It was in August 2012 that I found the manuscript of Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer, my Grandfather’s World War Two memoir, in my father’s garage. It was hidden away in a cardboard box, together with some model Bristol Blenheim aeroplanes; these were just a few of the hundreds of model aircraft my father had made over the years. He had died, peacefully, a couple of weeks earlier; in my grief I thought I would look at his models, meticulously made, all so delicate; I wanted to understand his fascination with them. Then, in an instant, I spotted the envelope that contained Blenheim Summer.
By the end of the day I had finished reading it; thankfully my Grandfather, Alastair Panton, had neat hand-writing and the words were - mostly - clear and legible. Immediately I concluded it must have been my father’s pride in his father that fuelled his interest in WWII, and was comforted by that; but even more importantly I realised this was a story Alastair had written to be published. It was as compelling as it was informative, as moving as it was descriptive. My eyes had been opened to the true story of the Battle of France; a catastrophic defeat for the Allies, during which lessons were learnt that paved the way for future battles, such as the Battle of Britain which began so soon afterwards. I simply could not ignore the significance and strength of his words. So many of his comrades died alongside Alastair as France fell into German hands; I am certain he wrote it so they would be remembered.
I didn’t know, then, very much about what had happened to Alastair during the war; I grew up knowing him simply as my Grandfather; a loving, endlessly creative, quiet, gentle figure who I adored to visit at the second-hand bookshop he owned and ran in the Yorkshire Dales. He had hardly spoken of his war years. In common with so many of his comrades who also lived through this time, he chose not to share his memories in conversation. Instead, however, Alastair chose to write. It might sound strange, but I think he wrote it for me too, I think I was meant to find it. It has begun a fascinating and rewarding journey for me; I am working on my second book now, telling the stories of other WWII veterans; all of whom I have met because of Blenheim Summer. Remembrance of those who gave so much during World War Two has become my life’s passion.
'Each of these terrifying moments illuminated his own vulnerability, as well as – of course and inevitably – resulting in agonising physical suffering to himself and his crew'
Within this six week battle, Alastair was shot down three times. The first time he crash-landed his burning aircraft in enemy territory and, while evading capture, saved the lives of his seriously injured crew members by hiding them in a hedge. The second time, whilst flying over northern France an unexploded shell penetrated his cockpit and destroyed his steering column, leaving him no option but to bale out, even though his parachute was on fire. Thirdly, he was shot down by friendly fire during the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Each of these terrifying moments illuminated his own vulnerability, as well as – of course and inevitably – resulting in agonising physical suffering to himself and his crew. The first crash happened on day two of the battle; he wrote that “For perhaps a minute and half, diving and twisting through space rather than air, we fought them until a burst shattered my instrument panel and my starboard engine exploded into flame.” On this occasion his navigator suffered a blow to the head which left him bleeding profusely and concussed, his gunner lost a leg and Grandfather was burned so badly that he did not recognise his own reflection in a mirror he subsequently came upon in a house he broke into, to gather life-saving materials to use as tourniquets – and much needed water.
However, it was when Alastair was shot down a fourth time, almost a month after France had capitulated, that he was so weak he was taken prisoner. He was flying over Belgium, on a fairly standard sortie to bomb an oil depot, when an incendiary bullet from a Messerschmitt 110 hit his Blenheim, and once again his plane fell, burning, to the ground. This time, he could not save his gunner; I know that in spite of his own agonising pain Alastair did everything he could for his friend, trusted comrade and close team member, but to no avail. I know – not from his book – but from letters I have read that Grandfather heard the screams of his gunner, when he slept, for the rest of his life.
Finally, Alastair writes poignantly too of the desperate situation the French people found themselves in as their country became occupied.
He cared for the French and I am certain was deeply frustrated by strength the enemy was able to exert over the British Expeditionary Force, of which he was a part. One night, Alastair was in Chartres, a cathedral town not far from Paris. He had some spare time, and went into the Cathedral for some peace and quiet. I leave you with some words of what he found:
“The vast, upper reaches of the interior of the cathedral were mainly in shadow, but at ground level thousands upon thousands of candles were burning. Every pew and chair and almost every available piece of floor space was occupied by worshippers and refugees; kneeling, lying, sitting and standing; praying, talking, eating, drinking and sleeping. The air was murmorous with soft words. I stood gazing in wonder; the force of the massed prayer seemed an almost measurable factor; and, as agnostic as I was, I felt growing in me a hope of eventual peace and of right prevailing in the end.”