- Contributed by
- sue robinson - WW2 Site Helper
- People in story:
- Wilfred Johnson
- Location of story:
- El Alamein/ Staffordshire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 September 2005
The Father we never met was killed on 3rd November, 1942 on the last day of the great Battle of El Alamein, which proved to be the turning point of the Second World War. This account, therefore, has been painstakingly gleaned from members of our large and close family, as well as members of the Regiment, and especially from my Mother, who bore most of the hardship, but never complained. She became one of the many War Widows, and my twin brother and I officially became War Orphans.
Wilfred Johnson, known as Bill, lived his short life in Wednesfield, Staffordshire, and had joined the Kings Royal Hussars in 1938, when he was l8. The following year war broke out, and there were many separations from his family and from Mamie Smith, the girl with whom he had fallen in love.
Bill endured the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940, after which he and Mamie were married, and the following year their happiness was complete when their son, Dennis, our older brother, was born.
During this time Bill’s Regiment had become part of The Sherwood Rangers and he joined ‘B’ Squadron as a gunner in a monstrous Sherman tank. Posted to North Africa in 1942, he became part of the Eighth Army, which was preparing for a defining battle against Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps in the Western Desert.
Meanwhile, back in Wednesfield, Mamie, a petite young girl of 20, found that she was again pregnant, and struggled through the summer missing and worrying about Bill, and coping with her young son. But much worse was to come. On 2nd August, 1942, during an air-raid, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. I was the girl twin. We were named Peter and Patricia. Eventually news of our birth reached Bill in the desert through the efforts of Mrs. Kellett, wife of the Colonel E.O. Kellett, who commanded the Regiment. At least this was some consolation for Mamie, whose struggles had increased with our arrival. She lived in her parents’ home in very crowded conditions with her six sisters, sharing a room with her own three babies, together with a widowed sister and her baby.
After ten days of relentless fighting during which the Germans and Italians were driven westwards towards Tripoli, Bill’s Squadron arrived at the Ridge of Sidi Abd el Rahman, where Rommel’s troops made a last desperate stand. The destruction on both sides had been appalling, and not even the great Sherman tanks escaped the armour-piercing shells. Bill’s tank burst into flames as it was hit. At this stage all the crew were still alive having scrambled out. The wireless operator was the last to emerge, and as he did so, a shell burst just in front of the other crew members who were grouped on the ground. Three of them died instantly, including Bill at the age of 22, and now would never see his twins.
Bill’s death came as a terrible blow to Mamie. She and Bill had been utterly devoted, but all their dreams had been shattered by war. During their marriage, as with so many others in the war years, they had spent only a matter of weeks together. She was still only a girl of 2l, but she struggled to contend not only with her own numbing grief, but also with her three infants, in overcrowded and deprived conditions. There was very little support for war widows, as a result of which she went to work in a munitions factory in order to supplement her meagre income. Gradually Mamie became exhausted by the hardship of the situation.
Eventually, help came from an unexpected quarter. Mrs. Kellett, who was by then a widow herself, her husband having been killed in the desert, was appalled by Mamie’s plight, and had taken upon herself the welfare of the Regiment’s widows and orphans. Although her suggestion that my twin brother and I should be adopted was drastic and shocking, gradually Mamie began to consider this desperate measure as the only solution. After much soul-searching she finally agreed only on condition that we should not be split up.
Therefore, when we were nine months old, Mamie and one of her sisters, made the agonising journey to London in order to hand us over to our adoptive parents, and we began our new life in Surrey. The only consolation our Mother had was that she had enabled us to have a better life than she could offer, with more security and opportunities. And so it turned out. Our names were changed to Roger and Rosemary, and we have always considered ourselves to be very fortunate, even though our early lives were changed by a tragedy of which we have no conscious memory.
We had a loving and secure home with a caring and affluent family, and were always told the circumstances of our adoption. Later as we grew up, we were able to appreciate the sacrifices that were made by our natural parents during the Second World War. At that time, there was no question of there being any contact with our original family as it was against the law, and, therefore, the break was considered final by both sides.
As the years went by the laws changed, and by the time I was in my forties, I began to think more about the past. Following a visit to the War Cemetery at El Alamein with my daughter, where I saw for the first time my Father’s name, Wilfred Johnson, inscribed with the comrades with whom he lost his life, a seed was sown in my mind. It was the year 1982, and ceremonies were beginning to take place around the world in commemoration of the fortieth anniversaries of the great battles of World War II, El Alamein included. That had been the reason for my visit to the Cemetery there, where I was shown the names of our parents in the Register. It was quite a moment for me, as our adoptive parents had not encouraged us to discuss our original parents, and out of respect for them and to avoid hurting their feelings, we had kept any curiosity we had to ourselves. I began to realize that I was now free to look up Mamie if I wished, hoping that it would not cause distress to any of the family.
A year later, I managed to trace Mamie and we were reunited, amidst much emotion and joy, but although our relationship remained close and one of mutual love and respect, we both realized that the normal bond forged during childhood had been severed and could not be re-forged. Nevertheless, we always felt extremely proud of each other, and I admired the calm, indomitable spirit, which had carried Mamie through all her hardships. Shocked by the deprivation in the mining town where they lived, which was beyond my experience, I began to realize how great Mamie’s gift to us had been. I felt truly humbled and thankful that we had been given so many opportunities as a result her sacrifice. She had remarried three years after our adoption, a tough veteran of the infamous Burma Railway, Arthur Shepherd, and was by then living in South Yorkshire. I was delighted to discover that we had a half-sister and two half-brothers.
Roger was not as interested as I was in the past, and did not join in this reunion, although he and our older brother, Dennis, had met briefly in Surrey some twenty years previously, but had not kept in touch. Dennis had always lived close to his Mother, and he was as overjoyed to meet his “little sister” as I was to meet him. I was to learn that our memory had been kept very much alive over the years as Mamie was convinced that we would all meet again one day. This made me determined to find a way for us all four to be reunited, if only on one occasion.
The opportunity came in 1992 when, as the result of reading a letter in The Times to which I replied concerning a Commemoration Service for the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, we were all invited to Westminster Abbey. Therefore, at long last, Bill’s widow and three children all stood together proudly yet sadly to remember a handsome young man who had lost his life so long ago. The beautiful Service was a truly moving occasion for us all, shared with hundreds of veterans of the Battle and their families. It was, naturally especially poignant for Mamie, but she was as composed as ever whilst lost in her own thoughts of her beloved Bill.
As for me, I felt as though I had accomplished a mission to bring us all together, as well as enabling the sacrifice to be recognised that our parents had made during the grim years of the Second World War. Following the Commemoration Service, we were invited by John Major, the then Prime Minister, to his Reception in the Jerusalem Chamber, which is part of the old Abbey. This occasion was shared by a few others whose lives had been directly affected by the Battle of El Alamein, and there we were presented to the Prince and Princess of Wales. I felt so proud as Prince Charles talked to Mamie with great sympathy about the losses she had suffered, and as she remarked later with her wry sense of humour and typical lack of bitterness:
“I could have done with some of this attention then!”
But life was very different then, and in times of war, many desperate situations arise. Ours was only one of them, though it changed all our lives for ever.
As for me, I was left feeling very close to the Father I had never had the opportunity to know, and with a better understanding of the events that had shaped the beginning of our lives.
This was told to Sue Robinson by Wilfred and Mamie's daughter, Rosemary Johnson.
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