- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Cyril 'Jay' and Mabel 'Meg' Johnson
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 12 January 2004
Loss in both wars
In recounting my family's 'Peoples' War', I have to start with World War One. My family suffered successive bereavements with the loss of my mother's father, David Clarke, in 1917 and the loss of my own father Cyril 'Jay' Johnson in 1943. Both died in the 'accidents' that are so much a part of real wartime.
My mother's family originate from Nantwich, Cheshire, and my maternal grandfather, David Kenyon Clarke, was an adventurous youngster who found his niche in the merchant navy. Bright and diligent, David soon rose in rank and eventually became a First Officer/Captain with the Elder Dempster line sailing out of Liverpool to West Africa.
On one occasion, around 1910, David took some brass bars with him to Benin, Nigeria and the local craftsmen made two large trays and several small ones from the bars. The trays are unique in depicting a giraffe, which have long been extinct in West Africa. David travelled very widely and may well have also visited New Zealand on one of his voyages.
David and Gladys Clarke
David Clarke met and married my grandmother, Gladys Salter, in Nantwich. However, they first set up house in Liverpool, as David’s career with Elder Dempster prospered. We have two beautiful water colour landscapes by the well-known artist Scarborough that date from this period. These illustrate merchant shipping in the Port of London around 1900.
Mabel ('Meg') Clarke
My mother, Mabel Kenyon Clarke, was born in 1915. She hated the name Mabel and always used the nickname ‘Meg’. Her brother was born in 1918. However, the family was struck by tragedy six weeks prior to Armistice Day, on 3 October 1918, when David’s ship the SS Burutu collided with another British merchant ship, the City of Calcutta, in dense fog in the Irish Sea. The Burutu was returning from Sierra Leone, following repairs after an attack by a U-boat. David died in the disaster.
Meg always remembered her last Christmas with her father – he bought her a doll in Henderson’s department store, but a horse stumbled in the street outside and had to be shot, an omen of her impending loss. The ‘stumbling horse’ became her shorthand for the possible loss of loved ones, which she constantly feared.
A bit of a handful
My mother therefore grew up without a father. Gladys tended to idolize and spoil Ron and young Meg became, by all accounts, a bit of a handful. She used to recount swimming in waterholes along the River Weaver, near Riverside, and being ‘as brown as a berry’ from the summer sun.
Meg was sent to the Convent School located on Nantwich Road, Crewe, in the hope that the nuns could impart some discipline. This was a pretty drastic solution, as the family had always been staunchly Church of England. It did not work and the next step was to send her as a sort of au pair to a posh finishing school in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1933. We once had a series of incredible photographs of Meg alongside louche young Nazi aristocratic madchens, lounging arm in arm in sapphic poses. Apparently Goering’s nephew, Dieter, wooed Meg and used to yodel to her as he left assignations. She was also present at a Nazi parade and listened to Hitler speak.
Meg courts Jay Johnson
When Meg returned to Nantwich, she found herself living very near to my father, Jay Johnson, who had digs next door. Jay had recently commenced his first teaching job with the Nantwich and Acton Grammar School, having been born and brought up in London. Jay and Meg were soon courting and then married. There is a photo of Jay and Meg at their wedding. Meg is wearing a velvet dress and looks very beautiful with big blue eyes, dark hair and full lips. They married in 1934 when Meg was 19 and Jay was 24 years old. Meg always complained that she was far too young. She had a lot of life in her and would have thrived if she'd had a career of her own.
Jay was a very handsome young man with bright blue eyes, a strong jaw and good tanning skin. He was, however, very serious about developing his career as a History teacher and academic historian, and apparently used to leave Meg alone or with her friends while he pursued his research for a PhD. His topic was the evolution of the public service in Stuart England, particularly relating to the development of regular ‘posts’ and stagecoaches to and from Westminster and the Lord Lieutenants of the counties.
Married life and the onset of war
Soon after they were married, Jay and Meg moved to Alfreton, Derbyshire where Jay took up a more senior teaching post. A few years later, Jay moved on to Buckhurst Abbey School, Loughton, Essex where he became senior History teacher.
When World War Two was in full swing, Essex was in the firing line from German bombing. Jay also saw his Sixth Form leave school and then become decimated on active service in the armed forces. He therefore decided to join the Royal Air Force. This must have been very hard for Meg, as she was left alone with a small daughter, Sue, coping with the Blitz, and she had a dread of a repeat of Gladys’ experience in World War One with the loss of David.
Jay trained as a Bomber Navigator, with the major part of his training taking place near Oudtshoorn, South Africa. We have pictures of him looking exceptionally handsome as a RAF Sergeant, highly tanned and fit.
