I remember my mother’s mother’s mother as a quite terrifying and formidable woman during the 1960s. She was a matriarch who loved animals more than people and her home, a large, detached house in Wyke Regis, Dorset, was run on a strict regime that hadn’t really changed since the 1930s. She had no modern appliances, apart from a rarely used early 1950s television set in a wooden cabinet, although a booming radiogram the size of a sideboard was almost permanently switched on and tuned to the BBC Home Service in her sitting room which also served as the dining room. The large kitchen had a butler sink with a wooden draining board, built in dresser for crockery, cutlery and glassware, a scrubbed pine table for food preparation, two gas cookers side-by-side, the right hand one for preparing foods for animals and the left hand side for humans, and sheets newspaper on the cool flagstone floor laid out with an assortment of saucers and metal dishes for the animals.
My great-grandfather, known as Pip, had died in 1953, five years before I was born, and my grandfather – who was older than his mother-in-law – died in 1962 so I barely knew him, but I do clearly remember an eccentric household where my great-grandmother presided over my grandmother and Mrs Norris, a strange lady who chain-smoked Woodbine unfiltered cigarettes. Mrs Norris had joined the household during WW2 but, for some reason, had never moved on.
The ménage also included ‘Ming’, a one-eyed giant Pekinese dog which snuffled, wheezed and waddled around the ground floor (fortunately it could no longer climb stairs) and suffered from an unpleasant and painful disease which led to the poor creature scooting its backside along the carpet leaving a foul-smelling discharge in its wake; an ancient, but still viscous, red macaw called ‘Polly’, which had allegedly originally belonged to the landlord of 10 Rillington Place, the terraced house in West London where John Reginald Halliday Christie had murdered at least six women including his wife Ethel between 1943 and 1953; and an ever-changing assortment of damaged or ailing cats and kittens each infested with their own colony of fleas and other parasites.
My great grandmother was known to my brother and I, and other family members as ‘Gran’, but the rest of the village knew her as Mrs Colllingwood. On the rare occasions that she left the house, she would put on a woollen coat that smelled of mothballs and then fascinate us by securing a close-fitting felt hat in place with a couple of long hat pins. Although she rarely had time for children, just very occasionally she might treat one of us to a Polo mint from a tin she kept by her overstuffed armchair. Once, quite out of character, she gave me some ancient silver charms: a cone shaped spindle, an articulated fish, a hobnail boot, and some Maundy money from 1872 (unfortunately with the penny missing) on a small ring, I think she said her father had given them to her. I still have the charms on a bracelet which I wear regularly and would love to know their history before they came into my possession.
We were aware that Gran had four children: my grandmother was the eldest and her sister, ‘Auntie Norah’, was a couple of years younger, then she had a son, Reggie, who had died young. All three were born in Bordighera, Italy, where Gran had lived for the first ten years of her marriage. There was another, much younger, daughter known to us as ‘Auntie Oko’, who was always immaculately made up and fashionably dressed by comparison to her no-nonsense older sisters in their tweeds-and-twinsets. Apparently, Oko had been ‘an afterthought’ baby, born in England after my great-grandfather had returned from the First World War.
Gran died in 1969 and it was nearly fifty years later, when I was researching her late husband, that I uncovered a scandalous family secret. I was searching the British Newspaper Archive when I spotted his name in, of all places, the Aberdeen Press and Journal dated 26 May 1919, under the lurid headline “Officer Betrayed – Wife Succumbs to Farmer’s Advances”. Of course, I was quite surprised, but also rather tickled, to realise that Oko was, in fact, my grandmother’s half-sister.
For a family historian, the story was a real revelation as I had no idea that my great-grandparents had run a pub in Surrey, and I was delighted to learn that the indifferent old lady of my memory had experienced passion after all. Further research disclosed that the article had appeared in several newspapers across the UK beneath diverse headlines, depending upon the publication’s empathy, including: “A Forgiving Husband: Retired Farmer to Pay Damages”, “While the Husband was Away” and “Lonely Widower to Pay £1400 – Officer Freely Forgives Wife Who Erred Out of Sympathy for Farmer”. Clearly it had been hot news back in the day.
Slowly, I began to piece together the story and became more and more sympathetic to my great-grandmother’s situation. She’d left the beautiful and sunny Italian Riviera town of Bordighera, where she’d lived since her marriage, returned to run a pub in the grey and damp English home counties, and her only son and her father had died in the same year. Then war had broken out and her husband had gone to serve with the Army in France, leaving her to run a pub single handed whilst bringing up two teenage daughters – no wonder she was somewhat vulnerable and fell for a lonely widower…
For the sake of completeness, I ordered a copy of Oko’s birth certificate and was not surprised to see that she was born at the Black Horse Hotel, near Guilford, and the father was given as Lieutenant Harry Cuthbert Collingwood who lived at the same address. Then the penny dropped: Oko was born in August 1919 – three months after the story had appeared in the papers, so she was not the child in question.
It was relatively easy to track down a likely record via the search function on the GRO website, so I ordered a birth certificate and, just a few days later, I was looking at an entry recording the birth of a boy on 4th July 1918 at a nursing home in Bromley. The mother matches my great-grandmother’s name of Evelyn May Collingwood formerly Twohey of no occupation, but neither a father’s name nor occupation were given, and the informant was ME Thursby who lived at the nursing home and was present at the birth. The child was named Ralph Adey – the same name as the farmer in the newspaper stories – and I knew that I had found him!
