On the face of it the book I am referring to is about something completely different: Bomber Command in WW2. It tells the remarkable story of a mother who had lost her three sons, two in the service of the RAF, in the early years of the war. She wanted her dead sons to have their ‘reply’, and so she bought a Stirling Bomber for 15 Squadron. This cost something like £700,000 in today’s money, but she was a wealthy widow, her husband having made his fortune in India and her parents being a well to do family from New England.
The aircraft, called the MacRobert’s Reply, had the life of many such aircraft: it carried young men at great risk on missions over Germany, and it crashed as most did. Its particular crash was in Denmark and all the crew were killed but for one who amazingly, miraculously, survived. The Danish resistance found his badly injured body and only handed him over to the German authorities when they realised his injuries needed serious medical attention. This he received, but he ended up as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft VIIIB in southern Poland.
I met him last year and he told me something of his RAF days, but he told me very little about his time as a PoW, save that it was a seemingly endless period of nothingness and was followed by the truly horrific experience of being force marched through the bitter Polish winter of 1945 away from the Russian advance.
I agreed with his son, who had wanted the book written, that I should research the accounts of others who had had a similar PoW experience in order to give the reader a sense of what he endured. So I visited the Imperial War Museum and read and listened to a good number of accounts.
It was an experience I will never forget, as I discovered the dreadful hardship that these brave young men suffered as a result of their selfless sacrifice for their country and the liberty of others. Being a PoW meant that they all became malnourished even with occasional Red Cross parcels. The march, the Long March as it is known, took them through deep snow with inadequate clothing, few suitable places to stay en route and the ill temper of their German guards. There were, though, occasional small acts of kindness.
All the time the same thought kept coming through my mind, the more recent memory of those refugees in Lesvos and the accounts I read of their subsequent journey through the bitter Macedonian winter. Their’s is not a selfless sacrifice, but a brave attempt to secure, for their families, safety from oppression.
They do have something in common. All that any of these people ever wanted was to be treated as human beings: do as you would be done by.
Will we never learn?