It's towards the end of the war, just after VE day but before VJ day. My father is in Italy, stationed at Foggia on the Adriatic. He's ground crew and they’ve been removing bomb racks from planes and putting in benches for the transportation of prisoners of war. One of the pilots tells him and his mate that if he gets a chance to go back to Blighty, he’ll take them with him. At this point my father has been away for 3 years and 8 months and has been told he will be off to Karachi shortly. In the event, this doesn’t happen because of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but for now he has no prospect of seeing home for months or even years. When the pilot’s gone, his friend, who is equally desperate, says ‘I shouldn’t bank on it if I were you’.
But a week later the pilot tells them he is about to fly a proof run and will take Dad and his mate back to England. As the plane – a Liberator – starts taxiing down the runway, Dad climbs up into the cupola of the plane, which was for navigating by the stars. They cross Italy to a base on the Tyrrhenian coast, and then the pilot flies over France and straight up the Champs-Élysées and over L’Arc de Triomphe. As they descend over Hampshire, my father thinks he has never seen anything as green as the English countryside. They land at RAF Stoney Cross near Lyndhurst in the New Forest and as he disembarks, Dad kisses the ground. He is 23 years old. Then he and his mate start edging towards the gate.
‘Where are you going?’ asks the pilot.
‘Home, sir,’ says Dad.
‘Sorry, there’s no time for that,’ comes the response. ‘We have to be off at 8am tomorrow morning. But I will get you a pass to go off base.’
So they hitch to Bournemouth instead and have a meal in Bobby’s, the department store. Everyone’s looking at them because they are in khaki summer uniform but with their RAF stripes – ‘an eagle flying backwards’. They find a bed and breakfast and are back at base for 8am the next day.
As the plane starts to taxi, a lorry drives up. The pilot stops the plane and talks to the driver. There’s bad weather over France and they’ll have to delay their return by a day.
This time there’s no stopping Dad. He hitches as far as Bath – it’s easy to get lifts because he’s in uniform. Then he catches a train to Temple Meads and gets a bus up the Gloucester Road to Horfield. As he walks up Macauley Road, the woman who lives opposite calls out ‘Oh, hello, Lionel! When are you going back?’
In the garden his father, a veteran of the Somme, is budding roses. He looks up at my father without a flicker of emotion. ‘Oh,’ he says. ‘I’d better go in and tell your mother.’
His mother is, of course, thrilled, over-joyed, overcome at seeing her boy after so long away and so much danger. They stay up talking till midnight, and Dad is up and off at 6am the next morning to get back to Lyndhurst by 8. But whilst on the train, he discovers that it won’t take him all the way to the base so he has to hitch the last few miles. Time is tight and as he hurries around the perimeter of the airfield, he sees the plane getting ready to take off. He asks a passing lorry driver to take him over to it, which he does, and he gets on in the nick of time.
A day or two later he apologises to the pilot for being so late and nearly missing the plane.
‘That’s quite all right,’ says the pilot.