I’ve not been able to find any evidence of him after his birth until he joins the RAF aged 17 in 1935[ii]. There’s no sign of him on the 1921 Census, although his mother was living with her three daughters at Beechwood Cottage, a three roomed property, in Grove Road, Bournemouth[iii]. That year, the census included a box for the ‘Number and ages of all living children and step children under sixteen years of age, whether enumerated on this schedule or not, i.e. whether residing as members of this household or elsewhere’. I find it sad that my great grandmother chose not to include her only surviving son. She also gave her own place of birth as “At Sea”, rather than Hayling Island, which does seem a little odd.
The details of around 40 million people living in England and Wales were collected soon after war broke out in September 1939, and the information was used to create identity cards and later ration cards. However, as the 1939 Register did not include service personnel in military, naval or air force establishments, nor existing members of the armed forces billeted in private homes, so it’s no surprise that Ralph Collingwood does not seem to be listed in any of the records.
The National Archive holds a series of Combat Reports, which are official reports filed by the air gunners of bombers or pilots of fighter planes after they had encountered enemy aircraft on operational flights. The first mention of Sergeant Ralph Collingwood[iv] in these reports is as a rear-gunner in a Short “Stirling”, the first four-engined heavy bomber to see service in WW2. He later transferred to 50 Squadron, based at RAF Skellingthorpe in Lincolnshire, equipped with four-engined Avro Lancasters used for the rest of the war against German targets.
The rear gunner, often known as “Tail End Charlie”, had what was probably the most dangerous and loneliest role on these aircraft. With a crew of seven, the pilot, bomb aimer, navigator, engineer, and wireless operator were seated together in the nose, and a middle gunner located nearby, but the rear gunner was literally imprisoned for the duration of each sortie in a cramped and uncomfortable clear perspex bubble situated at the very back of the plane. There was no room to wear a parachute, so this was secured the wrong side of a bulkhead door separating the main aircraft from the rear turret before the gunner dropped into position. In addition to being vulnerable to artillery fire from the ground and attack from enemy fighters, the high-altitude paths followed by the bombers subjected the rear-gunner alone in his turret to harsh temperatures, sometimes as low as -40C at 20,000ft.
Instead of being part of a bombing formation, these gigantic aircraft usually operated individually on missions over Europe, and the job of the rear-gunner was primarily to act as lookout for enemy fighters then instruct the pilot by radio to turn away so they wouldn’t be seen or, if they were, to corkscrew away making it hard for the fighter to follow them. The use of machine-guns in self-defence was of secondary importance as their chances of survival were much greater if the rear-gunner did not advertise the bomber’s presence by firing his guns.
One of the Combat Reports describes how a Stirling was returning to base at Lakenheath when it was attacked by a much smaller and faster ME-110 Messerschmitt fighter firing a short burst of tracer bullets directly towards the rear-gunner’s position. Sgt. Collingwood immediately responded with a short burst of machine gun fire and the enemy went into a shallow dive and banked away, but in doing so he crossed the rear-gunner’s sights for a second time and was believed hit. A handwritten note on the document states ‘the encounter was too quickly over to take evasive action’[vii].
Another Combat Report detailed an incident when an enemy aircraft was sighted on the port beam at 500 yards. Sgt. Collingwood ordered corkscrew to port and held his fire until the enemy was directly in his sights. He then tried to open fire, but only one gun was operational as the other three had frozen. His target, now identified as a JU.88, Junkers twin-engined combat aircraft, had closed in to 150 yards firing in long bursts when it suddenly changed course and pulled up before dropping out of sight believed damaged. It was noted that during this brief combat, the middle gunner was unable to bring his guns to bear and the Monica range-only radar did not indicate as it was unserviceable.
Ralph Collingwood received a commission to the rank of Pilot Officer on 1st December 1943 and was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for service with 50 Squadron for “an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy”[viii].
Of every 100 airmen who joined Bomber Command, 45 were killed, 6 were seriously wounded, 8 became Prisoners of War, and only 41 escaped unscathed (at least physically).[x] The concentration required of the rear gunner to sit for hours staring into the dark from the blindside of the aircraft, knowing that any lapse of concentration could be fatal to him and his crew, is simply unimaginable, and many young airmen were left “flak happy” suffering from anxiety, sleeplessness and nightmares.
Ralph Collingwood survived the war and married briefly in 1945, although the marriage did not survive for long, he then seems to have lived an unremarkable life until he died in Torbay, Devon, in 1997 aged 78. There is no reason to think that he ever had contact with his birth family again. I have a suspicion that he had been handed over to private foster care as a baby, before his half-sister was born, and expunged from my own family’s collective consciousness.
When he died, he stipulated in his will that all personal letters and photographs belonging to him at the time of his death be destroyed as soon as possible after his death and his body cremated.
I recently watched “Still Life” a touching low-budget English film starring Eddie Marsan as a council worker whose job it to try to find the next of kin of those who have died alone, and it was the theme of this film that prompted me to document the extraordinary story of Pilot Officer Ralph Collingwood DFC.
[i] Aberdeen Press and Journal 26 May 1919 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk
[iii] 1921 Census of England & Wales RG15/05486/0989/01 via Findmypast.co.uk
[iv] National Archives’ reference AIR 50/219/17
[v] US Library of Congress LC-DIG-fsa-8e09195
[vi] Imperial War Museum © IWM (CH 12969)
[vii] National Archives’ reference AIR 50/219/17
[viii] London Gazette 2nd June 1944.
[ix] Middlesex Chronicle 15 July 1944 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk
[x] Bomber Command Museum of Canada last accessed 31 May 2022