War Bride, Part Two, Sixty-five Years On
Sarah wasn’t used to the traffic, just as she wasn’t accustomed to the rain and gloom of a wet autumnal English afternoon, which made the headlights of the oncoming traffic even more distracting. But she was determined not to let any of this faze her.
She was on her second circuit of the roundabout before she spotted the exit to Mepal village. She silently thanked English drivers for their patience, reflecting that had she dithered similarly at home she would have been blasted by horns and given the fingers. After the bustle of the A142, the road to the village was blessed relief. She drew up next to a small picket-fenced enclosure ringed by trees that might have once served as the village green. The rain had reduced to a drizzle although the trees still dripped indifferent tears.
No one emerged from the white-washed cottages that looked over the green. The only shop appeared closed. She opened the gate and went to the stone memorial in its centre. And there it was. Proof now that once long ago this was where her grandfather and hundreds of men, boys really, like him had lifted off into East Anglian skies.
She looked out past the trees and through the gaps between the village houses at the flat land stretching seemingly to infinity. There was nothing to give any sign that this had once been an airfield, no runways, no hangers, just fields of green cereal and in the distance a cluster of low farm buildings.
Tears welled when she realised the passing decades had obliterated all signs of what had once been the wartime base of the New Zealand heavy bomber squadron. The small stone memorial seemed such a small thing to mark the place where momentous deeds of bravery and sacrifice had routinely occurred nearly seventy years before.
Having not spoken nor seen anyone she drove back to the troublesome roundabout and took the exit to an industrial area that she had noticed was signposted for an RAF museum. It had started to rain again and, harried by industrial traffic, it took her some time to locate the museum tucked behind a steel and glass office block.
The curator welcomed her in. She was the only visitor. He pointed out some of the exhibits, mostly fragments from aircraft and pictures of aircrew, who appeared awfully young to Sarah, standing in front of their giant machines looking heroic.
After she had slowly circled the room studying the exhibits she felt as though she’d missed something significant. Sighing, she approached the curator to say thank you. He was busy in his small office tapping away at a computer. He looked up as though surprised she was still there.
‘That would be a Kiwi accent, would it?’ he said not unkindly as though aware of her disappointment. He went on, ‘We get a few Kiwis in here. Not surprising, I suppose, but not so many now and fewer every year. Had a father stationed at Mepal with 75 Squadron, did you?’
Sarah smiled when she realised the curator hadn’t considered that she would have to be in her early sixties to have had a father in the squadron. She hoped she didn’t look anywhere near that, considering she was not yet thirty.
‘Grandfather. Two actually,’ she said.
‘Two?’ the curator exclaimed.
‘Yes, my step-grandfather and birth grandfather. My real grandfather was killed. My step-grandfather was in his crew. But it’s my birth grandfather, my real grandfather, I would like to know more about.’
‘Well you know we have lists of all the crews here, would you like to look up your grandfathers?’
‘If it’s no trouble,’ she said, ‘His name was Michael Mallard and my step-grandfather was his rear gunner, Bill Allen. He was the only survivor from the crash that killed my grandfather in 1945.’
‘Let’s have a look.’ The curator got down a large clothbound book, the end one on a shelf containing about ten identical journals. ‘We do have it all on computer too now, of course, but visitors like to see these original journals written at the time. Here we are. N Nancy, Lancaster, B Flight, 75 (NZ) Squadron, RAF, and the entries for the crew and the dates each man joined Nancy. Follow their name across and you can see that their discharge date is entered in the last column or, I’m sorry, miss, the date they were killed. Here’s your step-grandfather, Flight Sergeant William Allen, discharged October 1945, and you are right, ‘killed in action 15th of April 1945’ against the names of each of the other six crew including Flying Officer Mallard.’
She looked at the names again, tears blurring her vision.
The curator had seen this many times before and it never failed to move him.
‘There, there, miss, it is all a long time ago now,’ he said passing her a box of tissues.
She wiped her eyes, feeling a little foolish at the way her emotions had caught her unawares. She laid her finger on her grandfather Mike’s name. She stared at the entries against his name and noticed that the k.i.a. date had been neatly ruled through and a much later date in 1948 written in tiny faded pencil letters. She asked the curator what that meant. He fetched his glasses and peered closely at the entry.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘That means that the original entry was incorrect. That happened a lot. Like risen from the dead, so to speak.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘F.O. Mallard might have been a prisoner of war and repatriated during 1948. Seems rather too long for that to be the case because most P.O.W.s were back in Blighty by the end of 1945, early ’46 at the latest.’
‘But he was killed, not taken prisoner.’ Sarah said.
‘Well, someone has come in here and mucked about with this journal without me noticing,’ continued the curator. ‘At any rate, these hand-written journals were discontinued in May 1946 when the last of those detained were repatriated. So someone has made that entry after that. Records held at the Ministry of Defence will clear the matter up. I can make an official request online if you like.’
‘Would you?’ she said. ‘I’m so grateful. Are you sure you’ve got time?’
The curator smiled sadly and gestured to the room empty of visitors.
‘Don’t get many in here on wet days like this, or any days as a matter of fact.’