Many thanks to David, son of Harry Yates, for contributing the following piece. It proves again that there are strange coincidences that time occasionally chooses to reveals to us – something I have experienced many a time while researching the Squadron.
75 x 2
by David Yates
Monday 8th May 1995 is memorable in our household not so much because it was the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, and was marked accordingly with official ceremony all across the West, but because something kept secret from the family for four decades was finally revealed.
Not many days earlier, my wife Geraldine and I had completed a major extension and renovation to the house we then owned, tucked away in a pleasant downland village near Lewes in East Sussex. I had taken upon myself the task of applying a paint roller to the expanse of brand new render, which would be followed with a fine brush to all the sashes – also new, and there were over thirty of them. It was a labour of love already turning into just labour.
Anyway, my in-laws were driving over the downs from their home in East Dean to see their grandchild and have lunch with us. At noon I was still balanced on my ladder at the back of the house, rolling on the second or, perhaps, third coat of emulsion. From inside the house Geraldine was clattering away with pots and pans. The smell of a roasting joint wafted through an open window. Away to my right the crunch of wheels on gravel told me my morning’s work was at an end. There were female voices, the sound of car doors closing. A moment or two later my father-in-law Leslie appeared from around the side of the house, hand-in-hand with his infant grand-daughter.
We made the usual greetings and stood talking for a while, probably about not very much. Then, with no particular seriousness, I asked him what he had been doing fifty years ago, on 8th May 1945. He didn’t seem too sure, “Joan and I were married by then,” he said eventually, “I think we must have been in London.”
Now, I had known for very nearly a quarter of a century, since not long after I started going out with Geraldine, that her dad’s war service had been as a wireless operator on heavy bombers. My own father had served as a pilot on Lancs, flying alongside some New Zealanders, although he was a North Bucks country boy through and through. I knew that the whole subject of the war had been handled differently in Leslie’s household than in ours. My dad didn’t make a great thing out of it. But his crew were all known to me from the letters and photos which arrived in the family home (usually) at Christmas time. Indeed, on one Sunday back in 1975, when we were still single, Geraldine and I waited at table on the whole crew when they – said to be already the last full 75 crew living – came to the house following a squadron reunion at Mepal. But it wasn’t like that in Leslie’s house. There, a discrete silence was maintained over the whole topic. The detail of his own wartime service was unknown to his two sons and two daughters.
It was not that unusual. I had childhood friends whose fathers wanted, for whatever reason, to close the wartime chapter and keep it closed, leaving their sons high and dry for knowledge. One accepted that there were histories which were not happy, and men who were quietly haunted by them. The tremendous will of the people to move on, which erupted so joyously with victory in Europe, gave such men the opening to a new life they needed, and they took it. If there was no need to revisit the past, it was not revisited.
Still, standing there with Leslie I thought it was worth another question. “So you weren’t still flying by this point?” I asked.
He wasn’t, having finished his tour in September 1944.
Then, out of nowhere he blurted out, “I didn’t finish with my own crew though. I was sent to hospital with German measles, you see, and my own crew carried on flying without me. It was six weeks before the doctor let me go back. I expected them to still be there, but they weren’t. I made enquiries. But nobody seemed to know anything, just that they hadn’t come back from a raid. The radio operator who had gone in my place was only young, and he’d just married, I think. Anyway, over the years I’ve tried a few times to find out what happened to them – you know, at the library. But I still don’t know. I’ve always hoped one or two of them were made POWs, and got back home to New Zealand eventually.”
“New Zealand?” I retorted.
“Yes, it was a New Zealand squadron, based at Mepal in Cambridgeshire.”
I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. “Wait a minute, you are saying you flew from Mepal?”
”Yes, that was the airfield.”
”Yes, but that’s the airfield which 75 Squadron flew from.”
”That’s right, 75 squadron.”
“Wait a minute, you are saying you flew from Mepal with 75 Squadron RNZAF?”
”That’s right ….”
“But my father flew with them”.
“No no no” he said, completely certain of his facts. Well, he had been an accountant in civilian life. “Your father was a fighter pilot with the New Zealand ‘fighter’ squadron.”
I put him right as gently but firmly as I could. That evening, after Leslie and Joan had returned home to East Dean, I telephoned my dad to tell him what had come to pass. I knew that he possessed a well-thumbed copy of Forever Strong, Norman Franks’ history of 75, which I had borrowed and read myself. Norman and Dad had met or exchanged correspondence at some point and become friendly, and Norman and his wife had visited for dinner. Norman wrote in Dad’s copy of Forever Strong (which I have in my office at home today):
“To Harry Yates DFC -Who completed a tour of with 75 Sqn
and was seen in the smoke 30 times
Information on the fate of Leslie’s crew had to be in there. I gave Dad Leslie’s number, and he duly checked and telephoned the next day. The information was that Leslie’s skipper P/O Armstrong and all his crew were killed on the Dortmund raid of 22/23 May, 1944. Flt Sgt George Leslie Edgerton – taciturn, stoic man that he was – now knew for certain that he was the only Armstrong crew-member to survive the war. But at least he had that knowledge, and the long vigil of the heart that he had kept for his crew could be brought to a close at last.
