So Many Heroes
Terence John Murton (RAF 1941/46)
1924 – 1979
I lived on a hill, not any old hill. It was the hill in Truro where everything of importance to the community passed by and ran from railway station to town centre. The hill was a historical news bulletin so that a camcorder or ciné camera left running with an infinite supply of film, would provide images of a substantial part of the 20th century. Not nowadays perhaps. The decline of the railways, construction of dual carriageway bypasses and the proliferation of motorcars has robbed the hill of much of its passing pageant.
Some of those images haunt me still. I can see the sad crocodile of young children straggling down the hill from the railway station. Frightened hand held frightened hand as groups of London’s East End evacuees walked the last few hundred yards to the church hall where nervous volunteer foster parents waited to collect them. The war had come to Cornwall. It was in the sad eyes of those disoriented children sent into exile away from the Blitz and in the name labels pinned to their clothes. It was in their gas masks hung on string around their necks in square brown cardboard boxes.
An ageing lorry stopped on its way down the hill, it belonged to the wholesaler who distributed fruit and vegetables to the shops in the town and in the villages outside. Its regular calls included the RAF camp off the Portreath road. A slight figure in RAF battledress clambered out of the cab holding his forage cap tightly in his hand, said his “Thank-yous” as he slammed the rusty door and waved the driver a cheery farewell. There were no badges of rank on his sleeves but the emblem above the left breast pocket identified his trade as a wireless operator. His sleeves sported the proud flashes of Combined Operations – he belonged to something special.
He stepped up into the garden and opened the front door of 25, nothing in his face or bearing would have told you that he had already seen action in North Africa and Italy. Nor would you ever hear it from him, my brother kept his war to himself.
I was finishing my homework in the front room when I heard him come through the door and his calm voice: “It’s only me. I’ve scrounged another night at home,” to re-assure my mother, busy in the kitchen putting the last touches to my father’s high tea. I put my books away and joined them in the kitchen where my brother had already turned the radio on. He knew that father would want to listen to the news when he got in from the office at six, an evening ritual that was followed in every home in the land. Terry was talking to my mother and I left them to it. He was eight and a half years older than me and had volunteered for the RAF very early in the war. He had hoped to be a flier but had failed to satisfy the entry requirements. After his basic training he had volunteered again, for the wireless operator course and he was now a Morse code specialist with Combined Operations.
Although he said almost nothing about what he did we all knew that he served on a ship-to-shore-to-air communications vessel, HMS Largs, a converted peacetime banana boat. We knew that with his ship he had been involved in all the major Allied Forces landings: North Africa, Sicily and mainland Italy. When his ship was in Naples he had said in his censored letter home “Now that I’ve seen it I hope I don’t fall foul of the second part of the saying.” We knew that he meant “See Naples and die.” Perhaps the censor did too but turned a blind eye.
The “Largs” was laid up in Carrick Roads and had been for some weeks, Terry was billeted in the RAF Station at Portreath and though he had not had any leave had managed to get home most evenings during this posting. We saw a lot of him and he was very good to me, supplementing my pocket money and treating me to the pictures once a week.
We could not even guess at the dangers that he had faced because he never spoke of the noise and smell of front line war. We guessed that his job kept him at sea where we believed he was safer than the troops who spilled on to the beaches to carry the war to foreign lands. I was too young and too naive to imagine the ferocity with which the beaches would be defended, mined in-shore waters, the determination of enemy ships, planes and shore batteries to blow his ship out of the sea. That realisation came much later – years later.
Father came through the front door, sat at the head of the table where his plate of fried herring was waiting for him, we ate our brawn sandwiches, scones with Kea plum jam and yeast cake, all home made. Mother worked miracles with the ration books. We sat in silence while Alvar Liddell read the news, the Allies seemed to be making progress on all fronts but Stalin was still trying to bully Churchill and the Americans to invade France. The end in Europe was in sight, but how many more would be maimed or killed before the final victory?
My brother was strangely quiet and seemed reluctant to leave the table. When father wanted to show him the latest addition to his Home Guard armoury, a clutch of “Sticky Bombs” designed to adhere to enemy tank hulls, he got up, picked up his cap and said: “I’m going for a game of snooker at the Palace. I won’t be late back.”
I was in bed when first Terry and then my father came home. I heard my father’s ritual: “All in maid?” before he locked the door behind him. My brother usually came straight to the double bed we shared when he came in, however tonight, for some reason, he had stayed up with my mother waiting for my father. They spoke in low voices so, strain as I might, I could not hear. I had sensed earlier that my brother was quieter than usual and now I was sure I could hear my mother weeping. Terry came to bed undressed in the dark and climbed in beside me. I feigned sleep as I always did and lay still as he tossed and turned and slipped into a restless slumber.
The alarm had been set for 5.30 and he turned off the bell almost before it rang. The sun was rising but the same heavy curtains that blacked-out the light from marauding German planes kept the bedroom dark. He dressed in the darkness with hardly a sound, eased his way down the twisted stairs and before I knew it the front door closed on the latch. Two minutes later a lorry stopped in the hill and he was gone. I heard my mother crying in the bedroom across the landing and I knew he had gone to war again. The date was 25th May 1944. During the next few days and nights the hill carried more traffic than at any other time before or since, convoy after convoy of military trucks, all tightly sheeted so that I could not tell whether they carried men or supplies. After the rush of activity there was a sudden and foreboding quiet and the hill was returned to the milkman’s float, to the postman’s bicycle and to the huge shire horses that pulled the Great Western Railway carts.
