Sunday 10 June 2012

What My Dad did in The War

LAC Ronald Hunnisett
Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War? So read a recruiting poster for the 1914-18 conflict, which showed two small children with their father. The little boy is playing soldiers on the floor, whilst the little girl, sat on her father's lap is asking the question of the uncomfortable looking daddy, who obviously had not taken part in the fighting. It was a clever poster, designed to ensure that men would come forward to join the colours. This of course, was in the days before conscription was introduced, which was much fairer method of ensuring that nobody could duck out of the process.

Nearly twenty one years after the end of the Great War, the World found itself plunged into another conflict and a chance sighting of the poster mentioned above set me thinking about the role played by my late father, Ronald Hunnisett and the many millions of ordinary men like him that played their own small part in great events of history. 

Ron's own wartime service began on 27th April 1939, when he enlisted in the Territorial Army, joining his local Royal Artillery Regiment in his native Hastings, which at that time was still equipped with horse drawn 18 pounder artillery pieces dating from the Great War. It was not until shortly before the outbreak of war that the unit was mechanised and eventually upgraded to the superb 25 pounder field guns.

Dad was just an 'ordinary Joe' and would have been the first to admit that in comparison to some, his wartime service was modest but the truth is, that because of my Dad and his generation, we are now able to enjoy the freedom that we now take for granted. In short the World as we know it exists thanks to these men and women. Dad would never have described himself as a hero but what he and his generation did was nothing short of heroic. Many were not as lucky as Dad, who despite the disruption to his life, did at least live to see the peace returnand to enjoy the fruits of victory.

Ron's first overseas service was as part of the ill-fated expedition to Norway. Things didn't go quite according to plan; the ship carrying the guns was sunk, so my Dad's unit arrived in Norway without their most vital equipment. Ron didn't speak much of this aspect of his service, so I guess that perhaps he saw things that he didn't particularly wish to dwell upon but after a short time, he was evacuated back to the UK with his unit in order to re-equip. Some leave followed, during which time on a visit to London with an Army friend, he met the lady who was to become his wife and my Mother. The young lady concerned, who was to become Doris Hunnisett worked with and was a close friend of my Dad's friend's wife and though they met in the summer of 1940, it was to be another four years before they were to meet again and be wed after a long distance courtship. 

During this leave period, my Dad spent a couple of nights fire watching with my Grandfather, who was an ARP Warden and following this leave, it was overseas again when he embarked at Liverpool on the troopship "Athlone Castle" to head for the Middle East. The convoy sailed on 10th September 1940 and it was about this time that Ron somehow acquired a camera and though against the regulations, he began to keep a photographic record of his overseas service. The "Athlone Castle" formed part of convoy AP3/1 and sailed via the Cape and Aden to Suez where Dad disembarked to begin nearly four years service in North Africa. By this time, Ron was serving with 9 Amphibious Operations Battery, Royal Artillery and looking at his photographs, one can see that although his unit wasn't at the front line, he did see service at places that became household names in the Desert War. Places such as Mersa Matruh, Siwa and El Alamein feature in his album. There are shots of knocked out tanks, 25 pounder guns, a 'pranged' Kittyhawk fighter that was once flown by the Australian 'ace' pilot Nicky Barr and the German mobile gun that was knocked out by Private Adam Wakenshaw of the 9th Bn., Durham Light Infantry in an amazing action that earned the 28 year old Geordie a posthumous Victoria Cross and which enabled his unit to withdraw in safety.

Knocked out tank - Mersa Matruh
Somewhat unusually, in December 1941, Dad transferred from the Army to the RAF Regiment. He was never very forthcoming about the reasons behind this but always stated it was simply a case of volunteering because he and a mate had heard that the RAF boys slept in beds with sheets, whereas in the Army they only had blankets! I could never get any more out of him than that, so maybe it was as simple as that!

Dad's RAF service was basically uneventful, although he was at El Alamein for the second battle and remembered vividly the massive artillery barrage that preceeded the battle. His later service was away from the front line and he spent time in Trans-Jordan (as that country was then known) as an instructor and later in Jerusalem and Habbaniyah before as he described it in his album 'The day I waited for' came along and Ron returned to the United Kingdom, arriving back at Greenock on 6th June 1944, when a certain other operation was beginning at the other end of the country!

Dad was then posted to RAF Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, which could not have been a more different environment than the North African desert. In September 1944, Ron was married to Doris and the newly married couple enjoyed a weekend's honeymoon in Stornoway. Dad's service record at this time shows him undertaking an Embarkation Assistant's course in preparation for his unit's departure for the Far East and the Japanese war. Fortunately for Ron and many more like him, the Atomic Bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki precluded the need for him to venture overseas once again and the remainder of his service was spent quietly in the UK before he was demobbed in July 1946.

Dad didn't speak much of his wartime service to me at first, although when he realised that I was genuinely interested, he did open up a little but only to talk of the happy times he had. Whenever he met up with friends from his wartime service, then they would talk and many is the time I remember Mum raising her eyebrows and commenting "Here we go, back to the Desert!" as some of the more well-worn stories were wheeled out!

After his demob, Dad eschewed the chance of joining the Metropolitan Police as he felt that he had "spent enough time in uniform" but instead worked in the Merchant Navy, mainly in a shore based role for the next thirty five years before spending his final working years with the London Borough of Greenwich until his retirement in 1987. Sadly, Ron passed away in 1990 aged 68 without being able to enjoy very much of his retirement.

My Dad's medals
Dad would never apply for his wartime medals as he rightly felt that he shouldn't have to apply for something that were rightfully his and that had been earned by nearly seven years of service to his country. However, some twenty years after his passing, I did apply for them and today his modest array of medals are proudly on display at my home to remind me both of him and his wartime service. Ron didn't perform any heroic acts and his service was unremarkable but he and millions like him gave up a large chunk of their youth in order to preserve the freedom of subsequent generations. My Dad was a hero to me and we owe all of his generation a huge debt of gratitude.

I have uploaded some of Ron's wartime photographs onto the Flickr photo-sharing site and they can be viewed by following this link

I'd also be interested in hearing of the wartime exploits of the ancestors of any of the followers of this blog, so if you have any stories to pass on, please let me know.

Published Sources:

Arnold Hague Convoy Database

Unpublished Sources:

Author's family reminiscences

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