Legacy of War
Every morning Joan rode her bike across the Sussex downs to fetch fresh milk from a neighbouring farm. Ancient trees provided an arched covering along the winding lanes, the morning sun glinting through the overhanging branches as she cycled through the rolling countryside. Birds were eager participants in an early morning chorus. However, that day, a “dogfight” overhead would drown their chatter as the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire of a British Spitfire engaged it’s German counterpart directly overhead. The quiet life of a country girl who was accustomed to playing in freshly cut hay, picking Bluebells in the woods and collecting fresh laid eggs, was soon to be shattered with the call to the service of her country. Training as a nurse, she would always remember the first leg she held as the surgeon sawed it off. The hospital was full of war casualties, boys her age. Joan soon became only too familiar with explaining to recent amputees why they could still feel the presence of limbs they no longer had.
Setting off to join the desert campaign in North Africa, a gigantic Red Cross painted on the hospital ship offered some protection. Who would have thought just a few months ago that she would ever set foot in any foreign land, let alone Africa. It was beyond her wildest dreams. The smell of the soldiers festering wounds, would soon make it a reality. Personal bouts of Malaria and turning yellow from Hepatitis also left an indelible impression upon her. Queen Alexandra’s nurses held the rank of army officers, which had one unexpected benefit. It was possible for a nurse to order the young wounded male patients to stop flirting, those on the road to recovery anyway. Her next stop was Sorrento, Italy, as the allies made their push against Mussolini. At the tender age of 22, Joan was a deputy matron of a field hospital and a first lieutenant. She was also on hand for the last great eruption of the volcano, Vesuvius in 1944, which darkened the whole sky for days. One of her final assignments of the war was a hospital in Northern India that was receiving casualties from the Burmese campaign fighting the Japanese.
Owen at 6 foot 4 was a slightly built, sensitive, artistic and bright student. His brothers had all been university graduates before him, two becoming men of the cloth, another a teacher. The War was going to rudely interrupt that tradition. It was obvious to Owen in 1939 that the outbreak of War was imminent. He decided to volunteer rather than wait to be drafted. This way he could choose his regiment. He was soon training as an officer serving in the Royal Signals. Although it sounded relatively safe, it would often mean setting up communications between the front line and command headquarters. Owen loved water and had a school certificate for swimming a mile to prove it. However, the British military disaster at Dunkirk, France in 1940 was not a place to enjoy the North Sea. Trapped on a beach with German planes shooting at you was not anyone’s cup of tea. The retreat aided by every kind of boat imaginable was hardly a piece of cake either. The troops had to wade out to the ships in full gear with their guns above their heads. This time, Owen’s height and swimming ability held him in good stead. Other soldiers were not quite so fortunate, as apparently about 40,000 troops drowned in the Channel. That’s if you believe Nazi propaganda at the time. In 1943, Owen was to get news that his parent’s house in Ipswich, England had sustained a direct hit from a “Doodlebug”. This was one of Hitler’s motorized terror bombs, which had probably missed its intended destination, London. The house was completely demolished. His parents had heard the whine of the bomb and managed to get under her bed. Thank God they knew how to make furniture in those days! His mother, father and younger brother were dug out alive. Owen’s father was to die the next year. It has been suggested that he never really recovered from the shock of this ordeal. Incidentally it was the only bomb to hit Ipswich during the war.
Owen had been stationed to Burma, to fight alongside the Ghurkhas against the Japanese. Running communications lines was extremely dangerous. Once the jeep in which Owen was riding, set off a mine. The other soldiers on board became an unintentional shield. Their deaths saved his life. He had been fortunate this time, but this wasn’t going to last forever. His love of water was his eventual downfall. Swimming in infested waters to cool off with some of his mates was not a good idea. Owen contracted what was later diagnosed as Polio and was transported to a hospital in Northern India. The prognosis was not good. Owen clung to life, almost completely paralysed. Even when he started to recover he was told he would never walk again. After almost a six months lying on his back in hospital, Owen decided to write a note. He had learned to use his left hand as his right one was too badly paralysed.
“Bachelor, aged 26, appearance normal, thoroughly overhauled and reconditioned, weak deltoids, matrimonial intentions, bright prospects for the right woman.” Dear Sister, I intend sending the above advert to the Times of India. If you consider there is any possibility of the matter being arranged locally please let me know by closing the left eye three times in quick succession when next passing bed 16
Deltoidus Nil Fosteris
As Nurse Joan did her morning rounds that day, he passed her the above note. The rest of course is history. They became my parents. The War had changed everything, even their names. Owen had become Gus, a nickname derived from his second name Augustus. Joan had become Jackie from her initials JK. They were to keep these names given to them by their war buddies for the rest of their lives.