We were raised on stories of the Blitz in London: my father was given a thrashing when he and his cousin sat up on the roof of their house in Greenwich one lunch time to eat their Spam sandwiches and watch a dogfight between Messerschmidts and Spitfires over the London docks. He was sixteen years old during the Blitz-too young to join up-but he was an enthusiastic Royal Air Force cadet. When his school day finished, he and his cousin would catch a bus to their local airfield and polish the noses of Spitfire fighter aircraft so they would fly faster.
My favorite story was that the War Office created dummy airfields with canvas and plywood fighter and bomber planes to fool the Luftwaffe. They were not taken in at all and dropped wooden bombs as they flew on to blast the living daylights out of the real thing.
I suspect most of my father’s more lurid, and entertaining yarns came straight out of the Boys’ Own Paper: a sort of illustrated magazine full of tales of derring-do for pre-teens. From 1941 until well into the 1950s Boy’s Own featured the fictional fighter pilot Biggles by W.E. Jones in no less than sixty issues. Long before WWII my father was fan of ripping adventures and Biggles-speak dominated his vocabulary to the frustration of his family: Oh, I say! Jolly good show! and Thanks awfully! were phrases most often adopted and he yearned for the day when he could grow a mustache.
Born too late to fly a “real live Spit” was a frustration he endured even when he was recruited at age eighteen and sent to Bletchley Park to work on crypt-analysis as part of Alan Turing’s team. Bletchley was of course really hush-hush so any discussion about what they were doing was out of the question. It wasn’t until after the war when he was recruited by the British Foreign Office and sent on his first posting to Moscow with the allied forces, that he discovered that Bletchley had broken the Enigma Code that turned the tide of Hitler’s invasion. He would still have preferred to fly a Spitfire.
Most of the men of my father’s generation were embarrassingly patriotic–especially to daughters who wore miniskirts, were frantic about the Beatles (I was in love with George my sister with Paul) and revered Monty Python. To my father being English was something to be frightfully proud of, and, as Biggles would have probably agreed, to this generation there was no doubt that God was still an Englishman. But despite his irritating flag-waving and standing to rigid attention when anyone mentioned our monarch there was an endearing naivete to my father.
Even if we thought him an old fogey then, we enjoyed nothing more than gathering around the telly on Boxing Day to watch the outrageously pompous Bridge on the River Kwai for the umpteenth time. My father would nudge us during the boring bits, of which there were many, and say under his breath, “Pass the bulls eyes,” a prelude to remembering the rhapsodic delights of his favorite childhood sweets, the deprivations of food rationing, and how we simply didn’t know how good we had it now.