I never thought to look for heroes closer to home. It was only many years afterwards – half a century, in fact – when I realised that my own street had been populated by real heroes: men who had returned from the devastation of the Second World War; men who were also tough and laconic, reluctant to speak about the horrors they had seen, the fear they had felt and the courage they had displayed. (You can read more about those heroes on McStorytellers in a wee memoir of mine called After the War.)
Nor did I ever think to look for heroes in my own family. Again, it was only in recent years I remembered that my step-grandfather, Cherry – himself a Desert Rat who had traipsed with the Eighth Army across the deserts of North Africa – had risked his life to save the lives of others in a ferryboat accident back when I was about eight years old. Cherry was granted the Freedom of the Burgh for his heroism and his cracked ribs, and not much else. But that’s another story, simply called The Hero, which can also be read on McStorytellers.
Then there are my proper grandfathers, two men I never met. There’s the story of Patrick, my Irish mother’s father, who joined the Irish Republican Army in 1918, when he was barely eighteen, and who saw active service in the Irish War of Independence. My mother, God bless her soul, was fond of embellishing Patrick’s role in that War. “He was Michael Collins’ right-hand man,” she would often assert. He wasn’t, of course, but the rest of it is true: courtesy of a cousin from Eire, I recently received a copy of the papers proving it. It was only then that I appreciated what courage it must have taken for young Patrick to leave the safety of his home in the countryside and take up arms against the might of the British Army.
There are also revelations about my father’s father, Tom Gisby, who hailed from Kent in England. It seems that Granddad Tom was also something of a hero. A couple of years ago, I worked with my cousin Phil – we call ourselves the Facebook Cousins, because that’s where we met – to co-author a book about our great-grandfather and his five sons, the third of whom was Tom. Here are a few highlights from Tom's story in the book.
When Great Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Tom had just turned fifteen and therefore was too young to follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers, who had immediately enlisted in their local Regiment. Undeterred, Tom promptly joined the Royal Navy as a Boy Sailor.
In November 1918, at the age of nineteen, he was serving on HMS Queen Elizabeth at the head of the Grand Fleet in the Firth of Forth in Scotland when the terms of surrender of the German High Seas Fleet were presented to Admiral Von Reuter on board. That's a photograph of the event at the top of this post.
A Great War veteran, Tom left the Navy in 1929, only to be called up ten years later to fight in a new World War. Throughout the duration of that War, he served in the Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS). Also known as “Harry Tate’s Navy” and “Churchill’s Pirates”, the RNPS was one of the most dangerous and vulnerable branches of the Royal Navy, which became a byword for courage.
So, plenty of heroes in my family and plenty more on my street when I was growing up. But what about the next generation, the one that followed the Second World War; my generation? As The Stranglers famously sang, “Whatever happened to all the heroes?” Well, I think it’s safe to assume that the very large majority of us Scottish Baby Boomers will never be regarded as heroes by our children and grandchildren. We didn’t rush off in a jingoistic fervour to fight the Kaiser in “the war to end all wars”. We didn’t join a guerrilla army to free our land from its English oppressors. Nor were we called up in our hundreds of thousands to help rid the world of the evil of Hitler and his Nazis.
By the way, the book that cousin Phil and I co-authored is called The Five Sons of Charlie Gisby and it's FREE to download all this weekend.