- Contributed by
- Michael Skeet
- People in story:
- Michael Skeet
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- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 January 2004
(A personal memoir.)
After my mother passed away I began my long delayed inquiries using the information on my father’s service record. The details I sought were now over 50 years old and I was very aware that it might be difficult to find evidence to substantiate the account of my father’s life related to me by my grandmother Mrs Jean Skeet and my cherished beliefs.
With the help of a Computer and access to the Internet, I started my quest by contacting various organisations and individuals to find out if any substantial information existed. One of my earliest enquiries resulted in an e-mail contact with a chap who had posted a Website recording his father's RAF Memoirs with No. 158 Squadron. This was the Squadron my father had served with shortly before his death and I subsequently became a member of its Association. I then acquired the book "In Brave Company" a history of 158 Squadron by W.R.Chorley. From the book and my contact with the 158 Association I learnt that my Father had held the position of Flight Commander in May and June of 1942. The book stated that such responsibilities were usually only given to Officers with outstanding service experience or special qualities.
This information indicated to me that his superiors must have held him in some esteem. It was reasonable to deduce from this that he would have been aware of the objectives and consequences of the 'Area Bombing Campaign' and that he would have seen any reconnaissance reports of the damage caused by the bombing undertaken by his Squadron during that period.
Then later in the year I began receiving information from the Public Records office at Kew, which included details of my Father's operational activities. These were the Operational Records for his Squadron during May and June 1942 and showed that he had taken part in the 1st and 2nd Thousand Bomber raids on Cologne and Essen a few weeks before his death.
My primary goal had been to find out what type of duties he was responsible for in the months just prior to his death. I felt it was essential to know the kind of experiences he might have had, as this might point to how he felt about his duties. In the light of the controversy about Area Bombing I could understand how he could have developed a conflict of conscience.
Some time later I learnt that a great controversy had raged in Canada in the early 90s over a television documentary entitled "the Valour and the Horror". This documentary gave details of Bomber Command strategy with the consequences of the indiscriminate nature of "Area Bombing", and how the information had been concealed from the ordinary Aircrews and the General Public.
It described how the policy was conceived in early 1942 and how it was intended to demoralise the German civilian population. Apparently the orders for it to be implemented were issued in a directive on St Valentines Day 1942. At the time the policy of indiscriminate Bombing was publicly denied but it had been reported in Newspapers and discussed in Parliament. The Documentary also described how the term LMF "Lack of Moral Fibre" was used by the RAF to describe Airmen who refused to fly or cracked under the strain of duty and how they were stripped of their rank and humiliated in front of their Command. It also stated that prior to the Area Bombing Campaign, direct orders and the Geneva Convention prohibited Bomber Command from bombing targets that might involve causing civilian casualties.
(It was obvious to me that if my father had refused to fly because of his conscience he would have suffered the humiliation of being classified LMF and as Flight Commander his views might well have seriously influenced any others in his command with similar doubts about their duties.)
By late 2000 I had managed to make contact with and speak to an Air Gunner who had flown with 158 Squadron on the same dates as my father and had known him reasonably well. Apparently, they had by chance, met and had a drink together in the hotel on the evening before the day of my father's death. In my conversations with him I told him briefly of what I had learnt and he agreed with the opinion that my father’s death was related to the Area Bombing Offensive, he said he believed my father had been unable to reconcile his conscience with his duties.
A little later I contacted and joined the RAF Habbaniya Association. I knew from my father’s service record that he had been stationed at Habbaniya from the start of the war until 1941. I then acquired the book ‘Hidden Victory’ by Air Vice Marshal, A.G. Dudgeon, CBE. DFC. This book gave an account of the Battle that had taken place in Iraq in 1941.
Early in 2001 I obtained the records concerning the Communications Flight stationed at RAF Habbaniya, Iraq, this was the unit my father Commanded as Flight Lieutenant. The records indicated that his unit had been equipped with rather obsolete twin engined Biplanes modified for combat duty at short notice prior to the emergency. The records detailed that the Flight had taken part in heavy night bombing operations on Iraqi targets during the hostilities. This discovery did more than reaffirm my pride in my father's career and it was this that first prompted me to consider constructing a Website in order to publicise what appeared to be an overlooked part of the history of the War.
At around the same time I managed to make contact with a retired RAF Corporal Fitter who had recognised a picture of my father during an Association Reunion. I once again heard how respected and liked my father was. The Corporal said he had served with the Flight and he described how he had been on flights with my father in Iraq. He also related some of his memories from his time in the Middle East and at RAF Habbaniya. The Corporal told me that due to wartime restrictions my mother could not have known of my father's whereabouts or his activities while he was abroad.
The Corporal went on to recount a personal incident when a Senior Station Officer had wrongly disciplined him at Habbaniya. My father, as his direct Commanding Officer had subsequently insisted that the matter be removed from the record on the grounds that the Corporal was carrying out his orders at the time. This suggested that my father abhorred injustice and was not afraid to challenge his superiors. When I told the Corporal I held the opinion that my father had committed suicide because of the policy of Area Bombing. The Corporal Fitter remarked, "That sounds like your dad. He was just like that! He had a sensitive personality”.
