Interview 8: Peter
aged - 95
"It's true that I notice Peter's prosthetic arm, when I meet him for the first time, but only because it takes my brain a moment to compute that he's holding out his left hand for shaking rather than his right. Otherwise it's his quiet demeanour, his keen gaze, his generous open willingness to share his memories and his recount of the pain he’s been recently suffering (following an injection into his sciatic nerve) that stay with me afterwards. I ask of course about his war experience, during which he lost his right arm at the age of 23, and I ask if he has a photo of himself in uniform. He then draws out a concertina paper photo frame from 1941 of 5 men, in which he is pictured, youngest and last. His father stands out amongst them all, both for his seniority and for the black patch over his right eye. Peter tells me that his father was a tank commander in the 1st war, the result of this being that he lost his nose, his jaw and his right eye, but his face was rebuilt, in the photo the result looks remarkable.
“And you were a pilot?” I ask, spotting the RAF insignia.
“For two years,” he says.
I ask him about the reality of that life. “Flying at that time involved the hands and feet constantly…I don’t know how long it had taken to train pilots before the war but we went through it in 6 months (compacted from 3 years)”.
“You did night flights as well?”
“Yes we flew in Blenheims for night flying...radios were very primitive.” (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_Blenheim)
“Were you proud when you put on the uniform for the first time?” I ask.
“Oh yes, very much so, I’d always wanted to fly; but I must not have been a very good pilot, because after two years they asked me to leave,” he tells me with a slight smile.
“Then I joined the army and was sent to Normandy…I should have stayed at home,” he jokes, reflecting on his prosthetic.
“But you wouldn’t have been allowed to presumably?”
“No, it’s true.”
Peter was sent to fight in Normandy in 1944. He arrived 20th June age 23. “It had started June 6th,” he tells me. I was shot in the arm.”
“You must have been so scared?”
“Terrified, by the time they got me to a hospital it was too late to save it. These days they have helicopters to fly soldiers out. I think maybe I’d have been alright, if I’d been seen faster...they might have saved my arm.”
“It took a long time to get you off the field, on a stretcher? Was the hospital nearby?”
“I don’t know where it was, but it took about half a day to get there.”
“When did you get the prosthetic?”
“Almost immediately. It took me a long time to get the hang of it however; to learn how to do things left handed…about 4 years.”
“And your brothers?”
“That’s my eldest brother [far left of the images] he’d already left Britain, before the war, to join the mounted police in Rhodesia. So he joined the Rhodesia regiment...He was in the North Hants Yeomanry," he says pointing to the 2nd image from the left, "and he was in the East Kent Regiment [2nd image from the right]. He fought with the Ghurkhas in Burma, after which he lived in Kenya…he didn’t live so very long however…Because of the background he had in administration they put him on the panel of the war crimes court, trying the Japanese, he never really recovered...because of what he heard…depression.”
“And your parents?” I ask
“They married in 1906, mum was 18, I think. She was Scottish, my father was Portugese. He was in the Home Guard.”
“And they had 4 boys!” I observe
“There were two sisters in between” he adds. “My brothers were born 1908…1910…and 1912”.
I ask why his eldest brother wanted to go to Rhodesia.
“I don’t know why he went to Africa originally, there was such a big age gap between him and I; I wasn’t really privy to his thinking.”
“And after the war?”
“I went to uni, late (at 29) studying…agriculture”.
“Had you grown up on a farm?”
“No, but in a village, surrounded by countryside. Luckily, as it turned out, I’d been sent to boarding school for 4 years, it saved me from failing and meant I got my Scottish Higher Education qualification.”
“And you had a family?”
“I was married twice. My first wife…didn’t want children. My second wife had three children already...we were married 50 years.” At the memory of his wife Peter looks inordinately happy.
“And when/why did you move to Danny?”
“My wife and I moved here 5 years ago. We were living in Norfolk when she started losing her sight, friends told us about this place, we looked into it, it seemed perfect.” Peter’s wife is gone now but our conversation draws to a close only when one of his step sons (of whom he's obviously immensely proud) rings to say he’s 5 minutes away (as he makes his way toward Danny for a visit).
