My brother, Paul and I had volunteered for the South African Corps of Signals, as dispatch riders, in July 1940. When I was living in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was travelling quite a lot. This was a time when the Vietnam War was on and I frequently saw young conscripts at airports. I found myself thinking: ‘They are mere babies’ – and then I realised what it must have been like for Ouma when her baby, aged seventeen, joined the army. I confess that neither Paul nor I had given much thought to our parents’ reaction to our volunteering.
On 21 June 1942, we – and about thirty thousand other Allied soldiers – were captured at Tobruk (in what is now Libya) by General Rommel’s forces. After spending five months in Tarhuna, south-east of Tripoli, we were taken to a camp in Italy, to Fara Sabina, north of Rome. Soon after our arrival we were thrilled to be given a large batch of letters, many of them in Ouma’s dear, familiar handwriting, on her Basildon Bond blue stationery. We took our letters to a secluded corner of camp, to read them in peace. Although it was December, it was a clear sunny day, and we sat on boulders near the perimeter.
We opened the letters eagerly, not bothering to put them into chronological order. We soon realised that something was amiss, as we anxiously read out to each other such lines as ‘everyone has been so kind … people all thought so highly of Guy … what will become of dear Margaret and Deirdre?’, neither of us wishing to accept what each phrase made more certain: that Guy had died.
Today, more than seventy years later, I can easily recapture that awful moment with all its detail. To me Guy had seemed invincible, I never thought that he might die. We dragged ourselves back to our fellow POWs and told them the news. There followed an endless procession of friends and others whom we hardly knew – they all knew about our heroic elder brother Guy. They solemnly shook our hands muttering ‘Sorry Paul … sorry Dave.’
When World War II in Europe ended in May 1945, Paul and I made our way to England to a base in Brighton. We had to wait for two months for a ship to take us home, and as soon as we could manage it we made the long, crowded train journey to meet Margaret and Deirdre, who was then just over three years old. It was a summer evening when we arrived and Margaret, Paul and I sat up talking until the early hours: we did not notice the very brief sunset. I was reluctant to accept that Guy was dead. After all, I told myself, he was a champion swimmer, perhaps he had swum for hours and then reached the shore, but had suffered amnesia. It was only years later that I learnt that the ship was about two hundred miles out to sea, from Mombasa, when Guy disappeared.
In 1954, within a month of our meeting and almost twelve years after Guy’s disappearance, Bernard Riley, my life-companion, realised that I was still deeply involved with the fate of my idealised brother. Bernard’s perceptive analysis helped me recognise the extent of my preoccupation – almost an obsession. ‘You had long hero-worshipped your eldest brother,’ Bernard wrote to me, ‘he was free, free as a bird, to live, to fight, fly, and to die a hero’s death.’
I had to let Guy go. Nevertheless, for nearly thirty years, he used to appear in my dreams, looking older, sometimes with a beard, and asking, ‘Don’t you recognise me, Dave?’