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Unspoken
Unspoken
📖 eBook - ePub

Unspoken

A Father's Wartime Escape. A Son's Family Discovered

Tom McGrath

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📖 eBook - ePub

Unspoken

A Father's Wartime Escape. A Son's Family Discovered

Tom McGrath

About This Book

Growing up in Waterford, Tom McGrath never noticed the odd gaps in the stories of his parents' lives before he was born; it was only many years after they died that he uncovered the unspoken truths, which did so much to explain the people they had been.

Here he tells the incredible true story of his father's conscription into the British Army, his escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland, his daring journey across Europe and subsequent recapture – and the devastating news that awaited him in England. Tom's research also led him to discover that his mother also carried a heartbreaking secret.

In writing this book Tom not only recreated his father's nail-biting escape but also embarked on a journey of his own to reconnect with previously unknown family members in order to piece together an extraordinarily rare tale that encompasses memoir, family history, and the parallel stories, which were almost lost for ever, of his parents' lives of desperate hardship.

Information

Publisher
Gill Books
Year
2022
ISBN
9780717195039
PART ONE
MY FATHER’S STORY
BASED ON THE RECORDED ACCOUNT OF HIS WAR EXPERIENCES AND ESCAPE, HELD AT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, LONDON, AND ON HIS CONVERSATIONS WITH FAMILY MEMBERS AFTER THE WAR YEARS
1.
PORTLAW TO ALDERSHOT 19041939
My name is Tommy. I was born on 17 January 1904, the seventh of thirteen children, two of whom died in infancy. My father and mother had a large family and, though they were not wealthy, they did their best to provide for all of us with great love and affection. Originally, we lived in a small house on George’s Street in the village of Portlaw, which is twelve miles from Waterford City in the south of Ireland. By small, I mean a little one-storey house that was shared with my father and mother and my five brothers and five sisters. In later years, when my father was promoted to head forester in the Curraghmore Estate, my family moved to a larger house in Coolfin, on the outskirts of the village.
We had a tough life, yet it was vibrant and challenging. The central square in the town had only horses and carts traversing it, with some hitched to the posts outside the small family-run shops. The place was often bustling with farmers and tradesmen, little old ladies in shawls, old men in caps with clay pipes dangling from their moist lips, some walking on the dusty ground, others gathered in small groups for a hearty chat. The inside of the local public house, Harney’s, with its dark and smoke-filled bar, yellow walls and sawdust-covered floor, was the focal point of the town’s social universe.
We endured the bitter cold during the winter months. All we had was a small turf fire in the kitchen to heat our humble dwelling. The cramped living conditions, the screams, the cries and the laughter of my brothers and sisters bellowing forth from the tiny house on George’s Street – that was home.
There were many days of wonderment and joy. Days spent playing in the open fields and splashing about in the crystal-clear waters of the nearby lakes and the Clodiagh River, all the while wrapped in the security and comfort of companionship, feisty rivalry and a feeling of belonging. The excitement and challenges encountered on the local hurling pitches, when either playing for or cheering on the local team, cemented our shared sense of camaraderie. And then the awkward transition from adolescent to man, taking on the mantle of responsibility, whether it was chopping wood in the forest, hauling sacks in the mill or curing skins in the tannery.
In my late teens I worked in the forest on the Curraghmore Estate of Lord Waterford. I met a local girl called Mary Fowler in the village and we started courting. She and I got married in the Catholic church in Portlaw on 4 May 1927. For a while, I continued to work in the forest while Mary did housekeeping for two elderly sisters in a large house just outside the village. Although wages were low, we lived comfortably. Nevertheless, something within me made me restless and sparked a desire to seek a life elsewhere.
One day in 1930, I saw an advertisement in the local Waterford newspaper, The Munster Express. A wealthy family in Surrey, England, was looking to employ a gardener and a housekeeper. We nervously sent off our application and, some weeks later, received word that we had been successful and that we could start the following week.
We sold whatever furniture we owned and packed the few personal belongings we had into a little old suitcase. Having said our goodbyes to our families and friends, Mary and I boarded the bus that would take us to the railway station in Waterford. From there, the three-hour journey found us alighting onto the platform at Kingsbridge Station in Dublin.
It was damp and cold as we made our way on foot to the city centre from where we would take a tram to bring us to the harbour at Dún Laoghaire to board the boat to England.
‘Don’t cry, Mary,’ I said putting my arms around her to comfort her. ‘We’ll be alright, you’ll see. Things will be grand.’
