My uncle Frank died last weekend. He was 94 so, as they say in Lancashire where he lived, he'd had a “good innings”. He'd died peacefully in his sleep too, which was a blessing, so in many ways it was the perfect way to go.
Frank Harrison was one of my mum's five brothers; four of whom had fought in the Second World War, while the older of her eight sisters had served in the conflict too. Yes, theirs was a huge family. So as you can imagine, when I was growing up I was always hearing tales of the war — and life in wartime England — told to me (and my own seven brothers and sisters) by our parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. Inevitably, over the passage of time, they all got a bit mixed up in my head.
All I knew for certain was that this group of people I had only ever known as relations, doing normal everyday family things at assorted family gatherings over the years — like picnics, barbecues, parties and weddings — had all lived through some really incredible experiences of their own before we were even born.
Of my 15 aunties and uncles, Uncle Frank was special to me as he was my godfather. So I was really delighted when I was given a copy of his memoirs of the war, when I was visiting family in Preston last month. I had only just finished reading it when news of his death reached me.
I'm going to share with you just a small part of his story because although he isn't from Northern Ireland and there's no direct connection with anyone here except me, there's a poignant and important lesson for us all.
Frank was the Brigadier Operator in a Tank Brigade in the Western Desert during the Battle of Tobruk, which was the largest siege in British military history. He was one of the famous Desert Rats, so-called because they kept themselves concealed by digging deep holes in the sand and staying there for days on end.
During his time there he was captured by the German army and taken as a POW to a town called Plauen, near the Bavarian border. There were 40 other allied soldiers there in total.
As news spread among Frank’s fellow POWs of Patton's advances and they realised the war was clearly coming to an end, it was decided that Frank should escape from the prison and rally some fellow French captives to join forces with them for a mass breakout.
Unfortunately, during the mission he was caught by guards and thrown into a prison cell to await interrogation and torture the following morning.
However, during the night there was an air raid on the nearby railway, a train was derailed and
crashed into his prison, reducing it to rubble and effectively freeing all the prisoners. Their guards, in fear for their lives, all disappeared, leaving Frank and his colleagues to taste freedom for the first time in years.
But what happened next, for me, was the most extraordinary part of his story.
As the POWs stood outside the gates, the wealthy land-owning Baroness of Plauen approached Frank with a special request. She said that the only people who were left in the town were now women and children as all the men had either been killed or fled. There was no-one to protect them as hundreds of marauding vagrants from over the borders swarmed through the streets looking for food, drink, shelter and whatever else they could lay their hands on.
She begged Frank to protect them, so, along with the remaining (ex) POWs, they formed an armed guard along the streets and ensured that the vulnerable families were kept safe until the chaos finally abated.
The Baroness was so grateful that she gave Uncle Frank a pair of field glasses and a Zeiss Ikon camera before he left Germany to return to England as a hero.
That was just a small part of the story my uncle brought back from WWII. Until his children persuaded him to dictate his memoirs, it was a story that had remained untold and might have stayed that way had they not sat with him, listened carefully and put pen to paper.
Of course, the morals of it are wide and varied, but possibly the most important one that I learnt is how important it is to ask, enquire and listen; to take note and to keep record of our loved ones' life experiences from the distant past, not just for our own interests but for the future generations, too.