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Feather's Miscellany: Memories – Part One

...On one occasion while visiting my uncle’s farm at Embsay above Skipton, I actually captured a German air crew, who’d landed their plane to surrender near the end of the war. I happened to be out walking near a large meadow when the plane came lower and lower, then much to my surprise landed and the pilot in fluent English asked me to take his crew to the nearest police station in the village. Wide-eyed and gob-smacked, I duly obliged. I was half-expecting to be given a medal, but I was told not to breathe a word about the plane and its crew. Within hours it was dismantled and carried off under shrouds...

John Waddington-Feather, an outstanding writer, publisher and ordained Anglican minister, begins his autobiography by recalling his school days in a northern mill town during World War Two.

Memories and dreams are lives we lead parallel to reality. We live our mortal span, but running alongside that, indeed, overlapping it all the time, are our memories of life past and the dreams we dream each night. And who knows where dreams take us; into the past, through the present and forward to the future? Yet memories are from the life we’ve actually lived.

My earliest memory was when I was three in 1936, when the German airship The Hindenburg flew over Keighley, my home town in Yorkshire, and my mother carried me into the street to watch the huge silver shape fly by. It looked enormous and the airship dropped a wreath to be laid on the grave of a German prisoner-of-war who’d died in the great flu epidemic of 1919. Several prisoners still being held in a camp near Skipton succumbed to it and were buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of Keighley. The brother of one of them on his way to Canada as a missionary wrote a note attached to the wreath which was laid on the grave.

The Hindenburg flew on over the Pennines to Barrow, which it circled several times taking photographs of the naval ship-building yard which made warships. Then it flew on over the Atlantic. A year later on its last flight it caught fire and crashed in New Jersey; and much later still, during my National Service in the Intelligence Corps (1954-6), I learned the airship had been taking aerial photographs along with other German civil aircraft in preparation for the war which broke out in 1939.

It was during that war my boyhood was moulded and the memories which went with it. The violence and horror of it passed me by. I was more au fait with the fiction of cowboy films each Saturday morning at the local cinema than with any of the bombings and atrocities the Nazis were carrying out in Europe at the time.

Keighley was never bombed though at school and at home we carried out regular air-raid practices and for a time carried gas-masks, diving into newly built underground shelters at school and under the table in the cellar of our terrace house down Lawkholme Lane. My father painted the motto of the RAF over the fireplace, ‘Per ardua ad astra’ for he’d served in the RAF from the beginning of the war till he was injured in 1942. We crowded into that cellar during the early years of the war, only moving upstairs again when the threat of air-raids had gone in the latter part of the war.

However, as youngsters we heard and saw Nazi bombers fly up the Aire valley and over the town on their way to bomb Manchester, Liverpool and Barrow; and as they flew back they were harried by our fighter planes from East Yorkshire airfields and some were brought down on the Pennine Moors. There were also crashes of our own planes which had lost their way up there.

On one occasion while visiting my uncle’s farm at Embsay above Skipton, I actually captured a German air crew, who’d landed their plane to surrender near the end of the war. I happened to be out walking near a large meadow when the plane came lower and lower, then much to my surprise landed and the pilot in fluent English asked me to take his crew to the nearest police station in the village. Wide-eyed and gob-smacked, I duly obliged. I was half-expecting to be given a medal, but I was told not to breathe a word about the plane and its crew. Within hours it was dismantled and carried off under shrouds.

The incident happened so suddenly and unexpectedly that as the years went by I began to think I’d dreamt it, but recently I confirmed with my cousin it had actually happened, and a veil of secrecy had been imposed on the village. Only I and the village policeman knew anything about the plane. The villagers were told it was one of our own planes which had landed. Later, I wondered why the German pilot had surrendered so far inland without being brought down. I could only conclude there’d been some arrangement with our Intelligence forces or that secrecy had been imposed to protect the airmen’s families from reprisal by the Gestapo back home.

Other wartime memories are of multi-national servicemen billeted in the town: a battalion of a Scottish regiment staying there just before being posted overseas; a Free French sailor staying next door; a visit by a Canadian pilot who was a distant relative; seeing air-crew with “Jamaica” on their shoulders, and towards the end of the war some American GIs standing on the Kop of the rugby league field dumbfounded by the game they were watching, for the players wore no padding as in American football. There were also Italian and German prisoners-of-war wandering about the town in their distinctive brown uniforms with red and orange patches sewn on them. One of them played the organ at Skipton Parish Church and some married local girls and settled down in the area after the war.

Lasting boyhood memories of a different kind were when I heard about the deaths in action of two of my older brother’s friends, like him serving in the forces at the time. Before the war, they used to visit our home often and I got to know them well. The Elmsley brothers, Harold and Donald, were both killed on or near D-Day in 1944; Harold in the army and Donald in the navy.

It must have been a harrowing time for their mother, a widow; and their deaths along with others were felt deeply in the community, especially at church where they’d been in the choir. What Mrs Elmsley felt like years later when her youngest son, Kenneth, about my age, went to do his National Service, I can’t imagine, for there were still conflicts raging across the world in Cyprus, Malaya and the Gulf States which National Service men were sent to. However, he survived and the family moved away to Scarborough.

My father had been invalided out of the RAF injured in 1942 at the age of 42 and spent many months in a military hospital before returning home. When he went into the forces he’d been a tall, powerful, upright man; so I vividly remember his coming back, armed out of the back of a military ambulance by two ambulance men, bent and haggard, a pitiful wreck of the man he once was.

