I’ve found watching the current BBC2 series ‘Britain’s Greatest Generation’ an inspiring and yet humbling experience. It tells the stories of our forebears during World War Two and caused me to think about the contribution and sacrifices made by previous generations of Lutonians during those six dark years.
I also recalled the summer of 1999 when I organised to take my Uncle Doug and his wife Brenda back to the Normandy beaches for a trip down memory lane. Doug had gone ashore with Canadian troops on D-Day, 6th June 1944. He landed on Mike Red Sector, Juno Beach, aged 19, and, with thousands of others, established a beachhead and fought inland. Doug was a third generation Lutonian.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotion of the trip and Doug was clearly very moved by it. I could see him staring out to sea and visualising the events fifty-five years previously, sights no 19 year old should have to witness. I felt a powerful sense of admiration and gratitude.
We left the beach through the same gap in the dunes they’d used in 1944. As we did so we came across an old WW2 tank that had been recovered and restored. To my surprise Brenda announced that it was a Churchill Tank, built by Vauxhall Motors, during the War. She then said “I can tell you every part number on that tank!”
Having told her “you must be kidding” she proceeded to roll off multi-digit part numbers and descriptions of the tank components – explaining to me that she worked in the Production Control Dept. at Vauxhall during the war years. Extraordinary stuff!
You see, it wasn’t just the men and women on the frontline that made a contribution when the Country was in dire straits. People at home were doing their bit. Women in particular came to the fore, in work previously done by men.
Who couldn’t be amazed to know that young women of the ATA flew, single handed, unarmed bomber and fighter aircraft from factories to frontline airfields – at night! In Luton, as well as factory work, many women joined the Land Army growing food for the Nation.
Locally, 6,300 joined the WRVS to provide all sorts of support services as well as knitting 35,000 pieces of clothing for people on the front line! They also helped care for the 26,000 children, expectant mothers and blind people evacuated from London to Luton as a result of The Blitz.
Unlike the 672 people honoured on our War Memorial in front of the Town Hall, Doug made it safely home aged 22 after four years in uniform. He met Brenda in the late forties and they were married in 1954. He was one of 12,000 Lutonians who joined the armed forces and the French Government awarded him the Legion d’Honneur just before he died in 2016.
Sadly, another member of our family, Sergeant Charles William King didn’t make it home. He was Killed in Action at the Battle of Arnhem (A Bridge Too Far) in September 1944 and is one of those 672 names that made the ultimate sacrifice along with the 107 people killed in bombing raids on homes and factories in Luton during WW2.
Spare a thought, if you would, for the likes of Charlie, Doug and Brenda on VE Day this Friday. Life is difficult for all of us – and truly tragic for too many – right now. Like those before, they, and Capt. Tom, can perhaps inspire us as Lutonians to dig in and get through our current troubles together.
By Andy King, Vice Chair, Save Our Town