On Monday, the news came through that the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, had died. Every UK newspaper and news channel had his 1965 mugshot on their front pages or on our screens; many column inches and many minutes of airtime were devoted to his life and his notorious, foul crimes. Meanwhile, on the same day, in a hospital in East Sussex, my Uncle Edwin died. He was 94. Obviously, having done nothing newsworthy during his life, his death passed unnoticed by anyone outside his family. Fair enough – we can’t mark the death of every elderly citizen. And, like I say, he’d done nothing during his 94 years worthy of comment. Except perhaps, ensuring our continual freedom, the survival of our way of life and upholding our democracy. Oh, and along the way, he’d killed a few people.
You see, back in July 1944, Uncle Edwin, aged 21, crossed the English Channel, along with many other young men, and landed in France. Over the coming months, with a rifle in his hand, he walked eastwards across northern France, through Belgium, Holland and then into Germany. He saw and experienced things that no one should have to see or experience. He was shot at and he killed. He was a lieutenant, so had responsibility. He could also speak German, so one of his jobs on approaching terrified German households was to assure the women that his men were not going to rape her or bayonet her children.
My uncle joined up with three school friends whose surnames began with A, B and C (let’s say, Atkins, Bingham and Collins). All three were killed. For years, my poor uncle suffered terrible survivor guilt over this.
Uncle Edwin’s bravery didn’t end in 1945. In the early 1970s, he was standing on a train platform when he saw a woman jump onto the railway in front of an incoming train. Without hesitating, he leapt down and tried to pull her free as the train hurtled towards them. Unable to do so, he lay on top of her, managing just in time to drag her limbs in, before the train whooshed over them. Afterwards, they staggered to their feet, both, I imagine, in a state of shock. The woman walked away. No words were exchanged. It took a year before Uncle Edwin mentioned it to his wife. Bravery doesn’t always have to be announced. Imagine if it’d had happened today – the incident would have been caught on CCTV, it would have gone viral and Uncle Edwin would have been an Internet sensation. He would’ve hated that.
Post-war, Uncle Edwin worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. One of his jobs was to help people find the graves of their loved ones, killed in action in faraway places. I remember, back in the 1970s, he helped our village shopkeeper get his wartime medals. The man had never bothered to claim them, but thirty years on, he was regretting it – my uncle came to the rescue. Such was Uncle Edwin’s status at the commission, he was awarded an MBE.
My father had died when I was quite young so Uncle Edwin, a frequent visitor to our home in Devon, became a bit of a father figure to me. He helped me with my homework, warned me not to smoke, and tried, without success, to understand the music of U2 and UB40.
In later life, Uncle Edwin was a little bit guilty of becoming one of these “I fought the war for the likes of you” men that youngsters, like me in the 1980s, used to mock. Now, with age and knowing what he and his contemporaries went through, I can understand their frustration. We, who have never known any different, take our freedom for granted.
I remember, in the eighties, believing myself to be a pacifist, I was shocked when he told me he and his peers cheered and celebrated when the news came through in August 1945 that the Americans had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But tens of thousands of people were killed in an instant, I protested. But it ended the war, he told me, it allowed Japan the opportunity to surrender, something they would never have done under normal circumstances. He and millions like him would have had to fight in Japan. The death toll would have been unimaginable.
Although Uncle Edwin talked about the war incessantly(!), he never talked about his role in it. But he did occasionally mention his friends, A, B and C. In January 2013, I phoned my uncle to congratulate him on reaching 90 (not that he was celebrating the fact) and I took the opportunity to ask him, rather nervously, if I could read his wartime memoirs, which I knew he’d written. Rather reluctantly, I think, he agreed. What I read shocked and appalled me. It is not my place to recount his tales but let’s say I saw him a different light. I thought of myself at 21 – my main worry was how to gel my hair and whether I had the latest record by Bauhaus or New Order. And here he was, as a 21-year-old, a hairbreadth from death for months on end. I’d always revered the man but now my admiration was magnified a hundredfold. What came across again and again – was his respect for the enemy. He didn’t see them as Germans or as Nazis, he saw them as young men, like himself, having to do a nasty and dangerous job on the orders of their superiors.
Luckily, Uncle Edwin retained his health right to the end. A couple of weeks ago, he had a fall and ended up in hospital. A week later, he died. His wife had died a decade earlier. He leaves behind a son, a daughter and a grandson, now aged 25 and embarking on a career in dentistry.
Seventy years on, Uncle Edwin is finally reunited with A, B and C. But what the heck – let’s read about Ian Brady – far more interesting.