Though he recovered, he was never the same man and had to wear a steel corset and walk with a stick the rest of his life till he died thirty years later. And all the while, my mother supported him financially and with her love as she brought up her family, working in the mill opposite our house till she was sixty. My brother Harry was in the navy during the war and travelled widely in the Atlantic and later in the Pacific attached to the American Fleet. I still have the censored letters he sent me and my younger brother, George, at the time from all over the world, and those of my father from the RAF.

During the war and after, there were two places I have very happy memories of: church and school. Holy Trinity Church was an oasis of light and warmth in dark, blacked-out, wartime Britain. Sunday services at church, especially in wintertime, were comforting and warm. There was a fellowship there which insulated me from the realities of war going on outside in Britain and abroad. We prayed for our loved ones week by week serving in the forces and we prayed for our dead and received comfort in return. The church, like churches elsewhere, became the focus of hope as well as grief. I joined the choir at the age of six, remaining in it till I left home at twenty to go in the army as a National Serviceman.

At Holy Trinity Church my pilgrimage of faith began. Even as a boy I sensed there was another dimension to life apart from the physical; and I believe that sense of the spiritual was aroused and developed through prayer, bible readings and music, which gave me the feeling that I was communicating with a God beyond myself and that He was communicating with me. That relationship has become closer through time and has not been broken. I’ve felt moved to prayer not only in times of stress and pain, but also in times of intense happiness till now I thank God daily for the many blessings I enjoy and see.

There was a social as well as a spiritual side to Church life, for the church had a thriving Youth Club and a drama group which my sister Rene, a teacher at the local school, ran. These and the liturgy and music all played their part in shaping my young life. In 1944 when I’d won a place at the local Boys’ Grammar School, I was taken to one side by the Lay Reader who was then taking most of the services in the absence of our vicar serving as an army chaplain. He was an old man said in his broad Yorkshire voice said: “Nah tha’s goin’ to t’Grammar Schoil, tha can do all t’readings ‘cos tha can speak reight.” – and, though only twelve, that’s what happened for some time till my newly appointed English teacher at school, George Harrison, began attending the church and shared the readings with me.

But my education began for real at Eastwood Council School down Lawkholme Lane. I started there at the age of four in the nursery, where we were taught our three R’s during the morning and rested in the afternoon after a free lunch on beds under a glass-covered, open-air veranda . Tuberculosis was rife and many children died from it at the time. The more good food, exercise and fresh air we got, the better. Even so, two of my contemporaries at primary school and one at secondary school died from the disease, and prayers were said for them in assembly.

I owe much to my teachers at Eastwood School, (all of them lady teachers), more than I can express, for the sound grounding I received in education and life in general. They gave myself and others a first-class educational start which lasted a lifetime. So much depends on our formative years and I thank God for the teachers I had then.

Many of us were the first generation to go to the Grammar School and after the 1944 education Act, my two brothers, my sister and myself were the first generation in our family to go to university and college. Our great-grandparents were illiterate and our grandparents lacked secondary education. Our parents left school at twelve to work half-time in a mill as a weaver and as a labourer in a tan-pit. So we were indeed blessed with our early schooling and the sacrifices made for us.

I remember vividly the day I passed to go to the Grammar School. When told by the headmistress, I ran all the way down the lane to my mother’s mill where she stood at her loom. Her whole face lit up when I broke the news to her. I was the third of her children to win a scholarship and my younger brother, George, followed suit two years later. However, my mother remained tied to that loom for another twenty years to the age of sixty, till she’d seen us all through university and college. And to celebrate my success I was given half-a-crown by the mill-owner, old Myers, and another half-a-crown by Tommy Holmes who owned the scrap-iron yard just across the road from our house. He’d also left school at twelve and had served in the First World War where he was badly gassed. It left him with a harsh rasping whisper of a voice, but he’d a heart of gold and was always open-handed, and became a lifelong friend.

It was rather a shock moving to an all-boys, highly academic Grammar School from a mixed, tiny, primary school. The students at the top end of my new school looked like grown men and I stood in awe of them. So manlike they were that my prefects from the sixth-form in 1944 were fighting in the forces a year later before going to university after their service. Some of my masters in the late 1940s had flown bombers, crewed warships, been in the marines and fought in North Africa. My French master had been in France throughout the war fighting with the French Resistance Fighters. Some years later, I was to follow in his footsteps, commissioned into the Intelligence Corps for my National Service.

Looking back as a teacher myself, it must have been a sad time for the staff, when the boys they taught were killed in action; indeed, in memory of those Old Boys killed, the art master, Revd Hildred Harpin, painted a moving painting of the Risen Christ against the background of Gordale Scar, a well known Yorkshire Dales beauty spot. It hung for years in a prominent position till the school became comprehensive, then like the old school photos from the Grammar School, it disappeared. A new start!

My years at Keighley Boys’ Grammar School were very happy ones and as a teenager I revelled in my studies there and my hours on the sports field. The younger staff played cricket, soccer and rugby for various town clubs and they joined in the choirs and drama productions at aschool, so we saw another side of them outside the classroom. By the time we reached the sixth-form they were friends, some of them lifelong friends I kept in contact with till they passed away. They gave me an education second to none and I left the school well qualified to enter Leeds University in 1951.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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