At age 89, not long before he died, Dad told me of one of his scariest wartime moments as a 19- year old RAF serviceman during World War II:
‘I was making my way home from the village to the farm where I was billeted…’
Tom was billeted in a genuine wooden gypsy caravan owned by two teachers in London as a weekend getaway. It was currently commandeered by the Ministry of Defence for ‘the war effort’.
Obviously whoever allocated billeting did not know that Tom was 6ft 2″ in his stockinged feet! A gypsy caravan is not designed for the tall, but at age 19 who cares where they catch up on sleep!
The caravan was stationed on a working farm in the New Forest, a place of great natural beauty with ancient trees and a wealth of history…
But during a wartime lighting blackout one forest is as scary as another, and Tom was alone and unarmed, and possibly not quite sober (more of that later).
He was part way home through the inky darkness, following the timeworn path to the farm, when among the rustling sounds of the night forest, the hooting of owls, screeches of foxes like someone being murdered and badgers bumbling about, he became aware he was being followed.
He could hear soft footsteps on the path behind and they stopped when he stopped!
Aware that downed German pilots were sometimes trying to make their way home, armed and intent to kill any ‘Britisher’ in their way, or even worse that spies were about, intent on obtaining information for the enemy by any means, Tom’s imagination ran through all the scenarios he had seen on the popular wartime fiction films (movies) in the village cinema.
He had to take evasive action. What should he do? His rifle had been taken and given to the Home Guard, and his job required a good imagination and keen hearing over weapons. In fact, on guard duty all he had was a piece of wood shaped like a rifle.
Looked like he would have to defend himself unarmed. His training on Blackpool Beach had not given him much preparation. In his line of defence it was expected that the enemy bombers would be shot down by the waiting big guns before they reached him and his team, or failing that hey could be blown to smithereens, neither of which required the issuing of real guns and ammunition required elsewhere.
The footsteps continued to follow him along the dirt path in the deep forest, and it sounded like two of the enemy.
Tom sidestepped smartly off the path and took cover in the bushes.
He tried to slow his breathing and quieten his hammering heart as the soft footeps drew nearer, nearer, nearer.
They almost made a ‘clopping’ noise, and relief surged through Tom as a wild, unshod, New Forest pony passed by his hideout, its hooves in the soft dirt sounding like two pairs of stealthy feet.
The pony had obviously been curious about this night creature wandering in his woods.
One again our War Hero had cheated death, and would live again to play the piano for another singalong with the local airmen and villagers in the village pub.