On the 75th anniversary of VE Day, Dr Alexander Smith, associate professor of sociology at the University of Warwick, shares a personal story of a heroic grandfather who served in Bomber Command, but who fought a lifelong battle with addiction after the war ended.
In my grandfather’s wartime service file, there is a curious letter.
I had accessed his file from the National Archive in Australia to better understand the man my grandfather was when he went to war in 1941. Contained within were his enlistment papers, his pay book and officer records along with details of the squadrons he was assigned to and the aircraft he trained on as he qualified to become a pilot.
This letter, though, had little in common with the rest of these papers. For starters, it was dated 1 May 1969 – almost 25 years after the war had ended. It was short, from the Repatriation Department in Adelaide to the Secretary of the national Department of Air, requesting ‘particulars of all promotions and ranks’ held by my grandfather during the Second World War.
That was all.
I asked my mother why a bureaucrat might have been seeking access to her father’s war records in 1969. ‘Oh,’ she replied. ‘That would be when your grandfather had his breakdown and was taken to the Repat Hospital.’
I already knew the story. I had been 17 years old when my grandmother told me our family’s secret. During a long walk, she had been talking about her marriage to my grandfather, Harold ‘Hank’ Hancock. We, as grandchildren, knew him simply as a kind, loving and benevolent man who had captained a Halifax bomber in the war against Hitler and wore his medals with pride on Anzac Day.
However, my grandmother now explained, this was not the whole story. Just after they married, he had left for war a teetotaller. Three years later, he came back a drunk. His life after the war – of raising a family and running his father’s butcher shop – was dogged by struggles with alcoholism, depression, undiagnosed PTSD and a violent rage. Only when she threatened divorce did he go into rehab. My grandfather came out and never touched alcohol again.
On the 75 anniversary of VE day, I am thinking not just about my grandfather’s military service but also the personal price he paid – in terms of his mental and emotional health – as well as the legacy of his wartime experiences on his family in the years afterwards. While he was not alone in coming home scarred by the war, talking about depression and problems with your mental health in its aftermath was very much a subject swept under the carpet in ‘respectable’ Anglo-Saxon society. WW2 veterans were stoic heroes who had won a just war and maintained a stiff upper lip throughout. They were expected to perform this tragic myth of keeping calm and carrying on, in their post-military civilian lives. But my grandfather, like many other veterans, used alcohol to self-medicate. His addiction almost destroyed him.
In my grandmother’s telling of this story, it was England where my grandfather learned how to drink. His days in Bomber Command were endured with an uncanny cocktail of emotions, of boredom and restlessness mixed with adrenaline-charged moments when flying over enemy territory, of sudden excitement, panic and stress. Coming down from such ‘highs’ must have been horrific. It was little wonder that he began to fill those days with alcohol. Still in England at war’s end, I have little doubt he spent VE Day drinking. It was a date to celebrate, after all: a day that had been long in coming.
My grandmother took up his fight with the Australian army. She argued, before a board of brigadiers and other senior brass, that my grandfather’s struggles with alcoholism and depression were a consequence of his military service. In effect, they were injuries that he had sustained during the war. In what was one of the first such cases of its time, she persuaded the army to award my grandfather access to his pension early, on health grounds. She also decided to stay with him during the early years of his recovery so they could rebuild their marriage and their lives together.
In 1975, veterans of RAF Bomber Command held their 30th Anniversary reunion celebrations in York. My grandfather had now been sober for a few years and wanted to join the thousands of airmen and their families, from all over the Commonwealth and former British Empire, for this occasion. He and my grandmother made the long journey, by air, to England. From London, they travelled to Warwick, home to my grandfather’s bomb aimer, ‘Dutch’ Holland. His crew of seven – three Australians and four Englishmen – were all there. They then embarked on a one-week tour of their old airfields, which took them from Warwick and Gloucestershire to Yorkshire and Norfolk.
Shortly afterwards, Dutch was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died later that year. This was the last time my grandfather and his crew were all together – their ‘last op,’ as Dutch noted in his mission logbook, which he had retained after the war. That my grandfather maintained his sobriety during that week reminiscing with his fellow crew seems an achievement to me.
The story my grandmother bequeathed me when I was 17 has inspired all sorts of questions I would have loved to ask my grandfather. But following rehab, he never spoke about his alcoholism and, after sixty years of marriage, he and my grandmother both passed away in the early years of the 21st Century.
When I share this with colleagues, family and friends, many are prompted to tell me about the experiences – of awkward silences, mental illness, addiction and sometimes violence – of their own families in the aftermath of war. While it has become socially and culturally acceptable to speak of the psychological damage wrought on veterans of the First World War and later conflicts, like the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq, exploring the emotional toll of the Second World War on the men who served and survived remains a taboo subject, in popular and media discourse as well as academia.
On VE Day, I want to remember my grandfather not as a hero but rather a man, warts and all, capable of courage and love but also sensitive and vulnerable. After the guns fell silent over European battlefields, he carried a troubled legacy into middle age and beyond. That legacy – of psychological trauma, alcoholism and addiction – remains, for so many, the unremembered story of World War Two.
For me, that my grandfather overcame his addiction and rebuilt his life, with my grandmother’s support, is at least as heroic as anything he did during the war.
7 May 2020
Dr Alexander Smith is associate professor of sociology at the University of Warwick. He teaches the popular undergraduate module ‘War, Memory and Society’ and is a member of Room 204, the writer development program run by Writing West Midlands.
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