The conversations with the Gunner and the Corporal dispelled any nagging doubts I had about my father’s personality, and I felt I was making intimate connections with his existence. They reminded me so much of what my sadly missed grandmother had told me. I derived much encouragement from speaking to these two Airmen who’d known my father but I was saddened to learn that so many of the others who might have known and had first hand knowledge of him had since passed on.
A little time later I contacted the York Coroner's records to find out if there was any information in their archives that might throw further light on my father's death. In the reply I received was a copy of the entry in the Coroners records with a statement by the present Coroner that there were no records of any witness statements or the two letters said to be related to my father's death. The copy of the record included the names and addresses of the witnesses present and a summary of the Coroners findings as to the cause of his death. Apparently this was the only record available from the archive.
When I made an enquiry to the Ministry of Defence, I was informed that they permanently held a file on my father's death but that there was no record of a RAF court of enquiry on the file. The extract related to me from the record included a reference to my father being concerned about his position with the RAF Authorities along with similar details included in the other documents in my possession and my earlier knowledge.
At this point I felt I had exhausted the avenues of research open to me and that it would be difficult to obtain any further information. Accordingly I decided to publish my findings on a personal Website.
In 2002 a representative of the BBC, INSIDE OUT regional documentary series, approached me. I was asked if I would be willing to be interviewed and provide some information about the circumstances of my father’s death The article was related to the subject of conscientious objection in WW2 and the Hundreds of wartime airmen that were classified LMF. It illustrated with interviews how they were treated and that they were mostly suffering from the condition ‘PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The article included a brief representation of my father’s last days with some of my personal comments and was aired on Monday 24 February at 7.30pm in the Yorkshire & Lincolnshire region and a week later in the Southeast region.
Despite the many doubts and much confusion I have experienced over the years, I now feel I can state my personal beliefs based on what I have learned from my research. Obviously I am aware that readers of this memoir might consider that I have been biased by a strong desire to place my father in an exalted position to honour his memory and justify my pride in him. However, I have tried to be as objective as is possible and have recorded my experiences and findings as accurately as I can.
I consider the most telling factor in the circumstances surrounding my father's death to be the brevity of the official records, particularly in relation to the inquest. The absence of recorded witness statements and any reference to the two letters in the Coroners Archive is to my mind somewhat significant.
I believe that there would be little justification in not recording the witness statements and the existence of the two letters if my father’s state of mind was simply a case of personal circumstances and financial difficulties. I also believe that in light of his position and the circumstances at the time, an extended bank overdraft would have been the least of my father’s concerns.
Perhaps the most telling document to hand is the report of the inquest in the York Local newspaper of the time. This report stated that the inquest had heard from the Officer's companion of how much he was concerned about his bank overdraft and had been pestered for money by his wife. It also included the fact that two letters had been handed to the deputy coroner but were not read out in court and that other matters were troubling the Officer.
The 'other matters' mentioned briefly in the Newspaper report coupled with the mysterious letters, suggested that there was much more to the issue of his death than had been exposed in open court. Furthermore, there was the extreme brevity of the extract from the file held by the Ministry of Defence stating that there was no record of the RAF court of enquiry on the file. I consider the absence of that record or a copy of its conclusion places additional significant doubt on the validity of the notation on my father’s service record. Furthermore I am of the opinion that this was a convenient way for the RAF authorities to conceal the truth in the light of circumstances at the time.
I believe the references to financial difficulties were based on the unsubstantiated verbal statement made by my father's female companion at the time of the Inquest and were conveniently seized upon by the RAF Authorities and my mother. The later Probate document indicates to me that my father’s estate and financial status were quite healthy at the time of his death.
The fact that he is buried in a RAF Grave and listed as remembered with honour in the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission stands on its own as a testament to his Service Record and his memory. This combined with his life insurance being honoured indicates that the Authorities considered his death was directly related to his wartime duties.
It remains to be seen whether the letter read by my grandmother is still in existence and whether my father's missing flying log or any personal documents contained remarks that may have justified their retention and concealment. I consider it is highly likely that if such documents do exist then they may well have been classified under the 75-year rules of disclosure and will only become available in the year 2017.
I am convinced that the account related to me by my grandmother Mrs Jean Skeet is as close to the truth as can be attained, and that my father was a victim of a conflict of conscience.
I can fully appreciate the dilemma that must have plagued him at the time and am immensely proud of his commitment to his principles, beliefs and standard of honour.
I am further convinced that my father acted with great courage and with the best of intentions and was just as much a casualty of war as all the other brave and valiant fighting men who gave their lives in the service of this country and for the principles they believed it was fighting to uphold.
For the Cherished Memory of my Grandmother Mrs Jean Mary Ann Skeet,
And the Honoured Memory of my father,
The late, SQUADRON LEADER, MAURICE 'ROY' SKEET,
(39800) RAF, BOMBER COMMAND. (1937-42),
who ended his own life on the 26th of June 1942, at the age of 24 years.
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