With 11/11/11 approaching, Audlem Online has featured a number of moving stories of those lost in The Great War of 1914 – 18.
This story, about my grandfather Percy Smith, is much happier. It was his 23rd Birthday on Armistace Day, 11th November 1918 when hostilities ceased. It was a birthday present that almost certainly saved his life.
Just four months earlier, on 24th July 1918, he had been accepted into the infant Royal Air Force as a Cadet Pilot after serving throughout the war in the Army in Mesopotamia, now Iraq.
The photograph shows his papers and a shot of him wearing his newly awarded wings. Survival as a pilot in those early days of aerial warfare was notoriouly short – he once told me it was the take-off and landing that was more dangerous than the Germans.
His Armistace Day birthday present came just as he finished training. He had completed 26hrs 45min of Solo Flying in Mono Avro and Sopwith Pup aircraft – although his was not, I guess, named 'Happy'.
My grandfather's escape from probable death was possibly surpassed by my father in 1939, just as another war was looming. He was working at the Cammell Laird shipyard on a submarine. He was due to go on sea trials on 1st June 1939 when it was pointed out by his mother (an early Labour party militant) that 2nd June would be his 21st birthday and it was agreed he should have that day off and not sail.
The submarine he should have sailed on was HMS Thetis. What happened is a mystery. It submerged in Liverpool Bay on 2nd June but failed to surface. 99 lives were lost and just four survived. I feel for the man who replaced my father – simply because of a yet another lucky birthday in the family.
I first heard the Thetis story many years ago but wondered if it was a tall tale – those that read Audlem Onlike regularly may feel that could be a family trait! The arrival of Google allowed me to check all the dates and everything rings entirely true.
My father went on to serve throughout the war in the Merchant Navy, including the infamous Arctic convoys yet never suffered a scratch. Several ships he served on went down – after he had moved on to another ship.
All too many did not survive the Great War and World War II. Fortunately, and from a very personal point of view, many were lucky and survived.
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