BOMB BAY BERTHA
When British wartime novelist, David Snell, wanted to research characters for his ‘Sing to Silent Stones’ saga, he couldn’t help but be influenced and inspired by the members of his, and his wife Linda’s, extraordinary families.
Both of David’s parents were wartime pilots. He and his brother, Peter, grew up, on various air bases throughout Britain and the Empire, in the aftermath of World War II. The constant talk of flying meant that Peter only ever had one career path and that was to fly. He achieved that, becoming a BOAC Jumbo jet pilot and owning his own Harvard fighter/trainer. Unfortunately he died, aged just 38, doing aerobatics, following an air display.
David’s father opened up and told all about his wartime experiences as a Lancaster bomber pilot, even going to the trouble of typing them up in a memo, which he entitled ‘Je ne regret rien’.
His mother, on the other hand, was much more reticent.
He knew that she had been a pilot in the war and one of his earliest memories is a scene in the dining room of a hotel in Singapore. The family, along with several others, had just arrived from the UK and everybody was having breakfast, the men in their new tropical uniforms. One of the diners expressed his doubts about the fact that women had had any meaningful flying role in the war and there was a minor altercation. He remembers his father leaving the room and returning to place his mother’s flying log book in front of their fellow diner with a flourish that silenced all argument.
“But it was always hard to imagine your ‘mummy’, that soft, blonde and warm young woman, as some sort of warrior”, David recalls. “And despite the existence of photographs showing her in uniform as a WAAF and a WRAF officer, pictures portraying her in unflattering battle dress that made my tall, slim and elegant mother look dumpy and drab, my brother and I tended to ignore the fact and treat it almost as some sort of embarrassing episode best left in the past”.
David was very keen on amateur dramatics and was chairman, for a time, of the ‘Steeple Bumpstead Players’ on the Essex/Suffolk border. One of the players was the local vicar, a chap by the name of Eric Wheeler. He was a minor celebrity, often in the newspapers in connection with his passion for fox hunting. Eric liked his drink and, despite his calling, needed quite a bit before he went on stage.
“One time, during the matinee performance of a pantomime”, David recalls, “I was supposed to pull Eric to his feet and then we’d dance around in a circle. I grabbed his hand and pulled. He shouted something at me, which I couldn’t hear because of the music and the noise from the audience. The next thing I knew was when he, without warning, punched me in the face. I wacked him back and we ended up rolling around the stage, hitting each other, much to the delight of the children who obviously thought this was part of the plot.
Eric was completely sloshed and apparently, he’d fallen off his horse whilst hunting earlier that day and hurt his arm. He’d been trying to tell me not to pull on it. Back stage we both calmed down and apologised over some strong coffee.”
When the players put on a murder/detective play, David invited his parents along to see the performance and, afterwards, casually introduced them to Eric.
“To my astonishment”, he remembers, “my mother and Eric threw themselves into each other’s arms with loud exclamations of delight. When they finally separated, Eric turned to me and said, “Do you know who this woman is?”
“It’s my mother, David replied, intrigued and, perhaps a little nonplussed”.
“This is Bomb Bay Bertha. One of the bravest women I have ever known”, Eric almost shouted. He’d had a few drinks by then but his obvious delight and sincerity was evident.
“She flew bombers as a ferry pilot during the war and then she came to RAF Manby, in Lincolnshire, where I was stationed, to train bomb aimers, at considerable risk to herself. She was a great pilot and an inspiration to us all and your father was a really lucky man when he nabbed her. She was shot down…twice?” he turned to David’s mother and she nodded in affirmation. “Twice”, he finished.
“Once by a German and once by an American”, David’s mother added ruefully. “And he was truly a great man. Night after night, whatever the weather, Eric would stand at the end of the runway, waiting until the last bomber had returned safely or there was no hope”.
Here, in loud technicolour and in a totally unexpected situation was confirmation of what David’s mother had been. “I’d always known that she had done special things in the war”, He admits. “But I’d put them aside, scoffing as kids do. Knowing better as young adults do. Never really squaring the circle of my mum being something so alien to her everyday domestic persona. Here was proof that the half told stories and the hints weren’t the figment of an undoubtedly imaginative mind. My mum really was a hero!”
Recently, David has donated all of his parent’s wartime memorabilia, including photographs, paintings, medals and log books to the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage museum at East Kirkby, where his father was stationed during the war. And the biggest thrill was when they said that this was the first time that they had seen a WRAF log book and that it would have pride of place on display.
The main characters in Sing to Silent Stones – Violet’s War’ are modelled very closely on his wife’s grandmother, Violet, and her son - Linda’s father, Frank. Their story, revolving, as it does, around the Great War and its impact, the changing attitudes towards illegitimacy and the emancipation of women, whirled us breathlessly through the struggles of real life, set within a background of world events.
‘Sing to Silent Stones – Frank’s War’ combines the actual World War II experiences and memories of David’s father with the fictional friendship of four boys, One English, one German, one French and one, French Jewish. But even these fictional friendships borrow from the life of David’s son and are set in a real place, the Forest of Orleans, within the context of an actual series of events that occurred in that region in the closing stages of the war.
There’s no question that the emotional attachment most readers experience when reading a David Snell novel is in no small part due to the connection the author feels to his amazing family and their extraordinary real life exploits. Bomb Bay Bertha hasn’t yet found her way into David’s often harrowing fictional accounts of two world wars and nor has the fox hunting padre/vicar. But don’t be surprised if either or both of them lend themselves to, or crop up in, his next novel.
“Every time I delve into my family history, I come up with more amazing material”, David says. “It’s all rolling around in my mind, gestating and forming up, ready for me to write down”.