My mother visited last week, and since it’s the first time we’ve seen each other since she went to my grandfather’s funeral, she brought with her some of his effects.
Amongst other things, there’s a number of mementos from his service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I was really excited by all this; I dedicated A Traitor’s Loyalty to my grandad specifically because it was his stories of his wartime experience that first got me interested in the topic.
I’ll start with the photographs. There’s one of my grandfather and the men with whom he did the flight engineer’s training course in the summer of 1943. There’s another of him with three comrades, only his head has been torn off; the note on the back says that his head can be found in my grandmother’s gold locket. (I love it so much.)
There’s two pictures of him with his flight crew: one taken right after the conclusion of an “operational flight”, with them still in their flight gear, and this more formal one, in which my grandfather is second from the right in the front row:
And a photo of his whole squadron from May 1945, commemorating the German surrender. He’s second from right in the fourth row back:
There’s also a number of newspaper clippings, wherein my grandfather has carefully cropped news photos of Halifax bombers, the specific type of bomber he crewed. (That’s a Halifax his squadron are adorning in the picture just above.) For me these are particularly fascinating because of the little snippets of news report on their reverse side. One from October 1945 has half the headline and lede from a story that appears to be about a debate over how much of a voice “the dominions” (at that time, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) should receive in the Allied Powers’ peacemaking process. Another has the first two, contextless sentences of a news story: Before the war, the precise location of Casablanca was probably known to few Britons except the bright lad who was top in geography. Now it is almost as familiar a name as Brighton or Birmingham, though it would perhaps be difficult to say whether Winston Churchill or Humphrey Bogart is chiefly responsible for this improvement in our education.
And there’s his log book, wherein he had to record all his flying hours. Every mission he flew is in here, from his first on 20 August 1943 (the only description of the mission is “circuits and bumps (dual)”) through to December 1945, with a break between May and September 1945, during which he was “posted to Dallarchy, Morayshire, Scotland” for “lectures on flying against the Japanese”, in preparation after the German surrender for his redeployment to the Pacific theatre. Each flight lists the pilot, the specific aircraft, and the nature of the mission:
By December 1945 he’d been posted to a meteorological squadron—essentially busywork while he awaited his turn to get demobilised and discharged, and as such his records become sketchier. But he does record a couple of flights he took as a civilian after the war, such as when he took my uncle with him aboard an aircraft listed as “Comet Dove” and flew as “Passenger” in September 1957. (I love it so much.)
And my mother brought a small packet of medals, which she had assumed were my grandfather’s campaign medals. One of them indeed was his, a service pin for No. 58 Squadron, but I realised pretty quickly that the others couldn’t be—because they weren’t from the Second World War, but rather from the First.
They were at first puzzling, because they were inscribed as belonging to “Gnr. A. Massey RFA“. The obvious assumption would be that these belonged to my great-grandfather, my grandfather’s father. (My mother’s maiden name is Massey.) But my great-grandfather wasn’t “A.”, he was “John”. My uncle recollected that John Massey’s middle initial was A., so there was a hypothesis that perhaps he had enlisted in the Army using his middle name. I’ll admit I was unconvinced by that and thought it was more likely these medals belonged to a different male relative, perhaps one who had been killed during the war and whose medals had passed to John Massey, then to my grandfather Alf.
But! Whoever this mysterious Gunner A. Massey was, his service number was inscribed on the medals, which I figured out only when I researched the medals online. (I had seen the number on one of the medals but hadn’t realised it was his service number because it’s only five digits long. I figured it was an individual number for the medal or something. I mean, all the numbers by which we’re identified today, does it seem at all reasonable to you that an army serial number would only need to be five digits long? I’m guessing that in A. Massey’s case it’s a reflection of the fact that when he enlisted in August 1914, the British Army was an organisation with fewer than a hundred thousand members.)
Anyhow, I figured the service number would make A. Massey a fairly easily searchable individual, so I set out to find what I could about him. And I should pause right here and say a big thank you to Kris, because most of what I’m about to say isn’t stuff I found at all, but rather stuff that she did. I would still be entirely in the dark if it weren’t for her, and I’m really grateful.
One thing I learnt yesterday: the service records of only forty per cent of the British Army’s First World War soldiers are still extant. The other sixty per cent were destroyed by a German bomb in September 1940. But I also learnt that his service number belonged to a soldier who served in the British Army during the war under the name Alfred Massey (my grandfather’s name, though my grandfather wasn’t born until the 1920s). His medal card gives a “qualifying date” of 16 August 1914, which I think is the date he enlisted in the British Army but might possibly be the date he arrived with his unit in France or Belgium. Either way, his involvement in the war began very very shortly after Britain’s declaration of war against Germany on 4 August.
Kris then discovered that Alfred Massey married my great-grandmother in Sunderland in 1915, at which point we knew that either Alfred Massey was my great-grandfather John or else my great-grandmother had a weird habit of marrying Massey men from Sunderland. It was when I saw Alfred Massey’s entry in the 1911 census that it all made sense.
In 1911, Alfred Massey was sixteen and living at home with his parents—including his father, John. So it would seem that my great-grandfather John Alfred Massey went by the name Alfred as a young man, when his dad was John, but then later on, after he had a son of his own named Alfred and after his father had presumably passed on, he became John.
There was also some additional family detail Kris found that I had no knowledge of and am so pleased to have, but I won’t go into it here, because I want to finally take a moment to talk about the actual medals themselves.
What you’re seeing there, from left to right, are the 1914 Star (or Mons Star), the British War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal, also known as Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. The British War Medal and the (British version of the) Allied Victory Medal were, broadly speaking, awarded to anyone who served in British uniform overseas during the First World War; about six million of each were issued. The 1914 Star, however, was rather more restrictive:
This bronze medal award was authorized by King George V in April 1917 for those who had served in France or Belgium between 5th August 1914 to midnight on 22nd November 1914 inclusive. The award was open to officers and men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces, doctors and nurses as well as Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Navy Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who served ashore with the Royal Naval Division in France or Belgium.
. . .
It should be remembered that recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres. There were approximately 378,000 1914 Stars issued.
So this essentially means that Gnr. Alfred Massey was part of the initial British Expeditionary Force, the Old Contemptibles, so named because of the Kaiser’s (possibly apocryphal) order of 19 August 1914 to “exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French‘s contemptible little army”. (Spoiler: the German army found itself unable to carry out such an order.)
I had no idea of any of this.
(I should note that my great-grandfather’s Mons Star does not bear the additional clasp indicating that he actually came under enemy fire during the 5 August-22 November period; apparently slightly fewer than half the Mons Stars do.)
So! I know a lot more about my family history now than I did two days ago. And I’ve got a new bunch of family heirlooms to tuck away and hopefully someday to be able to teach my own kids just how precious they are.
I opened this post by mentioning that I dedicated my first novel to my grandad. Somehow when the novel got reissued last year, the dedication didn’t get included in the new edition, something I didn’t realise until my grandad’s death at the end of the year. So I’ll close by repeating it here:
For my grandfather, Alf Massey (RAF 1940-1946), who first introduced me to British spies, the Second World War, and so many other elements that make up this story.