This is the toughest person to write about. It is all too personal and therefore impossible to establish any academic distance. But then who else is better placed to comment about my father? I was his eldest child and as such I may have had more adult conversations with him than my siblings. It is strange when you look back over a father-son relationship. Most of what is learned is subliminal, through example and osmosis. There were probably only a handful of meaningful conversations between us that I can recall.
I have uncovered no information as to what my Dad was doing before the war. He was eighteen before he joined the RAF. Where did he work? Did he have an apprenticeship, if so what? Certainly while I was growing he and my Mum keenly proposed I should take an apprenticeship so I would one day earn a £1,000 a year and be made for life.
Dad once drove me from Bristol to Luton to the Vauxhall factory to discuss an apprenticeship there and around the same time I went to Birmingham to meet Lucas Industries for the same reason. Thankfully nothing came of either application; my heart certainly wasn’t in it.
On the declaration of WWII Dad joined up promptly in Sept 1939, opting for the RAF as ground crew. Presumably this involved a period of training but the first thing he mentioned was two years later.
This was when he served on HMS Indomitable, an Illustrious-class aircraft carrier. She was commissioned in October 1941, carried between 45 and 48 aircraft and could travel at a maximum speed of 30 knots. She was charged by Winston Churchill to be part of ‘Force Z’ despatched to defend Singapore. They were to join up with the 1916 Renown-class battlecruiser HMS Repulse, the new King George V-class battleship HMS Prince of Wales and destroyers Electra, Express, Tenedos and HMAS Vampire.
However, in November 1941 Indomitable ran aground near Jamaica and had to leave the convoy for repairs in Virginia USA. This proved fortuitous as she would otherwise have been at Singapore when the Japanese invaded.
Both Repulse and the Prince of Wales docked at Singapore on the 2 December 1941 and were sunk by Japanese aircraft on 10 December while attempting to intercept Japanese troop carriers heading for Malaysia. These were the first capital ships sunk entirely by aircraft. 508 men were lost on Repulse and 307 on the Prince of Wales. Maybe Indomitable’s aircraft could have swung the balance, or perhaps it too would have been lost.
My father indicated that Indomitable was headed towards Singapore when they learned of its fall; they turned around and headed instead for East Africa. His life afloat was terminated as he was posted to an RAF base in Eritrea at Asmara. Our family photo collection included lots of photos of the area. I am frustrated that there had also been a large number of photos he took at this time showing rows and rows of aircraft on the ground. They have been lost at some stage.
My father said he was psyched out by the insects that abounded there. Of course he slept in a bed with a mosquito net but he also sat the four legs of the bed in containers of petrol and even soaked his bedding in fuel in an effort to dissuade them. Little did Dad appreciate that our ancestors, according to my DNA test, had travelled out of Africa some 70,000 years earlier, crossing the Red Sea from Eritrea to the Yemen – see more here.
By Christmas 1943 he had moved to Egypt. I have a special RAF greeting card that he sent back to his parents from Abu Sueir confirming that once again he would not be home for Xmas. This RAF base served a number of purposes during the war. In mid-1943 it stopped being a Wellington bomber base and was used by Liberators and Lancasters.
For the rest of his RAF service I have no recollections to draw on from our conversations. He was demobbed at the rank of Leading Aircraftman – No. 629845.
When he returned to civilian life he tried to join the police force and apparently failed because his chest expansion was insufficient; he joined Bristol Fire Brigade instead. He was never particularly ambitious and at the time of his obligatory retirement at 55-years-old he was Leading Fireman No. 357. Like all fireman of his era he was a good snooker player and he had pursued a plethora of part-time jobs – chauffeur-driving, hearse-driving, tent and shelving erection, furniture removals…
I thought we should end this story by referring back to what started all of this – the name Robert Soulsby Denton. A most surreal experience was when I stood at my father’s graveside during his interment at Greenbank Cemetery in Bristol in a family plot. My grandfather Robert Soulsby Denton was buried there in 1946, before I was born. My grandmother Betsy (née Walton) was buried there in 1965 just after my seventeenth birthday.
My father died on my wife Jane’s 34th birthday. His interment was in December 1982. It was the conventional cloudy and rainy day. I recall there were also the obligatory caws from crows at the site. I stood beside my Aunt Peg steadying her a tad. She had stood right there on two previous occasions. The plot had been purchased for four burials, hers planned to be the last. I recall the garishness of some green pseudo-grass sheeting that was hiding a pile of earth. I was standing beside my first namesake’s grave watching my second namesake’s coffin, with my name inscribed on the brass plate, being lowered in on top of his parents. I threw in some soil and can remember the thud as it partly concealed my name. Do try to pause and ponder just how that felt. The name lives on in me, my son and grandson.
|ASIDE: I was amused to learn that Horfield is Anglo-Saxon in origin. |
It derives from ‘horu’ and ‘feld’ and means ‘filthy open land’.
Possibly this had something to do with the fact that historically when it was a very rural place
it became lawless. Horfield Wood had once been the haunt of thieves and vagrants.
It wasn’t that improved when I grew up there, regularly mentioned in the Bristol Evening Post
as someone local was sent off to Horfield Prison to bide a spell.
|Note on shorthand acronyms being used in the DFB:|
– GGF1 / GGM1 – means first great-grandfather /mother;
– GU11 / GA11 – means eleventh great-uncle / great-aunt;
– 1C3 – means first cousin three times removed