Sometimes at Family Detective we uncover a heart-wrenching story and none more so than the story which unravelled this week. Our client, who we will called Bridget, never knew her father, as he married her mother during the war and never returned to the family afterwards. All she had was a name on her birth certificate and his occupation which said ‘R.A.F.’
Bridget, now in her 70s, was desperate to know what had happened to her father, who we’ll call John, as he’d never been spoken of since he left his family. Had he died during the war? Had he re-married and started a new family? Bridget said she would be grateful of any information about what happened to him during or after the war.
Researching people who were born after 1911 can be tricky because you can’t see them living with their family on a census, and in this case, Bridget’s father’s name was a popular one, so finding the correct birth, marriage and death entries for him on the indexes was difficult. (Let me know in the comments box if you’d like a blog post on how we managed it!) After complicated research, which took us to the Isle of Man, Burma and London, we finally found John’s death certificate. He was a Retired Handyman who lived in London when he died.
At first, the death certificate didn’t tell us much about John’s life after the war – there was no wife nor children mentioned, so we had to search for clues. The informant of the death was a ‘brother-in-law’ and had quite a distinctive name. More piecing together of clues finally led us to a possible living relative, we’ll call him Brian, and we approached him by letter, to see if he remembered anything about John. Sadly, his memories were not fond ones.
During a fairly awkward phone conversation we learnt from Brian that John (Brian’s uncle) was a frightening figure who would turn up at Brian’s home in a drunken state, occasionally violent and asking for money. He was a rogue and a burden on Brian’s parents, particularly Brian’s mother, who didn’t know how to help her younger brother and would get very upset when he visited. Brian apologised that he couldn’t remember much more about Uncle John and had no photos of him, although he did send over a photo of his mother for Bridget to see – her aunt that she’d never met.
However, we weren’t content with this as a summary of John’s life story and so we dug deeper, turning our scrutiny to his experiences during the war. There is a wealth of information online about the R.A.F. and we very soon realised that this man had another story to tell – one of utter heroism. From his squadron number we discovered that John flew Mustangs from 1944, fought in the Battle of Britain and was one of ‘the few’ that Churchill referred to in his famous speech, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many, to so few.”
An RAF website told us, “The cost of the Battle was high – of the nearly 3,000 aircrew who fought in the Battle of Britain 544 lost their lives and of the remainder a further 814 died before the end of the War.”
John survived the Battle of Britain, but never recovered from the trauma that he experienced during the war. The terrible things he witnessed greatly affected his mental health and he struggled with what we would now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the rest of his life.
Yes, he was a disturbed man when Brian knew him but the other side of the coin showed us what valour he exhibited as a young man. We were glad to be able to tell Bridget that her father may have been a difficult man in later life, but he was also a hero and there was much to be proud of in his previously unknown history. John’s name is listed on the new Battle of Britain monument on Victoria Embankment, together with the inscription:
“Today we remember the fallen, salute those who gave their lives in later times or have passed on in the years of peace that followed, and give thanks for those that are still with us in that peace. Gentleman, we can never repay the debt we owe you.” The Battle of Britain. July 10th – October 31st 1940
Discussion: Are you stuck researching living relatives? Drop me a comment with some details and I’ll see if my team can help you find a way through – don’t worry, there’s no charge!