I go to chat to Peter a second time when I've begun working on the gauntlets I'm producing from paper, for my exhibition, inspired by both his story and that of General George Goring, who's family once owned Danny and who fought in the English Civil war. I've settled on symbolism suitably reflective of General Goring, for embroidering on one of the gloves, but need more ideas of what small images I can include on the other, so as to best represent Peter and his war time experience. I begin, therefore, by asking whether he has a picture of himself in his soldiers uniform, that I might be able to see, with it's badge showing. Peter tells me he hasn’t, explaining that they had only just come from training camps and weren’t assigned their regiments until they got to France. However he confirms, “my regiment was the Somerset light infantry” . So I get my phone out and we do a google search for pictures of the regiment’s badge and its uniform. This then is to be the first of the 6 symbols I need for the other glove. Having gone on to tell him what I’ve read of General George Goring and his close relationship with Charles I, whom he was obviously fighting for, I ask about Peters’ own sense of nationhood, for which reason he was fighting, and whether the Union Jack was the best representation of that. “I suppose so” he confirms, describing their sense of fighting for their right to keep their identity, their freedom, to keep things as they were. He tells me of a recent appointment he’s had at the hospital, one where he was asked whether he lost his arm in the war and (having confirmed that this was the case) had been thanked by the doctor who “hadn’t been born then of course,” for what he’d done, as regards saving and safeguarding all the lives of those Brits who'd been yet to come (me included). “His thanks moved me,” Peter says, “even 70 years on...I couldn’t talk about any of it, for a long while,” he confirms when I check in again that he doesn’t mind all my questions, "but I don't mind now, 70 years later."
I ask him where he came back to on leave but he says he didn’t have any leave, confirming that there hadn’t been time between his joining up and being sent to Normandy “I suppose that would have been organized…” (but of course he was then injured). “I’d spent a year working on a farm between the RAF and joining up again,” he explains and, remembering how he’d spoken last time of his work in agriculture, as a consultant after the war, I state that I believe we have found our third symbol. What type of farm was it I ask: “General...we had cows and sheep and grew crops he says,” leaving me free to choose my third/agricultural symbol from any of those. “A Fordson tractor might be another one,” he suggests “or a Massey Ferguson, perhaps pulling a trailer?” So there then is number 4, though I joke that he’s now pushing at the limits of my skill, as regards the actual embroidery.
Grabbing hold of the idea of transportation however, I ask again of his time flying and Peter quickly rises to pick up a print out of a downloaded picture of a plane. The image shows a Westland Whirlwind and I comment that I’ve never heard of that type of fighter plane. “There were only ever 2 squadrons of them produced (167 and 163), there were only 114 planes ever made; they were so underpowered and unstable. Whilst the Hurricane had a stalling speed of about 85 theirs was about 95, we had to come into land at 120 miles an hour, stalling at 100 meant one wing would drop and you’d literally fall out of the sky. It was that plane that did for my career as a pilot," he adds, "I’d been out on duty all night…we were monitoring incoming planes…as you opened the throttle you had to swing the talk on the tail you see…my friend forgot…his plane swung straight into another nearby one…I watched the planes explode. At that moment I was summoned to see my superior, I can’t remember what for, I was so distraught at what I’d just witnessed that I complained about how dangerous the planes were and he gave me the order to leave immediately. They had enough men coming through at that stage you see, they could afford to lose a single cross pilot”.
I tell him what I’ve heard and read about the rickety nature of all the planes involved in the war, held together by wire and so cold inside and Peter tells me of one flight he remembers out over the north sea, “you’d fly in a triangular shape, out and round and back, my friend and I were so cold on landing we could barely move, we were 7,000 feet, at night, no heating”. I ask Peter also if he believes in God and/or did at that time. “I lost my faith in the war, because of what I saw,” he tells me.
“But maybe that final order to quit saved your life,” I suggest. “Were those planes in service for much longer after that?”
“I don’t know how long exactly, I’d been in 163 squadron and they moved onto Halker Typhoons eventually, but they’d had to use all the whirlwinds up first." I find this statement leaves a strong image behind my eyes, of the lives that perhaps had had to be used up to that end also. “It was the Typhoons that were used to such devastating affect at Normandy also,” Peter goes on and with that our conversation turns again to the battle in which he so nearly lost his own life.
“We were fighting for a place called Villers Bocarge,” he tells me. “We were sent in specifically as support for hill no. 112, they were having a hard time there”.
“In my mind I always imagine a big flat battle field but I suppose it wasn’t like that at all? The Germans had taken over the town and you were moving in to try and get it back? There were Germans on the hill and you were fighting from beneath? What were you fighting with?”
