Now that all those who fought in the First World War have died, and those who fought in the Second are growing old, it is becoming more important to record their experiences. As we think about commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, there seems to be more interest in remembrance than when I was a child. My own father, who served with the RAF at a meteorology station near Basra in Iraq, told only the odd amusing story of his time out there, and, as far as I can recall, never talked about his older brother, Frank, who was recorded as ‘missing in action’ and never came home. All he said was that when he, his twin brother Arthur, who was in the Army, and Frank, also in the RAF, were home together they would get their mother up when they came in from a night out to make them chips. She would have done anything for her three oldest boys: she didn’t know whether she would see them again. Judging by photos they were handsome young men, and tall; my father’s twin was the titch – the only one of six brothers who wasn’t over six foot tall.
I must, however, have picked up some gossip and knew that Frank was a navigator in a Mosquito and that his pilot survived the crash when they were returning from an operation over Europe. It seems that the pilot couldn’t have exited the plane and parachuted to safety unless his navigator was already out of the plane. I also heard that my grandmother, knowing that the pilot survived, waited for him to call on her and tell her what happened to her son. He never came.
What I didn’t know was that the pilot was Peter Horsley who went on to join the Duke of Edinburgh’s staff and eventually become an air vice-marshall and was knighted. He died in
2001 aged 80, and a long obituary was published in the Daily Telegraph where a cousin of my father’s read it. In it, details are given of his career during the war. He teamed up with Frank “Bambi” Gunn in Canada, when they were both there on training, and flew with him on operations with a Mosquito night intruder squadron. I quote from the obituary:
“This type of intrusion involved groping our way across Europe at low level using whatever navigational clues were available,” he recalled.
“Once the bombs were gone, Mosquitoes were coned in searchlights and sprayed with exploding shells and tracer. The aircraft, bucking with freedom from its load, would be thrown into an escape route, throttles fully open, jinking and weaving as close to the ground as one dared.”
Horsley noted that attacks on V-1 flying bomb sites required flying just above the crest of the waves to the French coast and as low as 50 ft above the target. Tight discipline was essential to avoid being blown up by the bombs of the aircraft in front.
All the while Horsley flew with Bambi Gunn. On D-Day, June 6 1944, and for some time afterwards the pair flew two or three cross-Channel sorties each night. They relied on benzedrine to stay awake, and resorted to naval rum to get some sleep.
Horsley was eventually shot down by anti-aircraft fire and his plane began to fall, burning, into the sea off Cherbourg. Horsley yelled to his navigator: “Bale out Bambi, bale out!” before pushing himself out and, after scrabbling for the D-ring of his parachute, finally floating towards the sea.
Horsley, wounded, floated in a tiny dinghy for three days before he was rescued. It took him a long time to recover, and he was tormented by dreams and visions. Now we would probably say that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the obituary there was one final, awful, detail about my uncle:
One night Bambi appeared in his dreams, his face lit by flames, and said: “I forgot my parachute, Peter.”
As we know, Bambi must have already been out of the plane before Horsley pushed himself out. Was he already dead? Did Horsley push him out? Was he on flames as he fell? Did he really not have a parachute? Whatever happened to him, it was a horrific way to die. This isn’t a very satisfactory story – stories are supposed to have endings, happy or sad. By the time Peter Horsley died, my father had been dead for ten years. My grandmother died without every knowing what happened to her oldest son. There is no grave, but his name is on the RAF memorial at Runnymede, and the records state that Frank Charles Henry Gunn died on 25th June 1944 aged 20. His story is not even an unusual one: so many, too many, young men died in awful ways. Maybe it’s just as well that his mother never knew how he died.