He was a village character, writing a gentle tale of his coming to live in the village and marry his sweetheart, but he started with the tanks rolling into his Polish village and the revenge he wrought through Normandy and the relentless attrition of Caen. There were no ordinary lives in that generation.
A quiet autobiographical note appeared in the village magazine, from the man best known for making eccentric home-made fruit wines and for having a funny name (this being a village not known for trendy diversity). His memory lane brought him to our village from far away but it absorbed him. The tale began in Poland, with a fresh, young pilot in 1939, and an emergency call to report to his airfield: Germany had invaded. When he approached the field, he found the Germans were there ahead of him. He did not slink home but withdrew across Poland and across the width of Europe. There followed over the next editions the account of how he and a band of fellow airmen crossed German-occupied Europe, and when their path was barred by the swollen and frozen Danube, crossing the ice, three miles wide, to temporary freedom in Yugoslavia. We read of his making his way to Britain, of the tough training in the Highlands, billeting in Cambridgeshire and then on 6 June 1944, at last taking the fight to the invaders, as he joined the British forces swarming across the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy.
Caen was supposed to fall on the first day. The first day was a great success, but the Germans held Caen strongly, and the British and American soldiers hammered the city for two months until it broke and the advance could continue. There were personal memories here too: he reported encountering a Mongolian unit at Caen. Even further from home than him, they had been recruited as fraternal assistance for the Red Army but defected to the Germans on the Eastern Front and here they were defending a town their ancestors had never heard of half a world away from their pastures, yet all under the same sun in the eternal blue heaven.
What followed Caen is well known from the history books. It was not fought with maps and statistics, but by men. One foot before another flesh and blood like us all, all the way to the heart of Germany. Men stood as bullets ripped through those who stood beside them. Men stood as a dull steel Panzer charged unstoppably towards them. Men crossed shot, shell, minefields, barbed wire, and the Rhine, in order, in disciple, unrelenting. Men had to stand to their duty when they saw the gates of Belsen open and they faced the captured guards.
When all was done and time to go home, for some there was no home. Between Hitler and Stalin, Poland was no more. It was six years in a young life, with a lifetime ahead of work in the fields and calm gardening. All this was kept within his heart, done so that his children and all of ours need not see the same again.