|Posted by Mark Cantrell on May 9, 2015 at 4:25 PM|
Without VE Day, I might not be here
My father, Peter Cantrell, was in the army when VE Day – Victory in Europe – took place.
That was 70 years ago, and with the country currently celebrating the anniversary, I thought it was an apt occasion to share this second hand reminiscence.
My father served in a light cavalry regiment, the Inns of Court, driving armoured cars. Like many old soldiers, he's said little about his time in uniform, just little snippets here and there that leave you tantalised; wondering what's being left unsaid of the things he witnessed and experienced.
Consequently, I know very little about this period of his life. Indeed, up until a couple of years ago, I thought he'd done his time as part of the post-war National Service. But no, he was called up to fight in the war.
Fortunately, VE Day changed everything, three days before he was due to ship out and fight in Europe.
At the time, my father was on embarkation leave. He's never shared the feelings that must have gone through his mind, as he contemplated the mortal danger he'd find waiting for him during the last desperate fight to overcome Germany. Nor has he shared his subsequent feelings when circumstances shifted, quite possibly saving his life.
My Dad was conscripted and trained to fight; instead he found himself part of the Allied occupying force, holding a defeated Germany under some kind of order and beginning the process of building the peace, you might say.
Sometimes I think I should have tried to peel back the layers of reserve and try and find out more about this period of my father's life. But the moment never really arrived, and now I have to accept that his story and experiences of that time must inevitably vanish into oblivion. Sad to say, it already is.
My father is 89 in August. A good innings and he may have a few years left in him yet, but time has caught up. Hale and hearty well into his 80s, over the last two or three years vascular dementia has eroded his memory. Slow but sure, his past is evaporating from his mind.
A handful of anecdotes remain; a few old photographs. Once, he was part of an escort squad for a German general; another time he's travelling across the country by train, and he slept on the luggage racks; how they were all packed in the boats across to the continent, seasick, the stench of vomit hanging over the vessel. How German civilians would linger for scraps and leavings of their army rations, for cigarettes, and whatever else they might beg or borrow; his realisation, they're people just like us.
To this day, he remains struck by the devastation he encountered, the bomb-blasted ruination; the evidence of indoor toilets that remained amidst the devastation especially stuck in his mind. It became one of his favourite anecdotes; back home in Blighty, it was a cold trip in winter to the middens at the bottom of the yard, to freeze his bum on the outside toilet.
My father was lucky; maybe he was born lucky. He came into the world premature at home on the 2 August 1926; he wasn't expected to live. The local priest was called to give him last rites. The family story goes that the priest took hold of his hand and declared: “His grip is strong – the boy will live!”
So he did. The miracle baby; the golden boy. The lucky lad who escaped risking his neck in war by the skin of his teeth, well three days at any rate; lucky for us too, my sisters and I, my niece and nephew too, because otherwise we might never have come into being.
Without VE Day, none of us might be here.
9 May 2015
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