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On this Day

On this day, the 24 March 1944 my Grandfather Joseph Robinson climbed in to the small and cramped tail gunner post of his Lancaster Bomber with his crew.

The Wedding of Joseph Robinson to Irene Baum 

Joining the RAF when war broke out and worked his way up for Flgt. Sgt.  He had been flying for a year by this point.  Married one day shy of six weeks he lift his wife at home in his native Sunderland and returned to his squadron at Elsham Wood.

Joe was ideal as a tail gunner, a strong man, a confident man but he was short enough and small enough to fit in to the plexi-glass turrets of Lancaster Bomber.  The problem with being a Tail-end Charlie, wasn't just the cramped conditions where many couldn't wear the parachutes or even boots if they wanted to fit in, neither was it the loneliness of being so far removed from the rest of the crew, but the real kicker would be if you needed to escape.

The tail turrets while the most important defensive position carrying the heaviest armament, entered via a small hatch they were the prime target for the enemy as their main job was as a lookout for enemy fighters would attacked from the rear and the bottom of the plane.    They were vulnerable and had one of the hardest places in the plane to get out of.

In the days leading up to this mission,  my grandfather and his crew mates were training.  Their pilot was in sick bay with a bit of a hangover and they were practising how to evacuate the plane should they need to.  After practising several times one of the base officers approached them.  He asked why they were taking a break and was told they had practised the procedure and knew it by heart.  He considered their response looked at their plane and changed the scenario.  He told them the part of the plane of the were trained to evacuate out of was damaged and on fire - so how would they get out.

Presented with this hypothetical situation the crew were taught how to escape their plane in ways no manual of training course could teach them.  They were taught by the men who had come before them, who had undertaken the dangerous missions they were facing and who wanted to give them every advantage in case the worst should happen.

Taking off at 1851 hours from Elsham Woods, their Lancaster headed towards its target, Berlin.  This night would be known as the Night of the Strong Winds.  With initial good weather, the 811 allied planes inflicted heavy losses on the German Night fighters who were on to them as early as 1945 hours.  Unluckily, un-forecast jet streams blew many of planes off course including my grandfather's plane.  Blown off course after the bombing run it is thought they were pushed in to the radar controlled flack inside the Ruhr defences.   Crippled by flack the crew had to abandon the plane.

I remember one of the few stories my grandfather would tell me was about having to get out of that small cramped space and realising he didn't have his parachute.  The other crew members had used the unconventional teachings from the base to escape.  The plane was going down by now and there was only three of them left on board, the pilot Sgt. Leslie John Collis, Sgt. Edward Smith and my grandfather.   They all knew how bad their situation was, the plane was not going to make it home.  Leslie Collis told my grandfather to get out, his orders saved my grandfather's life.  Joe had to use the last parachute on board to escape knowing his two crew mates, his two friends would not make it. As he stood ready to go I wonder what words passed between them, if any at all, did he need to tell them thank you or would they know?    Both men lost their lives they were only 27.

Joe parachuted out, whether he saw his plane go down I don't know like many he kept his experience private.  He ended up being found by a French farmer who offered him sanctuary.   Unluckily this farmer shortly thereafter handed my Grandfather over to the Gestapo and he was interred as a POW in Stalag Luft.  

Like many I have seen the film version of the Great Escape, which was also taking place on the 24/25 March, however when I sat and watched this movie with my grandfather he would have a misty look in his eye.  He would tell me the parts of the film they got right,  he would tell me tails of how he had dug tunnels with his fellow airmen while imprisoned.  While they did not know what became of those who escaped, they had a duty and desire to escape themselves no matter the cost.

Their meagre meat rations were used with crushed razor blades to feed the guard dogs to prevent them raising the alarm.  They kept the entrance to their tunnel hidden and used bags they hid in their trousers to carry sand from the tunnel in to the grounds and hide it amongst the soil as they walked, talked and worked.

They were ready to escape, to run the risk like others before of making their way home to their loved ones all the while walking the knife edge of being caught and killed for their actions.  I can only imagine how it must have felt in those hours leading up to their escape, the excitement, the nerves the trepidation.

But this escape was not to be, the Russians were moving and the camp was to be evacuated, the prisoners moved further west.  The March as my grandfather called it was a march with a destination 6 feet under.  Already weakened from malnutrition and facing the harsh weather, hundreds died due to starvation and disease.   My grandfather escaped on this march, as a child I could not comprehend the enormity of the his words when he said "They took us on a march and I escaped", reading now of the horrendous conditions, they fear and the depravity of what he must have experienced breaks my heart.

When he finally returned home to his family, he slowly adapted back to pre-war life.  He was a foreman, a carpenter and eventually a brilliant gardener.  He was father, a grandfather, a friend and worked hard to raise money for charities such as Guide Dogs for the blind and the Royal British Legion.   He never lost his brycleem boy hair cut, I used to love the days when I would catch him with freshly washed hair minus the brycleam slicking his black hair down, it was wonderful because it was my grandfather relaxed, preparing to go out and have a pint or two with his friends.  He never wore jeans, and it was rare from him to go outside the house without a tie.  He never swore or raised his voice that I can remember - if he did it was never in front of children and he would never swear in front of women.  He never stayed in bed past 6am and could never clear his plate at dinner.  He taught me how to be a caring, inquisitive and empathetic human being and in his own way he taught me how to be brave.

My Grandad and Me 

He was remarkable in how unremarkable he made himself, he was hero, a fighter and survivor but all he went through all he achieved was carried with a quiet confidence of a man who felt he didn't need medals for killing people - but he never mentioned or probably ever considered how many lives he saved.  

I was at work yesterday, with three colleagues when the news came in that there had been an incident in Westminster. We did not know the details of what happened, but I watched as they automatically assessed the information and prepared themselves for what was to come.  I work with the emergency services, I work with men and women who are prepared everyday to risk their lives to assist others.   I have seen them respond to many incidents in my tenure where there is the risk that they may not come back.  They assess every risk, apply their training and in some cases work outside the box as my grandfather and his crew did that day.

Those who undertake roles in the forces and emergency services are a rare breed, they are the people you sit in the pub with, discuss movies with and laugh with, but sometimes when they go to work they don't know what is waiting for them.  My grandfather I'm sure never thought on 24 March 1944 that his plane wasn't going to make it back, that he would loose two friends before the end of the mission and be separated from the others until after the end of the war.    I'm sure the police officer who lost his life yesterday had not thought that morning as he left home the day would end how it did.   But what always surprises me the most is the ability of human beings when put in situations such as this to find a chink of light in the darkness.

I don't doubt there were dark times for my grandfather during his experience, there would have been times when he wondered if he would ever get home, but there must have been something that kept his spirits up, that gave him hope, that drove him to survive to find a way to make it home.

There will be dark times for those who have lost loved ones, those who  were injured and those who witnessed yesterdays attack.  In time, there will be a chink of light for them, the terror that those who commit these acts hope to achieve is temporary, as people we are resilient and we find a way to get through and find the goodness in the bad.

taken from the film - Love Actually by Richard Curtis 


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