Death of a Forgotten Hero

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.

Rupert Colley.

27 thoughts on “Death of a Forgotten Hero

  1. Wonderful post, Rupert. I am filled with admiration and awe. Your uncle was an amazing man. I’d use his memoirs to write his story if I was you. Today’s generation needs to read it. Ian Brady? I couldn’t be bothered.

  2. Loved reading this. It’s truth, honour and showed how strong all these soldiers had to be. Leaving home and what a shock it must have been to each and everyone of them. Im an Aussie and as we say . Lest we forget. THANKYOU

  3. Thank you, for sharing this!
    In May we (in The Netherlands) commemorate the dead (on May 4th) of WWII and wars after that. And on May 5th we celebrate our freedom. Your uncle was right, of course, we do thank our freedom to him and so many more men and women.
    There is a War Cemetery close to my children’s school. Every year in May the whole school walks there together with some parents and grandparents to read (and listen to) poems and sing a few songs. And be silent for a minute… After that all the children (about 300 between 4 and 13 years old) get a flower and they walk along all the graves to lay their flower at one of them. There are so many of them! Mostly in their early twenties…
    I think it is a good thing that this new generation realizes what war can do. Hopefully their generation is another one who can live their lives in peace…
    Next time I’ll walk there, I’ll remember Uncle Edwin and his friends A, B and C!

  4. I’m from the USA and so appreciate your thoughts. I like you feel we pay too much attention to the wrong things and the right things are forgotten or overlooked. No wonder the younger forget or don’t know much respect. They have not had to live it and none of the technology they use draws attention to the truths of life. Unless we have someone serving in some capacity we have no real feelings for it. Here we are not only having a loss of commitment to our soldiers but our police and others are not given much respect either. I am so glad you put together your uncle’s story. I don’t know how video’s are created for things like YouTube but maybe if you put together a slide show or something it would get the attention it deserves.

  5. Wonderful tribute, not only to your Uncle Edwin, but to those who served their country. It is hard to even imagine what it would be like to experience the horrors of war. That so many men and women not only fought, but gave up their lives, is a testament to their belief in freedom and country. Thank you for sharing the life of a man who may not have made the headlines, but obviously lived a worthwhile life to all who knew him and certainly deserving of the honor of your tribute to him. My condolences on the loss of a great man, your Uncle Edwin.

  6. I think this piece was very moving. It was a great tribute to an extraordinary man, who others saw as ordinary. The love you felt comes through in every sentence. Thank you for sharing.

  7. This was a fantastic piece and any person who served then or now is a true patriot. I agree, you have the background and a good start with your Uncle’s writings, why not? A great way to “payback” what he did for you, your family & friends and his country. Best of luck and thanks.

  8. Thank you, for sharing this story! There are so many unsung heroes – decent people living decent lives.

    It’ s interesting how we seek bad news in media as good news aren’t news while in books we seek for heroes, victories and happy endings.

  9. Thank you for sharing, your uncle and many more like him deserve our love and respect they are the forgotten heros and the world needs people like yourself to remind us how much we owe the brave men and women who fought during both world wars ❤️

  10. Sorry to hear about your uncle’s death, but the life he lived was awe inspiring. It would have been a blessing knowing him. I was just thinking yesterday of celebrities, singers or infamous killers who die it is talked about on the news non stop. It’s more important to hear about people in our daily lives who are the true heros. Thank you for sharing about your uncle!

  11. Thank you Rupert,for sharing this wonderful story about your uncle. I would love to see you make this into a novel.from the little you shared, there indeed most be a lot more.
    I also am very sorry for your loss,he sounds like a man who loved his Country & helped people not for the awards or accolade’s. ,but because,he could.
    Again,thinking of you, your family w prayer !

  12. Thank you for sharing this heartfelt tribute to a remarkable man. We had such a quiet hero in our family, too … my uncle Tom Kouba, who left us on 3/31/2016, at age 91. Tom was a bomber pilot in WW II, and very seldom spoke of his war experiences. In the last year of his life, I heard a few stories of his experiences as a pilot, after the war … he spent 22 years in the USAF, retiring in 1964 to a farm in east Texas. I would love to read the book you might write from your uncle’s experiences. He deserves to be remembered.

  13. Sincere condolences Rupert on the passing of your dear uncle..he sounds like a gallant, honourable gentleman. You must have felt truly blessed to have the opportunity to read his memoirs…only yesterday I told my own children about how my paternal grandmother never met her father, he was killed in WW1 while her mother was pregnant with her…he fought for the British army as an Irish man. We today don’t appreciate the sacrifices made by the generations gone before us.

    Congratulations on honouring your uncle with such an emotive and memorable piece.
    Kindest regards.

  14. Condolences for you and your family Rupert. Celebrate his life and that he is with your aunt again, and that as long as you “speak his name”, he will never really be gone

  15. Rupert,
    That whole generation that went through the war years should all be revered. Many had parents or relations that had gone to WWIII and suffered the after effects.
    I also see it from the respect of those that did not go, but had to endure the time, not knowing where their loved ones were and if they were still alive.
    Yes, I believe this generation, regardless of letter attached, have no idea of the hardships faced, and yet, is this not the reason for those that did go to war, to ensure that the generations to come did not have to face the same terror, that is war.
    Australians have a day for both wars to be remembered, and each year more people seem to understand the importance to remember the sacrifice of those who fought for freedom.
    All I can say is: “Lest we forget”!

  16. I hope as many people as possible see your post. It is “ordinary” men like your uncle to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude. Thank you for posting.

  17. I’m so sorry for your loss. Your uncle sounded like an amazing and very interesting man. My prayers and thoughts are with you and your family.

  18. Rupert, thank you for sharing a piece of your Uncle Edwin’s story. And so sorry for your loss. What you wrote is so on point and the message so true. For ALL our warriors who fought and are fighting to keep us safe, we owe them all a great debt. Thank you for reminding us.
    Kay Wilson
    Washington, N.C., USA

  19. These stories of honest heroes are so much more interesting and heart warming than all the violence and evil you read or see in the newspaper or news programs today. Thank you for sharing and thanks to your uncle and the rest of our verterns for their service. May he rest in peace.

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