Today is ANZAC Day.
Growing up in the relative peace and safety of Australia, war has never touched my life beyond the occasional image on the nightly news. And so, when days like ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day roll around each year, I’ve never treated them as anything more than a reason for a day off.
But in recent years, I’ve started to think beyond my current circumstances and to think about how war has touched the lives of those in my family.
My Grandfather (whom I call Poppa) is a remarkable man. Born in 1926 in a town not too far from the Scottish border, war made an indelible impact on his young life. The inter-war economic depression meant scarcity marked his childhood. When World War II began, he couldn’t run from it. It came to him.
A few years ago, as his 80s were drawing to a close and the dreadfully ancient-sounding age of 90 drew nearer, Poppa wrote a chronicle of his memories. Never trained in the “art” of computing, he wrote each page in his sprawling near-illegible script (the result of when, as a left-handed schoolboy he wast threatened with harsh corporal punishment until he learned how to write right with his right-hand). My dad, Poppa’s son-in-law, himself quite familiar with his own illegible penmanship, dutifully transcribed the memories into a word document and arranged to have a copy printed for each of Poppa’s three daughters, seven surviving grandsons, and one granddaughter (me!).
Clocking in at over 350 A4 pages, it’s quite the read!
Today I was struck by a passage he wrote reflecting on his memories of Christmas 1940. At the age of 14, he was then living in Manchester as bombs fell in nightly storms over the British continent.
It’s hard for me to imagine it. War seems so foreign. But in my Grandfather’s memories, it’s so much closer, and all too real.
Manchester was heavily blitzed over a few nights leading up to Christmas in 1940. We could hear the bombs hitting and all the Anti-Aircraft guns firing from ten miles away. Come bombs dropped short and fell locally. Searchlights probed the sky.
From our back door we watched the shells bursting. We couldn’t watch from the safety of our house as all the windows had been sealed shut with brown tape to stop them from shattering.
We didn’t get much sleep.
Bombs hailed down on warehouses, railway stations, good yards and sidings. Not even the glass roof of Piccadilly station was spared.
The night was dark with strictly enforced blackouts, but Manchester was lit by fire. Rail wagons lit by the hundreds, burning for days before being brought under control.
Just before Christmas arrived, thousands of turkeys and other livestock were burned in a bombing raid. The smell spread for miles and lingered for weeks afterwards.
But it was still Christmas, so by daytime we braved the destruction, out bus passing mile after mile of rubble to take us to Lewis’ – the biggest department store in town. But even it had not stood unscathed.
We looked for Christmas gifts among damaged aisles and sickening smells.
But we were the lucky ones. Hundreds of people had died in the Manchester area during that winter. More in the later, more sporadic, air raids. And even more still in towns and cities all over the U.K . – Plymouth, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Coventry, Birmingham, York, Belfast, Cardiff, Manchester and Liverpool.
London bore scars from bombs that would take decades to heal.
The war made an even more personal impact on my family. In all honesty, if not for Hitler’s machinations in Germany and the threat of Japanese invasion in the pacific, I would not have been born. But more on that in another post.