Hardly a piece of fiction that will reach the shortlists of any of the literary prizes, but a valiant first attempt by Amanda Hodgkinson to write a novel, and one which explores the anguish and desperation of family separation during war time. The invasion of Poland in 1939 triggered an international conflict of immense proportions, but this novel focuses on the plight of a young Polish father who, in fleeing the war, became separated from his wife and baby son. He ended up in Ipswich while his wife and son lived a brutal internal exile in Poland, barely surviving in the remote forests of the hinterland. Aurek, the son, emerged from this savage exile like a feral young cub, lacking the social and language skills to integrate into society, and when reunited with the father he has never known, his instinct is to regard him as the “enemy” to guard against.
To give unity and continuity to the story, Hodgkinson weaves together the narratives of the past (the pre-war years of their relationship and their individual odysseys during the war) with the development of their fortunes as a re-united family just after the war. This ‘cinematic’ trick is now commonly used by writers of fiction and works well in 22 Britannia Road. Amidst the plethora of WW2 fiction, this novel will struggle to stand tall amongst its peers, but it does provide an interesting insight into the themes of separation, war-time survival, and the stresses and strains of family reunification in a foreign country.
My middle name was given to me in memory of my father’s youngest brother, George, who had died in Operation Scipio in North Africa during World War 2. I had seen photos of him, handled some of his personal possessions, been intrigued by his soccer trophies, but I knew very little about him. Nobody in the family had ventured into N. Africa in search of his grave, and the 65th anniversary of his death was fast approaching. Time that his memory was restored and celebrated within the family.
So three years ago we took a package deal to a Tunisian beach resort and decided, one day, to take a local train to the town of Sfax where, through my research via the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I had located his grave. Although Sfax is on the coast, it is a busy industrial town carefully avoided by all the tourists. This was evident not only by the absence of foreigners, but also by the total absence of women in the streets in this Muslim community. This made Jenny feel very obtrusive and uncomfortable as we made our way to the outskirts of town in search of the war cemetery. But we did eventually find it and, like most war cemeteries in Europe, it was beautifully tended and proved to be a welcome haven in the dirty industrial fringes of the town.
Uncle George had enlisted with the Yorkshire regiment of the 7th Green Howards, and had numbered amongst
the 300,000 rescued on the Dunkirk beaches. Then in 1942 he was shipped out to N. Africa and took part in the fierce campaigns in the early months of 1943. It was on April 6th 1943, during the battle of Wadi Akarit, that he was killed along with 160 of his regiment comrades.
It was very a moving moment when we found his grave, especially knowing that we were the very first members of the family to pay a visit. We spent time in quiet prayer and contemplation, took photos, and rested quietly in acorner before embarking on the return journey. My intention back home was to bring some of the family together on the 65th anniversary of Uncle George’sdeath and celebrate his memory.
But to my utter dismay, just before we returned to the UK, an electronic glitch had corrupted the memory card of my camera and I lost all the photos. There was no opportunity to get back to the cemetery to make good the loss, so I had to return home without the important photographic evidence for the rest of the family. My only hope was to contact the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and seek their help. The email I sent them I also copied to the British Embassy in Tunisia, asking them if someone might be able to visit the cemetery and take a new set of photos. To my amazement, I received a personal reply from the Ambassador himself, telling me that he and his wife would be paying an official visit to the cemetery at Sfax, and that his wife had already published a book on the war cemeteries of N. Africa. If I were to send
them details of my Uncle’s grave, she would be very happy to take a new set of photos and send them by email. And, within a week, this is exactly what happened, so the family celebration could go ahead with the promised photo-slide show.
Uncle George had been the youngest of 15 children, and he died at the age of 24. His commanding officer wrote to my grandparents, telling them “if he was as good a son as he was a soldier, then he was one of the best sons a mother could have….. He was killed whilst shooting with his own rifle. He was in a trench with Capt Coles and was shot in the head and died instantly. I feel his death very much, and since I knew him better than any soldier in my company (George was his batman), I feel that I can enter into your sorrow”. We all know that Commanding Officers were carefully schooled in the art of writing such letters, but his letter struck a note of warm sincerity which grieving parents needed to receive.
Cycling to pre-arranged stops to join fellow cyclists frequently requires passing through new territory, and going places that would not normally feature on my itinerary. My route today took me through villages in north Bedfordshire (Yieldon, Wymington, Podington) and into Northamptonshire (Woolaston, Wilby, Mears Ashby) to a coffee stop, and then around villages with evocative names like Harrowden, Orlingbury, Hannington and Sywell, to a lunch stop.
A brief stop in Mears Ashby to check my bearings led me to an information board by the roadside, telling the fascinating (but appalling) story of an air collision above the village during WWII. On the morning of March 31st 1943, during a practice air raid, two B17 flying fortresses, Ooold Soljer & Two Beauts, collided above the village, shedding their pay-load of bombs (most not exploding) and spreading wreckage over a wide area. The cause of the crash was said to be “heavy cloud causing one plane to get out of formation and turn back into the path of the oncoming planes”.
It appeared that Two Beauts nudged the starboard wing of Ooold Soljer and immediately the wing of Ooold Soljer including the outboard engine fell away, and from 7000ft (2133 metres) both aircraft went into a dive, crashing to the South and South East of Mears Ashby. As I looked around this quintessentially English rural environment, it was hard to imagine such an appalling disaster happening there. But lying midst an area where there were dozens of war-time airfields, sending out thousands of bombing missions, the chances of such a thing happening were very high.