August 21, 2010

UK: After 66 years, "I was finally getting close to my father"

LONDON, England / Financial Times / Magazine / Arts & Leisure / August 21, 2010

First Person: Anne Duguid

By Anne Duguid

When I was five, I remember looking up at my father. He was wearing a blue uniform and saying something to me. As he left, I ran out after him to watch him walk down the road. I never saw him again.

A few weeks later, in 1943, the Lancaster bomber he was flying in didn’t return home, and he was classed as missing, presumed dead. My mother persuaded my childless great aunt to look after me and then moved from Lincoln to London, to earn a living driving an ambulance.

I remember the terrible sadness. I’d go outside and stare up at the night sky to try to find my father. I knew nothing about who he was, because I was alienated from my paternal grandparents. I remember seeing them in the street once – my grandmother was wearing a navy blue and white hat, decorated with reams of tulle – but they didn’t acknowledge me.

When I was 11, I won a place at grammar school, so I decided to tell my grandparents. They seemed thrilled, but it was the last contact I had with them. I was eventually reunited with my mother after the war. She remarried, and my great aunt and I moved back in with her.

It was my son, 66 years after my father’s disappearance, who found German documents on the internet relating to his aircrew. The notes described a Lancaster bomber, with a crew of seven, shot down near a village called Houverath. One of the crew was identified as my father, rear gunner Sergeant Bernard Veall. Five bodies were recovered and buried, but two, including that of my father, were never found.

Last month, I drove over to Germany with my daughter. Crossing into the country, I was overcome with emotion. I’m not sure I know why. Perhaps it was because I knew that, after so long, I was finally getting close to my father.

The next morning, I was having a coffee and looking out over the rolling green countryside, over the hills near the village that had been identified in the German documents. The plane, surely, was still lying out there somewhere, but finding it seemed a monumental task. I didn’t know where to begin.

We asked around at the church, but no one knew anything. So we went to the village bar and ordered a beer in the hope of chatting to locals, but no one spoke English. Eventually, we found a young girl who did, and who was with her 89-year-old grandmother. The old lady told us the plane had come down in the next village, between a large rock and a hill.

We drove over, but there were two hills and countless large rocks. We went to another bar, ordered another half-pint, and asked the waitress if she wouldn’t mind calling her grandfather and asking if he could help. He was asleep, so she called her friend’s grandfather – who said that the plane came down in the next village.

Off we went again, following our map into a green valley, along a dirt track, past a stream and, finally, to a tiny village. Again, we found a bar, ordered yet another half-pint and scanned the place for elderly people. “I don’t know if I can drink any more beer,” I said to my daughter. We were laughing, but feeling increasingly disheartened. Then something miraculous happened. As we asked the owner for help, and as she translated the request into German for the old man standing next to her, his face lit up. He had played at the crash site as a boy, and said he would take us straight there.

We walked down a track through a forest, and the old man pointed to a clearing. “It’s there,” he said. I was looking at my father’s grave. It was just a space in a large forest, but it didn’t feel sad. It felt like at last I had reconnected with the person who had set off from home all those years ago. It was as if I finally knew that he would have come back if he could.

When I got home, I contacted a German archaeologist who specialises in second world war sites. We are now planning a dig at the forest near Houverath. I would love to bring a small piece of my father’s Lancaster home, to rest alongside my mother’s grave.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010.