t want to fall out. He also worked in Anson’s and Mosquito’s. Not only did he calibrate instruments but he was also involved in the fitting and maintenance of oxygen supplies – another skill to pass on.

What he didn’t tell me is that he was trained in the maintenance of the Sperry O-1 bombsight – not as well known as the Norden sight but probably better and that (reading between the lines) he was also trained on the superior Sperry S-1 bombsight. Have a look at the letter from Sperry and the cryptic S/1 in the reference on the left. At the time that was top-secret and it’s probable that the covering letter carefully disguised the real training in 1942 behind an existing bombsight that dated back to the 1930’s – I can’t ask Dad now because he isn’t here and he was dead before the Official Secret’s position on this expired.

So my Dad did nothing exciting in the war but I wonder how much his work as a Civilian helped some of those pilots to press home their attacks and to come home safely? As for Mum, I dread to think what she went through with the ambulances in the Blitz and I’m not surprised that she never told me anything about it – some things are best left in the past.


  1. I completely agree with you that your father surely must have performed a very important role in the war. It took everyone, from what I believe. I’ve been watching a number of very interesting documentaries on D-Day this past week, and it brings so much to focus reminding us of what it cost the men on the front line, but without the support of mechanics and the craftsmen (and women) in the support roles, including civilians, I can’t imagine successful missions. The idea of your mother with the ambulances is enough to cause a shudder. I know you’re proud of them both, Martin.

    1. Thanks Debra – yes I am proud of my parents but I’m also aware of the history of the 1940’s and how much we owe to those who gave their lives to defeat the tyranny of the Nazi regime. My father had some amusing stories from his time including one about the commanding officer at Kemble who used to like doing aerobatics in an old biplane that my Father thought was held together with chewing gum πŸ˜‰

  2. Very interesting to read, thanks for sharing, Patti!
    DonΒ΄t think we will ever understand what people had to endure during those times, but you have some first hand memories to help you.
    All the best to you, greetings, Ron.

    1. Hi Ron, Thanks for the kind comment. For info, the name here is Martin (Patti is one of my fellow Bloggers – check out the Nylon Daze link in my Blogroll) πŸ˜‰

      1. Sorry for that, Martin, just came from her blog and for some stupid reason still used her name, but great post, like I said, greetz Ron

      2. More of a watcher than a supporter πŸ˜‰ I follow non-league football rather than the money. The premier league (with the complicit suport of the FA) puts club wins before the national team so England will never flourish as experienced players are brought in from other countries instead of growing local players… I’m just looking forward to the start of the local friendlies πŸ™‚

      3. sounds logical and so true about the Premier league, but thought england slowly moves to rules with more homegrown players nowadays?
        Holland (where IΒ΄m from) is always, probably cuz of the money elsewhere, used to grow their own…

      4. I think the ‘homegrown players’ thing is a little late and it will take a long time to have an effect. I’ll carry on enjoying non-league football cuz it’s a much more honest game in the depths of the Ryman League πŸ™‚

        Holland are looking good and they should progress well in this World Cup πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Elisa πŸ™‚ – I only have a few but they do illustrate the limited stories of his wartime service very well. I hope my post serves to personalise the war effort and make those distant days more accessible for the current generation.

  3. What a lovely tribute to both your parents, of whom you can rightly be extremely proud. From what I understand, men in reserved occupations were often accosted by strangers in the street accusing them of being shirkers! Several of my relatives were miners and suffered this. But of course, the work your father did was absolutely vital. Imagine if the aircraft systems didn’t work and flyers had been lost because of it. And of course the public outcry over that would have been terrible. I sometimes wonder if many people really bother to think before they speak.

    1. Thank you Sue – Dad didn’t mention anything about the issues you recall. He did some firewatching at mights with the ARP units where he was stationed – He used to have a black greatcoat with a Northumbria ARP shoulder badge. The mines, steelworks and railways were key industries for the war effort – as you say, some people make unwarranted assumptions 😦

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