The fifth of June was a miserable wet day. It was also my father’s 49th birthday. At 8 am on the 6th June Stuart Hibberd told the listening nation that the Allies had landed in Normandy and Frederick Allen reported from the front line. “D.Day!” Now we knew where Terry was. The national euphoria over the long awaited invasion passed by that little cottage on Richmond Hill while we waited for news of one safe return. Two weeks later his first letter arrived. It carried the censor’s mark and been written on 6th June and come through goodness knows what dangers to the letter box in Richmond Hill.
It read: –
C/o GPO London
Dear Mum and Dad,
By now you will have heard the news everyone has been waiting for, it has started and everything is just like Fredr: Allen has just said on the news. For days now we have been waiting to “go”. What a triplicate, Rome, France and your birthday Dad. I am not lacking imagination but this has surpassed everything I could ever imagine. I suppose when you do not receive any mail from me for, maybe weeks you will guess that although I am in the RAF “ground staff” after all I am able to do my bit.
I was allowed to get one last letter off yesterday so I hope it is not long before you get it. Before that we were not allowed to send any mail but I sincerely hope no one will worry about me because we know how good the Navy and the Air Force are & we are not worrying so there is certainly no need for you to.
Last night before we weighed anchor to set off for France we were given the official gen from the I/C himself. Of course we were all excited, thrilled and nervous. Not nervous for ourselves but for them that were to rely on some of us, would we do our part and not let them down. It was just like waiting for a curtain to go up & wondering “will I remember my lines.”
Well now I think we have forgotten that and now we are waiting for the day when we will see England again. It is great to see smoke rising from the enemy territory after seeing some of the blitz areas. I’m sure the people that have been blitzed would love to be here. For my part I have never been more thrilled and although when I first saw this tub & then again when I was sea-sick I wished I was miles away from her, now I realise I would have been very upset if I had been taken off. Now I am going up on deck to have a look at the thing from the sea then I am going to sleep for a couple of hours before I go on duty again, write more another day –
No news is good news but empty, anxious days and weeks passed. Paris fell and there was dancing in the streets. The cinema newsreels carried film of the Normandy landings, to my young eye it seemed all hell had broken loose in a Pandemonium where there was no pattern, no suggestion of order or coherence. Somewhere in one of the myriad of ships Terry sat, sending his coded messages to who knows where about who knows what.
We had got used to hearing nothing, “He’d write if he could” and some semblance of normality returned.
A lorry stopped on the corner, a wholesaler’s lorry. A slim figure in RAF battle-dress threw out his kit bag and stepped down and as he said “Goodnight” I nearly knocked him off his feet. My brother was home, even thinner than I remembered him, his face was drawn and had lines where none had been. He didn’t say a word; he just let me hug him.
A fourteen-day leave pass while repairs were carried out to the “Largs” in Falmouth Docks started the next day and he had scrounged an early lift home. He spoke little and was quiet without ever seeming tranquil; he seemed to avoid the news bulletins and refused point blank to discuss the war and his part in it. His sleep was fitful and disturbed, every night I listened to him toss and turn so I did my bit and never complained. He changed to civilian clothes within minutes of getting home and his uniform was hung out of sight, the days passed and his appetite returned, the strain in his face eased, he laughed again.
His two weeks leave flew by and a warrant arrived with an order directing him to re-join his ship at Devonport, his nonchalant acceptance of the inevitable was brittle as fine china. He refused any suggestion of company to the station and forbade us from going to the front door to see him off. It was a lonely figure that walked the two hundred yards up the hill to catch the train that took him back to war. A twenty-year-old, old man.
Letters full of the wonders of what he’d seen came every week as he sailed towards the war in the Far East, a lad who had never been outside the county until he volunteered to fight, he had already seen half the world in the Northern hemisphere and was now visiting exotic places south of the Equator. We listened to the news bulletins of the Allied landing in Rangoon and we knew exactly where he was.
At long last came the news of Hiroshima then Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered and it was all over. Terry’s first letter home after the final peace lifted all the anxiety and fear. There was more dancing in the streets and people celebrated everywhere – it was over…like a bad dream…for a while it was if it had never happened.
When Terry walked through the door in his demob suit I had almost forgotten the war. Buoyed up, anxious to get back to the job that was waiting for him, my brother seemed more at peace than when he was last at home. Until his company sent him away to a store in Coventry we shared the double bed. He continued to spoil me with extra pocket money and trips to the cinema. There were still nightmares but the disturbed nights became less frequent.
I cannot tell you when I knew for sure that my brother was a hero, just one of so many heroes. Not the sort of hero that went to meet King George at Buckingham Palace and collect a medal. Nor the sort of hero that regaled the hushed bar with tales of violent exploits just a quiet man, good at his job, stuck by his transmitter in deep concentration for endless hours in the middle of a maelstrom of aggression, unarmed and dependent on others for his safety. He was a relay, no more significant than the equipment he used, rock solid reliable and determined to give his best.
I know he “Remembered his lines…”
Terry was like the horseshoe nail without which the battle was lost, thousands like him were heroes and deserve to be remembered as such.
My brother never talked about his war and it was years before the heavy commitment that he had made and the toll it took of him, came home to me. He survived the war and suffered no obvious physical wounds, yet let no one try and convince me that when his generous heart gave out when he was just 56 he was not a victim of his war. This story is for him, the gentle youth who left his home on the hill to go to war and became a man. A lovable man who saw horrors he could not talk about and who carried his war with him to the grave.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori…