‘What Did You Do in the War, Dad?’ Tony Curtis

In Issue Five, we featured ‘Pro Patria’, Tony Curtis’s moving poem to his father. Here Curtis discusses the motivations and story behind the poem, which you can now also read online. 

What had my father, Leslie Thomas Curtis, done in the war? There is a time in one’s life when unanswered questions, perhaps previously unformed questions come to mind and will not leave. The structured formulae of tv programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? encourages a delving into the past of families and, aided by pretty straightforward computer skills, it seems as if many of those perplexing issues in a family’s past may be clarified, resolved even.

I was born on Boxing Day, 1946, in my Gran’s council house in Carmarthen in west Wales. My father was a car mechanic at Nelson’s Garage in the town and my mother was, well, for most of my childhood, simply my mother. She had been born in Lancashire and had met my father in the town when based there with the Land Army to help on farms in the county. We moved to Pembrokeshire when I was a teenager and a couple of years before she died, I applied for her Land Army commemorative badge which was displayed in its small case next to the photo of her from 1944 and the Royal Doulton china figure of a Land Army girl on her mantelpiece in Lydstep on the Pembrokeshire coast. Designer Tim Potts; issued in 2002 in a limited edition of 2,500; in the “Nostalgia” series.

My father affected tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and smoked a pipe. We always seemed to have a car, his own or one borrowed from the garage. He said that he’d been in training for the D-Day landings but had been invalided out of the army after a half-track vehicle had gone over his foot; he wished he’d been in the R.A.F.; that would have been the making of him. Smoking cigarettes was his undoing; he died of lung cancer at the age of fifty-nine.

In common with most boys growing up in the 1950s my imagination, dreams and nightmares, was strung between Space and War – Dan Dare and Douglas Bader. I met Bader some years later when I was schoolteacher in west Yorkshire; the headmaster had worked for years to get him to our speech day. He drove up in a car one could only dream of – was it a Jensen, or an Aston Martin? Tin legs, special steering wheel; then gave the shortest speech day speech in living memory: “Don’t much hold with prizes, myself. But I am sure that you’ve all done terribly well.” My father was impressed when I phoned him. “1 min. 50 secs.” was on the staff room sweepstake ticket for the length of speech I drew that year: I won.

Earlier this year I posted my cheque for £30 and a copy of my father’s death certificate and, eventually, the records people in Glasgow sent his war record, five sheets listing every posting and detail. Tracking down his record had been delayed, they’d said, because his date of birth had been wrongly taken down. Everything in the record was, of course, hand-written by clerks in neat and practised letters. The first three pages confirmed what we knew. He’d been in the Territorials and had been “Embodied with effect from 24.8.39.” in Carmarthen, with the rank of Sapper in the Royal Engineers. He’d been assigned to the Royal Artillery, 73rd Coast Training Regiment, and stationed in East Blockhouse Fort complex of defences guarding the important Milford Haven port in Pembrokeshire. Even in those days that would have been a relatively easy drive from his home town.

He was promoted to Lance Bombadier in September 1941 but a year later transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, reverting to the rank of Private “at his own request”. He was in the next month posted to Burscough in Lancashire, serving now in the recently-formed Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Over the next twelve months he was posted variously to repair and servicing bases in Wiltshire and Nottinghamshire, picking up engine repair skills, ending up in the R.E.M.E. Mobilisation and Holding Centre in Arnold, near Nottingham.

Immediately below that information, on the fourth sheet of his war record, came the shock: for there is written “FIELD GENERAL COURT MARSHALL” in capital letters and underlined. The charge being: “Disobeying a lawful command by his superior officer in that he at Hucknall on 1 Sept. 43 refused to load and fire his rifle when ordered to do so by Sgt. Major B Keogh.”

On the 17th he was sentenced to “98 days IHL” by Lt. Colonel Prevett and then sent to H.M. Prison, Lincoln. “IHL” was perplexing, but I discovered that this was, in fact, nothing to do with Hard Labour but referred to International Humanitarian Law, established by the 1907 Hague Convention. Was this, I wondered, a suggestion that my father had claimed to be a Conscientious Objector?

Was this why the Glasgow records people had delayed? Were they trying to protect me, and my father’s memory? Now in possession of the facts, I felt that I had to try and discover more. However, the National Archive people in Kew could not locate the proceedings and the professional researcher I contacted dissuaded me from pressing further. Nothing was forthcoming from the R.E.M.E. museum at that point. I did have his army service book and that recorded that he was granted two weeks embarkation leave from the 23rd of July 1943 . However, when he requested further leave of 48 hours on the 29th of August that was denied. Why did he need extra leave? What was happening? Did their refusal precipitate his refusal to obey the command two days later?

With some difficulty I broached the subject with my second cousin in Berkshire, now well into her eighties, and, reluctantly, she said that the Berkshire Curtises had known of his dismissal and assumed that he had left as a C.O. My cousin still living in Carmarthen, remembered the CO story and was sympathetic: his uncle, my dad, had always been “a lovable rogue”. His father, my Uncle Des, a train driver, had been in the Home Guard and had kept his Tommy Gun under the stairs. No reluctance to bear arms on the home front, then.

How ironical that as part of my work as an academic and writer I had edited two books on Wales and war: After the First Death: an Anthology of Wales and War in the Twentieth Century and Wales at War: Critical Essays on Literature and Art had both appeared in 2007. In the latter, I undertook a chapter on Dannie Abse and one on the visual arts in Wales in the Second World War; but just before publication, and after being let down by one of my contributors, I had also put together an appendix “Soul-conscripting War-Mechanic: Writers and Artists who objected to War”.

Wales had a core of pacifism linked to its Non-Conformist chapels, though in the Great War the personal magnetism of Lloyd George had driven most Welsh people into the cause: two of the most significant writers of that war were David Jones in English and Hedd Wynn in Welsh. I have known and worked with and written on a number of Second World War pacifists from Wales; writers such as Glyn Jones and  Roland Mathias and artists Jonah Jones, Arthur Giardelli, John Elwyn  and John Petts. Each was clear about his principles, several lost their jobs or spent time in prison. But how did my father, at least the man I knew, fit into that mould? I found it difficult to believe that he did.

For five years I had been acting as external examiner to the MA Creative Writing course at Lincoln University. After learning of my father’s incarceration there, on one visit we went to the prison, a large, forbidding Victorian place. Of course, they could not help. The records were elsewhere in the Lincolnshire County Archives. And, in any case, going back seventy years it was unlikely that anything would be found.

However, my enquiries at the R.E.M.E. Museum in Wiltshire did find a receptive person: Colonel Mike Crabbe, as their curator, promised to try and help. On my final examiner’s visit to Lincoln in November 2016 while Margaret and I were having coffee and cake at Patisserie Valerie in the late afternoon an email came through. Mike had been in touch with the Lincolnshire archivist and had received some more information. My father had not served his entire sentence in Lincoln Prison but had been transferred to Wandsworth for the last fifty days. Lincoln to Wandsworth in the winter of 1943: why on earth would they bother?

Back home I checked on Wandsworth; in the war it had been used regularly by the armed services. Many executions had taken place there and in 1946 Albert Pierrepoint had hanged William Joyce, alias “Lord Haw Haw” the traitorous radio broadcaster for Hitler. On January 3rd a crowd had gathered outside the prison gates to mark the last execution of a Briton for treason. William Joyce had been born in Brooklyn, New York, raised in Galway, but had taken a British passport in order to go to Germany with a delegation of Mosley’s fascists. After the notice of his execution was pinned to the prison gates a huddle of black-coated men raised their arms in a Hitler salute. Back in Carmarthen my father “invalided out” of uniform was repairing Land Army vehicles and proposing to my mother. I was born on Boxing Day that year.

I determined to make one last attempt to discover what exactly had happened to my father. I commissioned another professional researcher to check on any transcripts of the Courts Marshall proceedings in the National Archive at Kew Gardens: had my father made a plea? However, the researcher came up with documents which added nothing new; except that my father’s name appears in the middle of pages of listed Courts Marshall cases. There must be hundreds, probably thousands of stories buried there.

Though in a final twist something of interest recently emerged. I’ve discovered in the oral recording holdings of the Imperial War Museum a lengthy interview from 2003 of the memories of Donald Hart who was in the Hucknall embarkation camp at the same time as my father. Attached to the 8th Royal Tank Regiment he served in Italy, Austria and Palestine until 1946. Instead of being locked up in Lincoln and Wandsworth my father would have gone with Donald Hart and his other men to Liverpool to board the S.S. Athlone Castle, a relatively new ship, and then cruised down into the Med. He would have spent several months in Algiers assembling motor vehicles with No5 Equipment Company and then been posted to the Naples area to help maintain vehicles as the Allies struggled to overcome the stubborn and fierce Monte Cassino resistance of the Germans. He would have witnessed an eruption of Vesuvius. Then have gone east to No6 Equipment Assembly Company in Bari on the Adriatic coast. Possibly he would have stayed on with Donald Hart to serve in post-war Austria on the Hungarian border at Gleisdorf. He would have witnessed the May Day parade in Trieste, then, gone on to Palestine. He would have ridden a camel.

In Naples Donald Hart hears of the attempt to out-flank Monte Cassino by the beach landings further north at Anzio. This bloody and costly action was witnessed by the BBC correspondent, the Welshman Wynford Vaughan Thomas, who would write a book about the Anzio campaign. He had already won fame for his live broadcast in a Lancaster bomber over Berlin, and later would report on the liberation of Belsen concentration camp and from Lord Haw Haw’s studio in Berlin. At Moletta with the Wiltshires he remembers:

‘A youngster of nineteen murmured quietly to me. “Come and see our German.” I wriggled farther forward still, crawled beside him into his look-out post and immediately sensed a foul reek, sickly sweet, like a pile of rancid butter left to long in the sun – the unmistakable, clinging smell of an unburied corpse. There he lay right under our noses, for it was impossible to get out to bury him…’

Neither Donald Hart nor my father and his unit would have been anywhere near the front line in Italy and that dead German over whom they sprinkled creosote each night to cover the smell. Donald Hart admits in his 2003 interview that in their transit camp near Naples: “I was sweating on the top line that I wouldn’t be posted to Anzio. I was a bit of a coward at heart.”

While serving in Italy, Donald Hart received news that his wife had been taken to hospital with complications resulting from her first pregnancy; Donald was refused compassionate leave by his commanding office: even after writing to his M.P. and consequently having the support of the War Ministry, he was again refused permission for leave. The child was born safely, but Donald did not see his son until he was seventeen months old. The refusal of leave for my father from the embarkation camp which may have precipitated his court marshall was not an isolated incident and men could be greatly upset by the apparent lack of compassion and fair play. But what crisis was my father reacting to? My paternal grandfather could surely not have been ill in 1943: he would die of cancer a few months before my birth in 1946. Did my father have a lost love? Was there unfinished business of the heart he felt he could not leave behind after that news of an overseas posting? Whatever I surmise at this distance will be fiction.

Writers write; though if you are a poet you are rarely paid to do that. In Creative Writing classes over the years and in interviews I stick to the line that “I write when writing seems to make more sense than not writing.” However hard won the poem proves to be, it takes on a life of its own, objectively, and at arm’s length; one could argue that it’s only really finished when you can stand apart from it. Confessional poetry, the writing which deals with extremely personal matters is dangerous ground; it’s better to use a dramatic monologue, to take an incident from history and imagine yourself into another’s situation; and I have used that strategy in my poetry for the last three decades.

However, I did not have that recourse in this recent matter: whether I have been too honest or too harsh in writing “Pro Patria”, a poem which deals with my father’s war, is for others to judge. I just know that I had to write it. I owe so much to my father and mother for keeping me in school and supporting me at university. Working class parents want you to have the opportunities not open to them; the hardest thing to accept is that you will probably move into a world that they may not understand; just as they have lived through a world which you may find difficult to understand.

