I have been thinking a little, recently, about the unending fight against fascism. Against the authoritarians, the anti-democrats, the oligarchs, power elite, the swine.
This is partly because on an ongoing debate I enjoy with a number of close friends on the legitimate role for the State in our lives, but also, no doubt, because I am currently going to sleep at night listening to the audio book “Dominion” by C J Sanson, a provocative “what if” thriller set in a Britain that had sued for peace with Germany in 1940 and which is now, in the mid-1950s, sliding towards its own Jew-culling fascist nightmare. And also because my daughter has been seized by the Hunger Games Trilogy, which, it could surely be argued, is as effective an anti-fascist series of novels as one could want to read, and in targeting its relatively junior audience, a force for good. Discussion of the literary qualities of the novels can take place elsewhere.
(Incidentally, the Wellthisiswhatithink clan went to see the second movie – Catching Fire – and it was brilliantly done. We recommend seeing the first installment just to “get” the story and definitely the second to marvel at Jennifer Lawrence’s superb acting, supported by a great cast and some amazing cinematography.)
Anyhow, whatever the reason, the terrors of opposing an authoritarian regime – still so relevant to far too many of the world’s people – have been something we have been pondering. What would we have done, for example, if we were “ordinary people” watching the Nazi round up and exportation in appalling conditions of the Jews, if, while we were watching, we were threatened with going with them if we protested? What would we say or do today against active oppression in … Iran, Syria, Egypt … Zimbabwe … would we speak up for gays and other minorities in Russia, the Romany people in Europe … what would we do watching the excesses of the regime in North Korea? What do we do, indeed, to fight against the disgraceful demonisation of asylum seekers in our own back yard, contending, as we would be, with some 90% of the political establishment?
And then, by chance, I came across the photograph (above) of one of the ships my father served on during World War II, and found another (below) online.
The HMS Clare began life as the USS Abel P. Upshur but was decommissioned by the Yanks and transferred in the destroyer-land bases exchange to Great Britain, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, 9 September 1940. It was one of the “topsy-turveys” – one of the “Lend Lease” destroyers given to the British in 1940 to bolster the fight against Hitler – and so nicknamed because of their alarming propensity to turn turtle in heavy weather.
From 1940 to 1944, as HMS Clare, she escorted convoys in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. That was when my father served on her. In the early hours of 21 February 1941 she collided with the motor vessel Petertown and was out of action, undergoing repairs, until October 1941.
During 1942 and 1943 Clare took part in the Invasions of North Africa and Sicily. In May 1944 she became an aircraft target ship in the Western Approaches Command. In August 1945 she was reduced to reserve at Greenock, Scotland, and later berthed at Barrow, England, awaiting disposal. She was scrapped in 1945.
My father was apparently a cheerful, sometimes boisterous man.
He loved a pint, a cigarette, and a bet. A game of cards.
He was an utterly loyal husband and a doting father. In the middle of his life, when he should have been enjoying financial success and a measure of quiet satisfaction at having survived the Depression intact, married and started a family, he virtually vanished for six years, into the maw of World War II.
I still have his medals. They bear testament to the quiet service he offered … the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean. Malta, India, North Africa, and all points West and East. He wasn’t the chap manning the depth charges, the guns, or wrenching the wheel around against the storm’s violence on the bridge. “Two points to larb’d, Yolland! Aye Aye, Sir!”
No, he was a quartermaster. The most unglamorous job imaginable on a destroyer. He looked after the ship’s stores, doled them out, and made sure everyone got what they were due to keep them going, which wasn’t much.
Not that he couldn’t have done all the more Boy’s Own stuff, I am sure, but being in the wholesale fish trade he was used to totting up ledgers and keeping track of stores, and all the rest. When they found that out, the Navy assigned him as a quartermaster, and a quartermaster he stayed.
Whether or not his family thought much of his service is lost in the mists of time. His father, Captain D S Yolland, was a trawlerman who got the DSC (just one step down from a VC) for trawling up mines dropped by Zeppelins in Portsmouth Harbour in the First War. I don’t know if they were all that impressed by Dad’s service, but my Mum was, and I am.
He was, by all accounts, a kind, gentle man, and the strain on him of wallowing around in a metal tub waiting for a torpedo up his arse, day after day – month after month, year after year – told on him. He smoked incessantly to calm his nerves, and drank too much, and duly died very young, tragically young, of a heart attack, at just 46 years old, in 1959.
To my mind, he is as much a victim of the fight against Nazism as those who never came home. It took a special type of deep, abiding courage, and an astonishing sense of duty, for him and his shipmates to keep going back, after each leave, never knowing if they would see home again, or how horrible and lonely their death might be. When I questioned my mother about it, she went very quiet, and simply said “It just had to be done. We couldn’t let them win. It was wrong – Hitler, all of it – it was just wrong.”
“It was just wrong.” Quite so. There were millions like my father. Millions of civilians who endured impossible privation, millions of civilians killed, injured and bereaved, millions of children orphaned, and millions of service people mentally destroyed, hideously injured or snatched from their families forever.
Leaders. They get us into wars. But the little people fight them, and the little people are the ones who get us out of them. I wonder if we remember that enough? I suspect we don’t.