Today, September 7th, marks the 70th anniversary of the London Blitz. I forgot this day because it is only a date in a history book to me, but my father never would have forgotten this day. He lived it and saw it through to the end as German bombers were replaced by V or “vengeance” missles, Hitler’s Parthian shot, although in this case, that last shot in retreat brought suffering but no victory.
When my father was a young man on an Irish farm in the Midlands, things were tough indeed. Yet, in the perverse way of the Irish, starting with the famous legacy of Wrong-Way Corrigan who famously flew to his goal backward, dad decided the frying pan was not hot enough, into the fire he would go.
So at the callow age of 18, my father left the old sod to travel to London to fight for freedom alongside the Brits. This was a truly perverse direction as the terrible events of Ireland’s abortive Easter Rebellion of 1916 were fresh in memory, and some Irish still hung swastikas in the mistaken belief that Hitler was a continuation in a long line of German rulers who promised relief from British oppression.
Alas, Hitler was naught but a butcher: of his people, of his soldiers, of the free world and of innocence. Before he would go to a well-deserved grave in a bunker, he would have survived not just our side’s attempts on his life, but those of the finest generals Germany every fielded, heroes all, who tried to save their country’s honor and their countrymen’s lives in a failed plot against him.
But my father knew nothing of what was ahead. He would tell me stories of his experiences during the war. “War, he said, is when you put your foot in a boot and there is a rat in the boot and it bites you.”
He also told of going to work in the morning at his job protecting planes on a British airbase, only to find entire rows of houses gone on his return.
Because of the mechanical aptitude he cultivated as a farm boy, he was chosen to work on a construction battalion of the Royal Air Force (RAF). This unit protected British planes and people by running lines with strong steel cables from barrage balloons to the ground. These cables cut the wings off the German planes so they could not strafe civilians on the ground.
One time, when my father was off duty, he had the importance of his job outlined in the most brutal possible way. He had visited a town on leave where a bus left only twice a day to return him to his base. From the top of a hill he saw the return bus leaving and raced as quickly as he could down the hill, but alas, it was too late. The bus left without him. He was terrified that he would be court martialed for being absent without leave (AWOL), a very serious military offense.
Suddenly there was a loud explosion and my father ran with the others down to the end of the street to see what happened. The bus he had just missed was blown apart by a German bomb dropped by one of those very planes my father and his comrades were charged with tearing into smithereens. My father’s hair turned white at age 18 and to the day he died he would caution me: “Never feel bad if you miss a bus, it could save your life one day.”
When my father visited Northern Ireland, he took grief from those who remembered Britain’s cruel treatment of Ireland, but I will always think of the ordinary Irish civilians working in London during the war as maids and nannies and laborers whose lives he saved, quietly, without fanfare and receiving no thanks, but resentment instead.
Fewer each year of that generation are still alive, but there are still some left, and it is with thanks that I remember them for saving the world from a grave evil. May God bless and keep them.