Some thirty years ago I had a poem called “Land Army Photographs” published in the New Yorker. A Sunderland Flying Boat, that graceful swan of a killing machine, crosses overhead to land on the water of Milford Haven; watched by both my father and mother, who were yet to meet. It’s a romantic re-imagining of the bare facts: if nothing else, “Pro Patria” is the counter-balance to that. I decided to include it in my From the Fortunate Isles: New and Selected Poems, published in October 2016, despite the fact that my family would then see the poem; I spoke to my children and my cousins and warned them that I would be putting the story in the public domain. It was the best way for me to handle the revelations and confusions of what I had discovered. Though whether it resolves the many issues raised by my discovery is another matter.

 

Pro Patria

 

Cowardice:

too sharp a word for that dull

ache in your guts turning to water

at the thought of crossing the sea –

Biscay, the Med., Sicily, the war pushing up

through the boot of Italy and now,

at last, surely, bound for Germany:

the embarkation camp at Hucknall.

 

So when the corporal barked that order,

you refused,

would not bear arms, load your rifle,

slide a bullet into the breech.

All that had been hammered in to you,

the basics they’d drilled through the middle of you,

everything they’d tried to teach,

after four and a half years finally grown brittle;

tired of the fusty stale rub of the coarse uniform,

the bull-shit polished ‘til it gleamed.

 

There on parade in front of all the men,

Eager, reluctant, or bored,

some open-mouthed at what you’d done,

but keeping mum.

So that the C.S.M. was sent for,

then the Colonel, then the court convened.

 

Did you mutter, remain silent, head down?

Or offer a statement of principle, the pacifist line?

There’s nothing in your service record

and nothing kept in the Archives at Kew.

Were you mute, coherent, blubbering? Or firm,

with your arguments practised?

Which of those persons did we think we knew?

 

Whatever happened, the whole thing’s been

washed away – personal feelings, the loss of face,

a Field General Court Martial

before they packed you off to Lincoln Prison

and a cell alongside the ne’er do wells,

Quakers and spivs, malingerers, wastes of space.

 

Then released, coming home

and concealing that disgrace: “A half-track

went over my foot.” My arse.

How did you keep a straight face?

Sent back to be of use servicing Land Army trucks

and hiding the fact, whatever it was, from us

for the rest of your life:

thirty-four years of concealing.

 

All those war films we watched, Dad,

In Which We Serve, The Dam Busters, Reach for the Sky:

“I always wished that I’d joined the RAF,” you’d say.

The Airfix kits we glued and painted –

Lancaster, Spitfire, Messerschmitts

to dog-fight from my bedroom ceiling.

 

But best of all the Sunderland Flying Boat’s perfect white;

now those armed swans I know you watched

for the first two years of the war,

rising from and splashing back into Milford Haven,

patrolling the Irish Sea.

That’s in your record, of that we can be sure,

ack-ack guns, searchlights, just as you told me.

 

The rest’s left to my imaginings, what you botched,

bent, funked, fudged, all that shite.

Pages of bare facts, regiments, postings, dates,

in those desk wallahs’ practised copperplate;

there is no more.

 

Inked in are the dry bones of one man’s war. Wynford Vaughan Thomas became President of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales and in 1970 he officially opened the Pembrokeshire Coast Path at Amroth where it begins at the Carmarthenshire border. A dozen or so miles and a dozen or so bays to the west from that coastal path on Lydstep Headland we scattered the ashes of my mother and father. Mingled in the sea are atoms and memories and what now will never be shared between them

 

Tony Curtis is Emeritus Professor of Poetry at the University of South Wales where he developed Creative Writing. His New & Selected Poems: From the Fortunate Isles was published by Seren in October 2016 and his Selected Stories: Some Kind of Immortality by Cinnamon Press in 2017. He has written and edited over forty books and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

‘Pro Patria’ is featured in Issue Five of The Lonely Crowd, alongside two other poems by Tony Curtis. It may be purchased here.

Copyright © Tony Curtis, 2017.