how a group of world war ii survivors became my unexpected lockdown buddies
Updated: May 8, 2020
I think it’s fair to say we’ve all been through a lot of emotions over the past few weeks. Sadness, denial, fear, frustration. For many of us there’s been loneliness… and that unsettling feeling that has frequently been compared to grief. I’ve certainly felt loss in many areas of my life. As someone who is self isolating alone I am obviously missing my family and friends. But as a TV producer who is used to travelling the world, shooting films about the places I visit and people I meet, I’ve also mourned the freedom to do the job I love in the way that I am used to.
However, thanks to the wonder of video calls and TV archive, all has not been lost. I’m freelance but do a lot of my work for the biggest and oldest news agency in the world, Associated Press. With the 75th anniversary of V.E. Day approaching my editor recently set me the challenge of finding and interviewing five World War II survivors who would share their memories on camera. A lovely assignment, I thought, if I could just toddle along to their homes and film them over a cuppa the way that I am used to. But finding five people in their 80s and 90s au fait enough with our new digital existence to be interviewed over Skype could pose a major challenge… or so I thought.
What we are going through with the current pandemic has been referred to as our generation’s war. There’s an invisible enemy, there’s been rationing and even the Queen gave a nod to Vera Lynn’s famous wartime song, We’ll Meet Again, when she addressed the nation. But what I’ve recently learned about those who actually lived through the last World War has given me a new and welcomed perspective on our current situation. And my first lesson was that very little now phases that lot, least of all technology!
First to pop up in my ‘kitchen office’ was 85 year old Dr John C Taylor OBE, who is now one of the world’s most prolific inventors no less! After I, supposedly a child of the digital age, had faffed around trying to work out how to record over Skype, he cooly downloaded Zoom instead and we were ready to go. Gray haired and smart, with the face of someone ten years younger and a lovely smile, I warmed to Dr Taylor immediately. And then I quickly found myself transported back with him to the Liverpool docks in 1939, where his father (also an inventor and the creator of the RAF’s electrically heated suits during the war) was sending him, his mother and brother off to Canada for safety, three days after Dunkirk. At the age of just three Dr Taylor still remembers the feeling of responsibility that came with his father’s sombre instruction that he was now 'in charge'! Then, after six years away, his father finally came to take them back to a bombed out London, in a journey which took three weeks across the Atlantic in a force 12 hurricane while their ship was being torpedoed!
Dr Taylor’s story was the first of many reminders that, while we are being asked to simply ‘Stay At Home’ to keep ourselves and others out of danger, many of our older generation (to whom this virus is sadly the biggest threat) have already faced unimaginable perils and made far bigger sacrifices.
Which brings me to my two war veterans, who were kindly put forward by the Royal British Legion. At the grand age of 96 I was honoured to interview Admiral John Roberts, the last surviving captain of the famous Ark Royal. Once again my kitchen chair turned into my interviewer’s chair, which somehow felt unworthy of such an impressive character. But as soon as Admiral Roberts appeared on my screen, suited, with sparkling eyes and sitting proudly in front of a picture of a Spitfire, I knew this was going to be another fascinating chat. From going to sea during the war aged 17 to taking part in D-Day, Admiral Roberts is a true war hero. And with his friendly demeanor and razor sharp mind, inside he’s clearly very much the same young man who proudly sailed the oceans during the war. I’ve very much enjoyed keeping in touch with him over email and exchanging a bit of banter ever since.
Likewise 95 year old war veteran Jim Healy who was a Royal Marine Corporal during WWII. Speaking to me with his warm Yorkshire accent, and chuckling as he recalled getting tipsy on neat rum while celebrating V.E. Day on board HMS Persimmon in Bombay docks, his boyish charm makes it hard to believe this man could be 5 years off turning 100! In fact there’s a youthful spirit shared by this lot which has made their company an enormous amount of fun while I’ve been working during lockdown.
And as well as the boys I’ve made two lovely new girlfriends… 90 year old Eileen Hodges and 84 year old Lotte Moore. Dressed in a baby blue blouse with a halo of curly gray hair Eileen looked every bit the picture perfect grandma figure when she first appeared on my laptop. But within seconds she’d casually reached down and produced the burned out ends of a bomb which had fallen through her bedroom ceiling during the war, and I quickly realised Eileen is made of far tougher stuff than her soft exterior may at first suggest! Having helped out in her Mum and Dad’s London pub for the duration of the war, Eileen survived the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, not to mention learning how to keep various inebriated customers under control! She also shared the most incredible story of watching a German plane heading straight for Buckingham Palace before a British Hurricane intercepted it, taking its tail off right before her eyes! We chatted for over an hour, after which she insisted I must visit her after lockdown and call her if ever I’m lonely in the meantime.
And then there’s Lotte - oh where do I begin with Lotte? From being a family friend of Winston Churchill (and even swimming with him in his pool as a child), to becoming a Royal Ballet ballerina and later an actress, this lady has led the most fascinating life. And frankly she is also a hoot - and the pair of us hit it off right from the start! It was frustrating to think she was only a few miles away from me in her riverside house in Hammersmith and that previously I could have filmed the most beautiful interview with her in her garden. But due to the current circumstances we were, once again, restricted to video call. However once she’d appeared in her drawing room, in front of her books and beloved piano, thankfully none of her incredible character was lost through this medium. Sharing tales of being evacuated, using the caves below her family home in Kent as air raid shelters and then finally watching all the grown ups get drunk and dance the jitterbug on V.E. Day, Lotte is a natural storyteller and is in fact now an author. She kindly sent me some of her books to read (I devoured her autobiography in one sitting!) and we have been chatting regularly on the phone since. From calling to tell me to switch on the TV to see her acting in a film with Richard Burton to having general chats about everything from relationships to the current, crazy state of the world, Lotte has become an unexpected friend in this strange situation. She’s shared her despair at the greed shown by some with supermarket stockpiling, but has also welcomed the general slowing down of life and new connections she has made, such as myself… and even her Waitrose delivery lady so she tells me! And she has also encouraged me to write, which is partly why I am writing this article and plan to use the extra time lockdown gives me to work on some longer projects I’ve had in mind for a while. Lotte promises she’ll keep calling to make sure I’m sticking at it!
And if there’s one thing I’ve concluded from the kindness, resilience and humour I’ve witnessed in all my new wartime buddies, it’s that if we come out of our current situation with just a few of their qualities, we’ll be a far richer generation for it.