We were both numb but had hardly even noticed the chill. It was fear of the unknown that had frozen us stone-cold. We were young, innocent and naive to the ways of the world. Neither of us had ever set foot outside our own local community and yet we were also hugely excited to be setting off on this journey to the big lights and a whole new world.
Having travelled all night by boat and train, we finally arrived at London’s Euston Station. From there, we took a bus to our new employer’s residence in Leatherhead, Surrey. During the journey, we were mesmerised by the sounds and sights of the biggest place we had ever seen. There were cars, buses and trams of every variety, and buildings so big that we could not grasp how they could stay up, nor imagine how they possibly could have been constructed. We were two lost souls in a strange new environment. We knew no one and could barely understand a word through the heavy local accents.
At the house of Dr Graham Maxwell and his wife, Dorothy, a butler opened the door and asked us to step into the parlour. A little while later, the doctor presented himself, shook our hands and told us we were very welcome.
We were accommodated in a small flat, 23 Kingscroft Road, not far from the Maxwells’ home. Our employers treated us very well. Mary looked after the housekeeping and cooking while I tended to the extensive gardens encircling the premises. About a year after our employment commenced, Dr Maxwell told me that he wanted to send me on a course to learn how to be a car mechanic. He also said that he wanted me to learn to drive because I would be his new chauffeur when Richard, his current driver, retired.
Our jobs were demanding, and life was not easy, but overall we were happy. Of course, there was always the constant sorrow in our hearts of missing our families and friends back home, but we had each other and that was all we needed.
images
Throughout 1939, there had been a lot of talk and newspaper coverage of what was happening in Germany. This was brought to a head when Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and, soon after, war was declared by France and Britain in response.
Early one morning, while I was at the sink drying my face after shaving, I spotted the outline of the postman through the lace curtains above the mirror. He was leaning his bicycle against the garden gate. He knocked on the door and handed me a letter. From the emblem on the envelope, I immediately knew what it was. It was a notice from the Ministry of Defence instructing me to report to Aldershot Garrison for training. I was being conscripted into the British Army.
Out in the kitchen, Mary and I locked eyes. My mind was racing.
‘Oh! Tommy, they’ll send you to fight.’ As tears rolled down her cheeks, she whispered, ‘I’ll never see you again. What am I going to do here? I’ll never survive on my own.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ I said. ‘Sure, I hear that nothing will come of it, and this is all just a precaution.’
‘Can we not go home? They can’t make you join up.’
‘That’s not the answer, Mary. You have to understand that once I’ve received this letter, I have no choice.’
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It was little over an hour by train from Leatherhead to Aldershot, although the journey seemed to take for ever. The dank carriages were bursting at the seams, mostly full of young men engaged in nervous banter, knowing that they were embarking on a journey, the destination and duration of which they could not control.
When we reached Aldershot, I joined with the mass of other men who were lining up to gain entry to the barracks. I found myself in the midst of a mob of bodies, which seemed to pull me towards the gates. I looked around at the faces of men who had already been hardened by the realities of life through hard work and toil, and faces of those who were still just boys, naive and innocent, nonchalantly chatting with one another. As we approached the registration desk, we were asked to provide our personal details: name, address, next of kin and religion.
‘Right, McGrath, off you go. Follow that sign and queue up for your medical. Then report back here for your kit.’
‘Sir, would it be possible for me to be assigned to the Royal Irish Regiment? My father and eldest brother fought in the Great War with that regiment, and my father was held as a prisoner of war in Limburg in Germany.’
‘Now look here, Paddy, you’re in the British Army now. You’ll do as you’re told, when you’re told. Understand?’
‘Yes sir, but –’
‘No “but”s! Fuck off down to the medic. Now!’
The medical examination was basic. The doctor checked that I was in a general state of good health, had sufficiently good eyesight and did not have flat feet. Then I was told to report back to the gate at the main entrance and join the queue to be given my uniform, boots and weapons, which consisted of a Lee-Enfield rifle with bayonet and an Enfield revolver. We were also given a gas mask, underwear, a towel, a razor and a bar of soap.
Later that evening I was assigned to my billet, which was in a dormitory with twenty or so bunk beds. A man was already sitting on the bunk beside mine. ‘I’m Frank,’ he bellowed, as he thrust forth his massive hand for me to shake. I could tell he was from Yorkshire by his accent.
‘Hello,’ I said, ‘I’m Tommy.’
‘You’re Irish!’
‘Yes, but I’ve been working in England now for a number of years. I was conscripted and told to come here.’