“A Bren gun…we were in pairs…you’d dig yourselves into a two person trench at the base of the hill, just big enough to squat down below ground level…you could hold the gun against your shoulder or your hip…my partner was nicknamed Chalky (his surname was White)…we made our approach on foot, behind the tanks, but at one point our passage was stalled. The message came back that the delay was being caused by a lone sniper. I was told to run ahead and inform the Lieutenant. I ran, but at one point paused, it was then that I was shot...I suppose he’d been aiming to shoot me square in the back but because I stopped he caught my arm…I was out of it then of course but I heard later than when Chalky had been told I’d been wounded, he saw red. He asked about the sniper, was told it was one man up a tree, marched out of line, straight to where the gun man was and from the base of the tree shot upwards…the sniper fell out in pieces.”
“Did you keep in touch with Chalky,” I ask, marveling at how much bravery can be induced by such personalized anger.
“No, he didn’t make it.”
I ask what the weather was like, perhaps a seemingly innocuous question but now I'm imaging a muddy trench and am intrigued to know what the conditions were like. I tell him I find it amazing that troops weren't simply wiped by stray flu epidemics and the inability to keep clean.
"I was lucky to be there in the summer," Peter tells me, "and we were so strong and fit when we left". He clarifies his youth at the time by telling me how he'd been playing cricket at the end of his school career just a month before he became involved in the war.
“What made Normandy such a decisive battle?” I ask.
“By D-day there were 130 thousand troops there,” he tells me “and the Germans had been expecting us to land at Calais, to come in using the shortest route over the channel. Most of their troops had been sent there, they were so outnumbered, they couldn’t return in time with their heavy artillery and they didn’t think we had much of that. How, for our part, it was all kept a secret I don’t know.”
As Peter and I talk of intelligence and secrecy he tells me of one particular landing he’d made whilst flying. Via the radio he’d been told that he’d see the lights around the landing strip any moment and when he’d confirmed that he could, he’d been told that his was the next position to land. “When you heard that you flew once around the base and came down, when we landed however we ran into a ditch. My co-pilot commented that they must have dug that quickly, because it hadn’t been there when we’d left. I couldn’t get the plane out so we had to leave it, we climbed out and were approached by ground crew asking if we wanted to report in. I said I wanted to report to Group A but was told that there were only group B planes there…turns out we were at Marston Moor, it had only been opened that day and it had been opened in secret, we’d been aiming for about 10 miles in land, we were supposed to land at Church Fenton, but no one knew, you see, that it was opening, it was all secret. I was told they’d only just managed to stop a Lancashire taking off from beneath us, it was all about those lucky moments.”
We talk of the logistics involved in general in the war and in particular of getting tanks onto the beaches at Normandy: “There were two Mulberry harbours,” he states, going to on to explain that because the sea was too shallow to get troops and tans off the huge ships that had bought them there and up onto land the British had designed large tanks made of concrete that were floated out first and sunk and filled with water, over which was laid a temporary landing strip, down which tanks could drive. "It was the first time they’d been used...We all came in up the beaches, there were maybe 4 beaches involved, I went in on Sword beach.”
So I leave Peter with plans to employ an image of his unit's badge, an animal or crop, one of the tractors mentioned, the Whirlwind plane, the Union Jack and an image of a Bren gun. Now I just have to see if I'm capable of reproducing each of these in thread.
At home later I find this fascinating wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normandy_landings and get to read more about Sword beach, the Mulberry harbours, the secret plans etc - "In the months leading up to the invasion, the Allies conducted a substantial military deception, codenamed Operation Bodyguard, to mislead the Germans as to the date and location of the main Allied landings". And another fascinating detail I discover whilst then reading up about the Somerset Light Infantry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somerset_Light_Infantry) is that the regiment was originally established by James II, who was the son of Charles I (and Henrietta Maria), for whom General George Goring was fighting (and both of whom there are portraits of on the walls at Danny). So the link across time that I was looking to portray in the two gloves (regarding historic and contemporary occupants of Danny and their involvement, as soldiers, in British History/war is even more pertinent and direct than I was imagining. In fact before I'd read this I'd also already finished off the gauntlet inspired by George Goring in red and gold (specifically, in my mind at that point, to do with blood and royalty); it turns out these were also originally the colours of the S.L.Infantry's uniform".
- Stephanie Smart