Letter from my father in South Africa to his brother Bob (and his wife Doris), written on 29 November 1943 (Sue's birthday):
L.A.C. Johnson C.
48 Air School
Dear Doris and Bob
Here is the longer letter I promised in my airgraph. Can tell you a little more about the journey and my first impressions of this place. I am writing this on the sea shore about half a mile from the camp. It is a most marvelous day, hot sun and hardly a cloud. My bare feet are almost burned by the sand. Great waves come pouring in over the rocks that shelve out from the sand at the water's edge, and behind rise the boulder strewn slopes of the open grassland that makes up the countryside hereabouts. Rather poetic. Perhaps it's the sun, or more likely an attempt to say too much in too few words, but certainly this is a lovely spot to be on a Sunday afternoon with nothing to do but yarn away in a letter.
I can only with effort recall what the weather must be like with you today, Sue's birthday. Perhaps you're as warm as I am, with a nice fire. I hope you are all three very well. I hope to get an airgraph from you one of these days telling me all about things. Trust you will be able to say that Jan[ice] is completely better. Hope too Bob is not being worried by national service orders.
I told you in my airgraph a little about the journey here. Of course, I must not mention place names or any vital details. The boat trip did not seem overlong in spite of the confined space and lack of anything really important to do, but for part of the trip I acted as one of the anti aircraft gunners, doing two four hour turns of watch duty in every twenty-four, one of these, of course, during the night. I was lucky in being on duty at some interesting times, for instance when we left home shores and when we first sighted land after this. Needless to say, there was an endless variety of seascapes, and some lovely sunny days produced beautiful clear skies and blue seas. On the whole, however, the weather was not as bright or as hot as one might have expected.
Only for a short part of the trip did we wear topees and have the deck awning up. To begin with we had some rather rough seas and a lot of the chaps felt it. Luckily I had only a ten-minute spell of queerness - I think my periods of watching high up in the gun pit, with extra large doses of fresh air, helped me. There must have been more movement up there than down below but somehow you didn't notice it so much. We slept in hammocks and soon got used to these. Food not bad on the whole, and I personally would not grumble, considering the type of trip we were on.
Of course, we had plenty of card playing and all sorts of other amusements. The concerts and sing-songs with lads of all the services, including the marines taking part, were, I suppose, such as only troopships can produce. Crossing the Line [Equator] produced a hectic afternoon in which rank and unwillingness to cooperate were not respected and Neptune and his assistants daubed faces with mustard water - and tar owing to sabotage at one point - and then had their owners subjected to two powerful hoses of seawater - if in clothes, so much the better. It was all good fun and the participants were afterwards presented with a certificate to give us for all future occasions free right of entry into Neptune's domains without molestation from whales, sharks, etc. etc.
When we landed, we were a few days in a big transit camp under canvas. Unfortunately, as we were likely to begin our rail journey at any moment, we were not allowed out of camp to see our port of landing, but we were glad to be ashore and partake of the fresh food, particularly fruit, which can of course be had in abundance here. I think almost all the lads made themselves ill with too many oranges, bananas, pineapples, peaches and melons. I wish the kids could have shared them with us - I feel quite guilty every time I eat an orange now - and that's at least once a day.
Our rail journey was a longish one and we spent two nights on the train. We were comfortably accommodated in second class sleeping cars and had our meals in the dining car. Naturally, we had much to look at during the journey. We crossed vast areas of veldt country, wide sparse grasslands, always broken up somewhere within view by the flat table-topped hills and mountains [kopjes] that are so typical of South Africa. We ran through a variety of towns, from small Afrikaner farming communities to big industrial cities. The railway itself was a marvel of engineering almost throughout and because of the inclines speed was often not much beyond 30 miles per hour - good for sightseeing. On the second evening we had a wonderful experience crossing one of the Bergs.
On arrival here we had a few days to settle down before beginning work. We are housed in wooden huts here, twenty four chaps together in one, including in our case five S.A.A.Fs, with whom we get some fun, chipping them about South Africa. We still have much parading, cleaning etc. to do - and sufficient petty discipline (though we smoke on route marches), but we are getting down to ground subjects that will take us further on our way, including astro and radio navigation, meteorology and the theory of bombing. We shall, we hope, move on from here some time in the New Year to begin flying training.
This will be somewhere else in the Union, so I shall not have the pleasure of looking up the folk whose addresses Doll [Doris] gave me. I have some good friends here though in Mr and Mrs Dickinson (he is a headmaster), who used to live in Nantwich and are friends of Uncle Bern. I met them in 1935 when they were over on holiday and gave away the prizes at the Grammar School Sports. They look after me very well when I visit them, take me out in the car and Mrs D. has turned up trumps this week by presenting me with an electric iron so that the hut can do its washing.
