Jim Horsley – What did you do in the War, Daddy?
Here is the story from Jim Horsley told by his daughter, Ann Kirby.
What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?
I was only a small child at the commencement of World War II, certainly not old enough to understand that my father had volunteered to join the RAF. I suppose it gradually dawned on me that Dad was serving in the forces and that periods of home leave were precious times for me and the family.
I know that he was in Bolton, and then Ireland, and Liverpool, among other places, but it never crossed my mind to wonder exactly what he was doing. Then I learnt that he was in France, then Germany – still my young mind did not question his activities. I never thought of him killing people – to this day I could not tell you if he did – neither did he fly an aeroplane which, in my book, men in the RAF did. Then the glorious day came when, with the German surrender, he came back home for good.
I remember his “demob” suit, the fact that he had a job to return to, and tales of being camped in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles near Paris for almost a year and that he had been with an American unit – he brought home chewing gum!. He had driven a large six-wheel lorry half way across Europe. He was my hero. In future years my brother and I were taken to the Normandy landing beaches. (Not sure which ones we went to.) I thought Dad was just educating us about the war; in a similar vein he took us to see the Bayeux Tapestry, another aspect of our education.
Then I started to research my family history. My mind turned to my uncle, Dad’s brother John, who was killed in WWI, and I researched his death at Ypres, obtaining pictures of the Menin Gate where he is remembered. It occurred to me that to do my history satisfactorily, I needed the service records of my father’s time in the RAF too. I was very reluctant to ask him to talk about those five years and so put the matter to the back of my mind.
I sent for his records from the RAF. It cost me a huge £25 and revealed very little that I didn’t know. Cardington, Blackpool, Kilkeel, Bridgnorth and a place I recalled hearing about frequently from him, Chigwell. This, although I didn’t know it at the time, held the clue to his service. However, the accompanying letter said that all other records had been destroyed at the time. So that was that.
My interest was, however, ignited once more in 1995 when we celebrated 50 years since the ending of the war and I decided to have another stab at research. I knew a man who knew a man who had studied the RAF in WWII. And armed with my service record – which after all gave his rank and number – I ask the question:
“Was my Dad involved in the Normandy Landings?”
“Almost certainly – Omaha Beach, second or third day.”
“But Omaha – wasn’t that the American landing beach?”
“Wasn’t if called Bloody Omaha because of the terrific loss of life?”
Time to do a bit of research. I wasn’t on my own in being unaware that a number of Mobile Signals, Radar, and Signals Servicing Units manned by British Royal Air Force personnel (2nd Tactical Air Force) landed from Landing Craft on Omaha Beach on D-Day and successive days, and sustained significant casualties, both dead and wounded. The RAF’s No.21 Base Defence Sector included the Ground Control Interception (GCI) mobile Radar Unit. Their duties were to locate enemy aircraft and to direct Fighter patrols of the RAF’s 2nd Tactical Air Force to intercept them and thus provide air cover for the beaches.
By some standards the number of casualties may seem “modest”, but according to an account I read on the Internet, “some brass hat in Whitehall” had instructed the RAF unit to wear their blue uniforms by way of showing the flag. Unfortunately, RAF dress blue is similar to the German field grey and in the confusion of battle they came under attack from both the Americans and the Germans. Their presence there, their sacrifice of lives, and the important contribution they made in their support of American defences is not reported anywhere nor has it been acknowledged.
These units were dispersed throughout the American Sector until September 1944, when their air defence monitoring role was taken over by US Air Forces. They were then variously deployed for detecting and directing air activity and tank movements in Belgium (Battle of the Bulge), Holland (Walcheren) and Germany (Rhine crossing) as the front line progressed. The men had been trained at Chigwell which was the RAF school for training in RADAR. (So that was what he was doing in Chigwell.)
By December 1944, SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) had established itself in the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles, France. On 26 April 1945 SHAEF moved to Frankfurt. Dad had been attached to SHAEF. Hence his stay at Versailles and then in Frankfurt and Belgium.
Lieutenant General Omar Bradley – Commander of the US First Army – (speaking after the war) said, “I have returned many times to honour the valiant men who died… every man who set foot on Omaha Beach was a hero.”
I know he is referring to American troops but those who know more details will include those brave men from the Royal Air Force.