‘Bet you’re sorry that you left the old sod, eh?’
‘It’s safe to say that this wasn’t in our plans when we came, but, really, England has been good to me and my wife. It has given us a good living and, sure, everyone is saying that there’ll be no war. That it’s only all talk and bluff from the Germans.’
From the far side of the room, a short, stocky soldier called out, ‘Not sure we bleedin’ want your help, Paddy.’
I could sense the atmosphere change.
‘I had no choice; I was told to be here.’
‘Well, I for one don’t want you. So, my little ploughboy friend, all I’m saying is watch your back, if you know what I mean,’ my aggressor snarled through tobacco-stained teeth.
Later that night, when we were having supper in the general mess, I was approached by another Irishman. Having introduced himself as Jim Creagan, he said, ‘I overheard that conversation earlier in the billet. Keep your eye on that little bollocks. His name is Ronnie. They tell me he has a reputation for being a tough guy who tries to make life difficult for fellows he doesn’t like. Apparently, he’s from London’s East End and grew up tough.’
‘I don’t know what the hell I ever did to him.’
Jim just shrugged and said, ‘Don’t let him get to you, boy.’
As it turned out, Jim and I had a lot in common. We were both Irish emigrants who had come to England to find work. He had relations in Waterford and knew a lot of the places I talked about. I was glad to have found someone I could talk to and trust. In time, Jim and I developed a strong friendship which helped us enormously with the trials and horrors we were to face.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, we were woken by the loud sound of the reveille being trumpeted throughout the barracks. Its shrill pitch pierced the fresh morning air. Within thirty seconds, Sergeant Major Terence Strawbridge was stomping through the dormitory, bellowing orders for everyone to jump out and stand to attention. ‘Well, good morning, my little darlings, and welcome to Aldershot. This is now your home for the next few months. This is where you will eat, drink, shit, fart and vomit until you earn the right to call yourselves soldiers. This is the place that you enter as boys and walk out as men – that is, if you survive. Do you understand me?’
‘Yes, sir!’
‘I can’t hear you.’
‘YES, SIR!’
‘I still can’t fucking well hear you. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?’
‘YES, SIR!
‘You’ll be glad to hear that every one of you has been assigned to the 51st Highland Division, a division typically filled with our Scottish brothers up north. But even though the bulk of you are not Scots, you’ll be proud to become part of this infantry regiment, which carries such an enormously heroic pedigree and a gallant history of battles won. But I warn you, we have very high standards and I expect no less from every last one of you. Anybody who dithers, falls or fails to give me one hundred per cent will be put on half-rations for a week and will have me to reckon with.
‘Normal training for infantry recruits is two years, but since we don’t know what to expect from the Jerries, we must prepare you as best we can within a matter of months so as to be ready if they do make a move. Unfortunately for you, my little dears, that is not such good news. You’ll be expected to work hard and not complain. You’ll receive basic training on armaments, map-reading, drill, physical engagement and overall discipline. When I say jump, you’ll jump. You will not question an order. From now on, you’ll think like soldiers, you’ll behave like soldiers and, until this conflict is over, there is no you, only your regiment. Are we clear?’
‘Yes, sir!’
Days led into weeks and weeks turned into months. We were put through a gruelling regime of training, which seemed to border on torture, yet, somehow, we slowly felt ourselves grow. Our bodies became leaner, fitter and more agile. I had played hurling and football back home, but I was now finding muscles in parts of me that I never knew existed.
We were made to polish our boots until you could see yourself in them. Our trousers and kits were ironed to perfection so that the crease was razor-sharp, and the brass buttons on our uniforms glistened.
The day we were told to pick up our rifles, I was amazed at how heavy they were. Yet, after three months of daily contact, it was as if they were part of our uniform. But what shocked me most of all during our training was being shown how to use a bayonet by the serg...

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Citation styles for UnspokenHow to cite Unspoken for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
McGrath, T. (2022). Unspoken ([edition unavailable]). Gill Books. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/3267138/unspoken-a-fathers-wartime-escape-a-sons-family-discovered-pdf (Original work published 2022)
Chicago Citation
McGrath, Tom. (2022) 2022. Unspoken. [Edition unavailable]. Gill Books. https://www.perlego.com/book/3267138/unspoken-a-fathers-wartime-escape-a-sons-family-discovered-pdf.
Harvard Citation
McGrath, T. (2022) Unspoken. [edition unavailable]. Gill Books. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/3267138/unspoken-a-fathers-wartime-escape-a-sons-family-discovered-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
McGrath, Tom. Unspoken. [edition unavailable]. Gill Books, 2022. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.