There is plenty to do in East London - pictures, concerts, dances, surf bathing, drinking and feeding, and the chaps have a good time. Orient Beach here has a slight touch of 'Miami' - coloured sunshades etc. Beer is cheap at one shilling and three pence for a South African quart, tobacco nine pence for four ounces and the local canteens serve marvelous grills for a shilling - (2 fried eggs, 2 rashers, sausage, beans or chips, bread, butter and tea - and no coupons!).
Had a E.F.M. telegram from Meg day before yesterday. Good to know all is OK with her and Sue. Hoping for airgraphs soon and maybe one from you if mine has reached you or Meg has given you the address. War news seems very hopeful, so let's live in hope of better things very soon. You can guess where I want to be. Keep well and happy.
Have sent much the same news to Dad and Eric - trust you are seeing something of them.
Return to England
When Jay returned to England to finalise his training, prior to going into active service, he was first posted to a base near Harrogate. He then moved to a base near Millom in Cumberland. Having seen little of Meg since his return to England, they arranged to meet in Cumberland for a brief reunion and holiday in the autumn of 1943. We have some records of the complicated planning that went into this rendezvous in war-torn Britain, as given in the transcript of a letter from Jay to his brother Bob that is included below. However, the rendezvous did happen and, when the landlady of the cottage where Meg was staying went out, they became briefly a young and loving couple again. Their interlude at Silecroft resulted in my conception!
Some three weeks later the worst happened - Jay was killed when the Avro Anson aircraft that he was training in disintegrated over Whitehaven. The other members of the crew were Canadians. A shattered Meg found herself back in Loughton alone with a little daughter in the thick of massive air attacks on London. At one point, a German landmine landed in the street – had it exploded, none of the descendants who are reading this would have ever existed.
Jay was buried in the Barony graveyard at Nantwich with the inscriptions Per Ardua ad Astra (the RAF’S motto ‘by effort to the stars’) and ‘War never taketh the evil man, only the good’. His grave is very close to that of the father-in-law that he never met, Captain David Clarke, and other members of the Clarke-Salter family.
A short holiday
Letter from my father to his brother Bob (and his wife Doris) written three weeks before his death on 14 October 1943.
Sgt. Johnson, C.
Pupil Sergeants’ Mess
24th September 1943
Dear Doris and Bob
I have been here for a fortnight now but have found little time for letter writing, for one reason we are very busy and work seven days a week, and moreover Meg has been here for a short holiday.
When I got back to Harrogate, I was soon posted here. As you may remember, Meg was planning to spend a few days with me there, of course that became U/S and so we decided to try here. I had the utmost difficulty in finding accommodation, spending nearly all my spare time in my first week going here and there, however eventually I was lucky and found some excellent digs in a small house in the country near the village of Silecroft about two miles from the camp. As it was Meg was very comfortable and had a really nice holiday. She had good company in the day, a very comfy room and was provided with a bicycle. She had several trips into the hills on this and also found it pleasant walking down to the shore and along the beach. I managed to get a bicycle too and so could get into Silecroft easily. By dint of wangling I got two sleeping out passes and on an average was able to spend one and a half hours a day with her.
Millom itself is a somewhat grim mining and iron working town and she would not have enjoyed it there, but the country at Silecroft is very pleasant and we had some good walks in the evening, visiting the truly rural ‘locals’ [inns] in the neighbouring villages. We are on the edge of the Lake District here, under a mountain called Black Coombe. The weather hasn’t been too good but hasn’t kept us in. Meg called at the Verona on the way here and left Sue there. She called for her yesterday and today they will be on their way back to 67 (the family home, 67 Roundmead Avenue, Loughton, Essex) ready to receive Brian, the medical student, tomorrow.
This is an Advanced Flying Unit and we shall be here for a few weeks, getting used to English flying conditions. Actually I do not find them much different except, of course, there is more cloud and we have to fly lower. I have had some good trips including one to Northern Ireland. The camp itself is not bad – you get used to it. There is little to do outside but then we have little time to ourselves, as there is extra work to be done after hours. However, I am not complaining. I did very well while Meg was here.
How are things with you three? I trust you are well and all is O.K. I shan’t get leave for sometime but I shall look forward to seeing you again and meanwhile shall be very interested to hear your news. I trust Jan [theirdaughter, Janice] is well and as lively as ever.
All the best
Back to Cheshire
Meg decided that it would be sensible to sell the Loughton house and move back to Cheshire – we have a copy of a letter describing this process and I have also included its text here. It is remarkable that she does not mention that she was pregnant, even in the spring of 1944. Eventually, it became obvious to all, although she remained in denial (presumably suffering from post-traumatic stress).