Extraordinarily, Geraldine and I were in the nineteenth year of our marriage when he had finally spoken of his sorrow that day in our garden, and the coincidence of our respective dad’s war service came to light.
The event only spurred my dad on in a plan he was quietly hatching to research, write and publish the story of his flying years, centred on five hard months at Mepal. At the time I knew nothing about this. I was aware that, always a reader of history, he had become focussed on RAF history and had amassed quite a comprehensive book collection. I also knew he had been to the Public Records Office at Kew and acquired a large pile of yellow sheets logging 75 operations for the period of his service. I thought it was just a surfeit of nostalgia.
It was my mother who finally told me that dad had quite forsaken her company in the evenings to disappear upstairs and start tapping on his 1970s IBM golf-ball typewriter. Apparently, he had been hammering away at the keyboard for a year or more. When I asked him about it he showed me a sheath of close-typed A4 sheets, the front one of which read:
“Luck and a Lancaster by Harry Yates DFC”
It was a pretty chaotic presentation, it must be said, with passages long and short crossed out everywhere and re-typed, and lengths of type stuck with sellotape on top of other lengths, or across the whole of the top or bottom of the sheet. But there was the unmistakable voice of my dad talking quite naturally about events in his life I had little or no idea had ever taken place. For his part, he was very unsure about the quality of the thing, which was obviously why he had kept quiet about it. Did I think anyone would publish it, he asked. I had no idea. “Let me take it home and read it properly,” I said.
I began reading that night, sitting up in bed. A few pages in I turned to my wife and said, “Some of this is beautiful.”
My judgement on the manuscript was that it had to be worth sending off to publishers, but not in that condition. So dad bought himself a modern electronic machine and re-typed the whole thing, which at that point ran up to his release from the eye hospital at Littleport. But he had lost his creative impetus in the laborious typing process. I suggested that he send what he had to some publishers anyway, and if one of them was interested he could return to writing, and finish the thing.
The first manuscript went, for some reason known only to dad, to Haynes, the technical manual publisher. Unsurprisingly, it bounced back with a rejection slip within a month or two. He then posted a copy to (the now defunct) Airlife Publishing, who were a much more likely prospect. But weeks of silence turned into months. I urged dad to find another publisher to try. But he had become disheartened, quietly concluding that he had probably miscalculated, and there wasn’t really any interest in a septuagenarian heavy bomber pilot with only half his story told.
The whole project was put away in a chest of drawers, and he returned to mum’s company in the evenings. Then, right out of the blue in the early summer of 1999, fully a year after shipping off the manuscript, he received a letter from Airlife’s managing editor. “Dear Mr Yates,” it began, “Thank you very much for sending me the manuscript for your memoir, Luck and a Lancaster. I sincerely apologise that I had rather a lot of submissions to read before I could get to yours. But I have now read it with much interest, and would be very pleased indeed to publish the finished manuscript for you if you are still seeking a publisher.”
Still seeking a publisher! Dad was electrified. A standard authors contract was received, signed and shot back within a few days. The only thing was that Airlife wanted to have the book available for its Christmas list, which meant finishing the whole manuscript in three months. Everything came out of the chest of drawers and Dad threw himself back into his writing. He made the deadline, but he wasn’t entirely happy about having to work so fast. He felt that something was lost that perhaps did not return until the very last chapter and the epilogue. I know there were two small factual mistakes that made it into print, and they always annoyed him. But when I read the new material I thought it worked in rather well, given that this was the hard-grind of the tour from which all naivety had been drained by his hospitalisation.
Today, in one form or another, <em>Luck and a Lancaster</em> has probably sold getting on for 45,000 copies. The response of readers has been incredibly generous and kind. Hundreds of people, some of them fellow aircrew, many more of them relatives of aircrew, wrote often touching letters to dad. He was very grateful and answered all he could until, over the final six years of his life, illness drained him too much.
He passed away in Hastings Conquest hospital on 20th November 2011, two months short of his 90th birthday. He had lived a wonderful, satisfying life, which was what he deserved, and a life which is very much caught and held in aspic as the memory of a young flyer by his much older self.
One of the things Dad had done in his research period was to visit Barry Aldridge’s museum at Witchford, and sign the visitors book. In the summer of 2001, I took Leslie up to Cambridgeshire to re-connect with his own past. We visited Ely and the Cathedral, and we went to the old airfield, of course, and to the village green at Mepal. Then we went on to Barry’s museum. Leslie wandered through the exhibits and breathed in the pungent perfume of that Hercules power-plant which fills the place. But some private regret, that will obviously never be expunged, stopped him from signing the visitors book.
Leslie had his 95th birthday dinner with Geraldine and I on St George’s Day this year. He is still surprisingly hale and very determined to remain independent as long as possible.