A fiery bomber hit the sea hard and the Channel quickly engulfed the crew, who all perished. It was the summer of 1944. Most of the crew belonged to ‘normal’ families. They probably had grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters or lovers. Probably most had attended ‘reasonable’ schools, and might have been good at sports.
The rear Air-Gunner came from a terribly deprived background, and I had known him for but a short while. Let me call him Leslie. Despite the hardships of his childhood, he had a small spark within him.
Some of his mates had joined the Air Training Corps. One major attraction was the light blue uniform with a white lanyard, and it was free! The lads looked so spruce and clean compared with Leslie, in his castoff clothes. He liked the look of their smart turn-out, and in applying to join his mates he said his age was 16. I doubt if he or anyone else really knew his age.
All of his group of applicants were accepted except Leslie. He could scarcely read nor meet the minimum requirement for arithmetic. Leslie’s dejection was total. He hit the bottom. There was no counselling for him in 1940, just pure misery.
A sympathetic officer at my Civil Defence post persuaded him to join me, as a second messenger. At least he got a free, dark blue battle-dress, with white lanyard, a gas mask, steel helmet and the use of a free bicycle. There was plenty of waiting time when we were on duty call, and I was appalled when I soon realised that Leslie could neither read nor understand simple arithmetic.
For many months I helped him, using pencil and squared paper, until he was able to print his name, and then much more. Soon he was able to read my comics and simple books from my home.
Suddenly, it seemed to me, he took off in enthusiasm and started to gobble up words and begin to understand simple sums. His
confidence and appearance began to improve. I was away for several weeks, and when I returned I learned that he’d gone from Civil Defence and had been accepted by the ATC.
At the time I felt proud of his progress and of my involvement in the change of his life. The last time I saw him he smiled and gave me a mock salute. He had got his light blue uniform, with white lanyard. The new Leslie was ajoy to see, and I wished him well. Then I heard that he’djoined the RAF and eventually became an Air-Gunner.
The Rev. John Westley, of St. John’s Church, Werneth, Oldham, held a memorial service for Leslie. There were many friends and acquaintances in the congregation, including a detachment from the ATC, in their light blue uniform, and we of the Civil Defence in our dark blue. All felt great sadness that Leslie’s existence had been so short, and after he had attained such an improved quality of life following his dreadful childhood.
All I have of Leslie is the shadow in the group photograph on the left. He was too ashamed to appear in the group, but he used my camera.
If I had not interfered in his life, I’ve asked myself many times, could he have lived on much longer, as a nobody?