My Aunt Peg (wife of Meg’s brother, Ron) was so concerned that she rang Meg at the house she was sharing with Gladys (‘Linwood’, Wells Green, Wistaston, near Nantwich) and imitated the receptionist of the local GP Doctor Blackley, telling Meg that it was time for her to come for a check-up.
I was born at that house on 9 June 1944. Apparently, Meg told Dr Blackley that he should not be wasting time on delivering babies when US and Commonwealth troops were dying in the thousands during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, which began on 6 June 1944. She also made it clear to the doctor that she did not want another boy as they only went off and got themselves killed.
‘Och’ said Dr Blackley, who was Scots, ‘Y’ll need a laddie to look after yae.’
Making plans, but in denial
This letter describes Meg’s plans to move back to Cheshire in the Spring of 1944. It is not at all clear that she recognizes my existence, even though she is six months pregnant! The reference to ‘her children’ may simply be to future sons/daughters with a possible second husband.
67 Roundmead Avenue
3rd March 1944
Dear Bob, Doris and Janice
You will be surprised to read that I am at The Verona again, unless you receive this letter after seeing Phyl [the wife of Jay’s younger brother Eric who was serving in the Army in Italy] for I wrote to her yesterday.
The fact is we came away to avoid the raids last Thursday, leaving Euston at 5.30 pm – we felt we could not stand it any longer. Last Tuesday was a wretched night round us – we had a great 1,000lb bomb at the back of us again, just by the hedge by the allotments, and a dear old couple I knew so well lost their lives, they were burnt to death only 6 houses away – a phosphorous bomb went straight through their house.
Loughton (our end) was showered with incendiaries and altogether it was pretty awful. Poor Mum was in a bad state, for she rushed up the road thinking of my friend who is expecting her baby in April (the house hit was next door to her) and the flames coming out and Mum knowing the couple were inside just made her feel ill – she really was in a bad way – and then 4 of us sleeping in the shelter was just too much – I could hardly move! Sue was very nervous, she always has been of the bombs and the poor little soul seems to always have to know just what they do. However, to cut a long story short, we took flight and came home – lucky for me the house is not damaged – the huge bomb was one of those piercing bombs and fell on soft earth. The crater is frightening – had it gone on the cement road outside, I’m afraid we should not have been here to tell the tale. I think we had a good escape.
Well Bob things have moved fast since then – I have put my house in the auctioneers hands and it is to be sold by auction on 29th March (I hope we can get the other things in hand before then) and I rang Maples and many other firms about moving my stuff – and Maples were the only ones who would do it, and they are moving me out this next Monday. Mum and I are travelling down early Monday morning, probably leaving Crew about 4 o’clock in the morning – and we hope to get away the same night.
We have been house-hunting since arriving here, and have found one very nice one – we may know something about it tomorrow, but I shall probably have my furniture sent here unless we can settle this house quickly until something suitable comes along. I guess something like the bombs just had to make me get a move on and my word I have moved fast. Otherwise I should have gone on quite happily down there and no doubt found in the end that I couldn’t move until the end of the War.
The most important part of this letter Bob is yet to come and that is that Ron went to Chester yesterday (he didn’t go last week because of us arriving home) and everything is in order except that we have to get Reader Bros. to sign a statement to the effect that the GBP 1,050 on my house is a mortgage. Ron then has to go before a committee and apparently they deduct death duty – then it has to be reclaimed. I was wondering Bob if you could write to Mr. Reader or the solicitor – whoever you think best – and ask for the statement. I have neither address here and Monday I shall be very busy and Tuesday probably tired out. Also you can put it in a more business-like way than I can. I don’t know if Mr. Reader knows of my loss yet – maybe he might now through the house being put in solicitors’ hands for sale – but it may not have reached him – for it was only today I heard from Maples a definite confirmation about the removal and so I wired the auctioneers. All further correspondence to me had best come to The Verona – I have done such a lot of business through letter, believe me I shall be grateful to have things in order and to see my home safe.
I do hope you are all alright, we think about you – and every morning it is my first thought about the night – what times we are going through – I just feel I can’t bear another bomb come down or else I’d scream – we had a real do, there’s no mistake – the people on Hill Top had to get out for an unexploded bomb and some friends of mine had one in their back garden – another 1,000 lb dropped outside the church.
Do write and let me know how you are. Sue is a different child now we are away; she loves going round and goes to bed so differently. Ron’s boys are OK. The youngest one is a very handsome fellow –I almost claim him, because I feel he was sent to try and make me happy. He has my colourings and so I think he will have to grow up with my children! But we shall have to see what Peg says about that that – for she adores her babies.
Do take care of yourselves. Mum sends her love and says, she is like me, she is always thinking of you.
Lots of love
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