Thursday, November 11, 2010


Leslie Sheard third from right.

I lost something this year; my last link back to the second world war with the passing of my grandfather, from what I guess could be charitably called "old age".

I have always known he served in the war, there was a picture of an RN destroyer displayed in their house, not in pride of place but neither was it hidden away in some dusty corner. Other than the bare bones facts; yes I was there, I served on that ship, he never really spoke about it. Wise, I think, given that we were just children and unlikely to understand anything at all and be all to ready to concentrate instead on the "glory".

As an adult I saw him less and less, a function both of moving physically further and further away from Leeds; London, Aberdeen, Virginia, Nova Scotia, as well as moving further emotionally away from Leeds too. However, when I would go back to Leeds, I would always stay at Grandpa's and we would play cards late into the night and I would listen him talk, and some of that talk would be about his war.

He was an "Hostilities Only" sailor who tried to enlist almost as soon as Chamberlin had finished his famous declaration ".... (we are) at war with Germany" but they sent him back home, saying come back again in the Spring. So he did. He says his choice of the RN was based on the fact that he disliked both heights and walking, which automatically excluded the RAF and the Army, leaving only the Navy. He may also have been influenced his father, Walter, who served in a very nascent Fleet Air Arm in the first war. He used to swim out to buoys to moor flying boats! Grandpa's brother, Norman, clearly had no problems walking, enlisted in the Army and ended up in tanks. Family lore says he was among the first into Belsen, an experience that he never spoke of.

Grandpa served as Able Seaman Leslie Sheard on the Hunt Class destroyer HMS Southdown, pennant number L25; an inshore escort ship which was about the length of the garden he eventually owned on Perth Mount in Leeds.

HMS Southdown spent the war escorting convoys in the North Sea and in the English Channel. I looked her up on-line and, in an interesting connecting piece of Halifax congruity, in 1941 she was involved in a collision with HM Corvette Shearwater! They'd meet Atlantic convoys, including those from Halifax, near the Scottish Isles and escort them down the North Sea to London, a stretch of water known as E-Boat alley, due to it's proximity to occupied Europe.

Despite leaving school at 13, his work experience down the market left him with a surprising degree of numeracy and literacy, and his position on ship in stores and involved with telegraphy reflected this. However, when someone started shooting at them, they all shot back! I heard stories of being torpedoed but the ship's draft was so shallow the fish passed harmlessly underneath them. Or of being strafed and taking cover behind a ready magazine on deck. This last story was a favourite one between him and Jeanne, my Grandmother. "But Leslie" she would ask "why would you hide behind ammunition when someone was shooting at you?". "Jeanne" he would always reply with a smile "because it was the thickest thing on the deck" and they would both laugh.

Grandma would tell stories too, of the AA gun and searchlight outside their house in Cookridge (one of the highest points in the area and given the accuracy of bombers, distressingly close to a steel foundry at Kirkstall) and taking the air-raid wardens on duty cups of tea. Or of the relative luxury the sailors lived in in those times of rationing. Eggs, she said, they had eggs! And tinned fruit!

I wonder about their war-time relationship. She was only 16 when hostilities broke out, he was 20. They were married in '42. He was away from '40 to '45 and one imagines that for most of those five years, including three as a young bride, she had no idea where he was or what he was doing. Contrast that to today, where tweets and blogs can be sent daily to update the world or your loved ones on the minutiae of your life. Or where people get upset if you don't reply immediately to an email or text. They were unable to even say with any degree of confidence where he was, other than that it was a-sea and in harms' way.

Their generation was born out of the first war; Grandma's father, Percy, served on the Western Front in the trenches, which according to family lore is where he met my great-grandmother, Louise, a French nurse. However Percy, they say, was a bit of an arty Francophile before the war, so it is possible he met her then. Whatever the truth, what is indisputable is that he was an English lad, and she was a French mademoiselle and under the normal course of events in the early 20th Century, by rights they shouldn't have met. I didn't hear too many Percy and Louise stories; they both passed before I was born, and I suppose their history was pretty much gone already as no-one had written their stories down before they died with them. I did hear how Louise became the terror of Leeds Market, going down late on a Saturday afternoon and haggling for left-over fruits, vegetables and meats in a very French, and very un-Yorkshire-like, manner. Or of shooing the local kids off their freshly scrubbed doorstep with a Gallic "allez allez".

Grandpa told me other war-stories as well, of D-Day, of life on board, of his COs, as we would play cribbage long into the night (crib being a Navy legacy). By this time in his life, his SDAT was of a level he was unable to remember if we'd pegged once or twice around the board but it didn't matter. We just played hand after hand after hand and went around and around the board and he'd carry on talking. To be honest, the war and his life as a barrow-boy down the Leeds market finding exotic spiders in crates of bananas probably seemed clearer in his mind than what he'd had for breakfast.

As with most hostilities only personnel, he was only too keen to reintegrate into civilian life. He demobbed in late '45; my mother was born in November '46 (do the math!). The picture of HMS Southdown on the wall notwithstanding, he never really referred to it. In later life he took a renewed interest in the Navy, joined the RNA and paraded proudly at the local cenotaph on Remembrance day with his medals.

Despite being a member of the proverbial thin red line who ensured the second language we all learned at school was French, he wouldn't class himself as a hero. He was in his own view an ordinary man doing an ordinary job. Just a bloke from working class Leeds who "did his bit". However, they were extraordinary times. He was a hero to me. I miss him.


1 comment:

  1. I watched my Dad march in with the legion today. My children are the 6th generation of my family to serve their repective countries. Very proud of all of them and everyone else who did their bit.