My brother Michael has written this about our Father, Jimmy. Like many of his generation and WW11 service, Jimmy’ story is one which will bear similarities to others – most untold. We share this in the hope it makes you pause and think.
18 July 2018 would have been our Dad Jimmy’s 100th birthday. After very careful consideration on how I could commemorate his life, I thought it appropriate that something was finally said about an episode in his life that probably had more long-lasting effect on him than most of us ever realised. This is primarily because he rarely said anything about his experiences during the Second World War, and if he did it was only one or two very brief sentences.
Jimmy grew up in a comfortable working-class home in Glasgow’s East End. Academically bright, leaving school in 1937 he started to train as a Quantity Surveyor. Called up to do his National Service in July 1939, he was posted to the Royal Artillery as a Surveyor. Barely 10 weeks later he was in France with the British Expeditionary Force. Like the rest of the BEF he found himself running for his life in May 1940 towards Dunkirk Beach. His War Record shows he was evacuated on 28 May; apart from that we know nothing. The only story he ever told was stopping, along with other fleeing British troops, to help at a convent/maternity hospital that had been bombed by the Germans, and how every time a whistle was blown there was total silence whilst everyone listened for a baby’s cry.
The next four years saw Jimmy probably having the time his life, kicking his heels mostly in Southern England. By now he was no longer Jimmy, but Jock. Apart from practising his surveying skills, he was also an officer’s Batman (poor man!), a motorbike courier, lorry driver and whatever else was required. He never volunteered what a surveyor did in the Royal Artillery. I only found out after his death that a surveyor helped aim the guns, normally by climbing to the top of the nearest highest point from which the target could be sighted, which may often have been behind enemy lines. Jimmy, being probably one of the shortest men in the British Army, was a natural for this job. It is fair to say that his disciplinary record was not perfect. As a forthright intelligent Glaswegian, he did not take too kindly to being told what to do by what Jimmy perceived to be unintelligent public schoolboys.
D Day saw Jimmy in the hold of a troop carrier lost in the fog in the English Channel; a hold with no toilet facilities and tinned tomatoes the only food to eat. I will leave the rest to your imagination, but he never ate tinned tomatoes again, and was not very keen on boats. From his landing on the Normandy Beaches onwards he said next to nothing. At some point he was seconded to the American Army and joined the push to Berlin. He did hint more than once that German soldiers preferred to surrender to the British Army (vs American) as they took prisoners, saying that war crimes were obviously only committed by the losing side.
By the middle of December ’44 he was to be found in the Ardennes, just in time for the start of the Battle of the Bulge. A platoon of American troops called his platoon cowards for running away from advancing tanks; couldn’t be German as they were 25 miles away heading in the opposite direction. Jimmy sadly recalled that the next time he saw them was the following day when he helped bury them. Early March, now in Germany, Jimmy had reached Ludendorff, crossing the infamous Bridge of Remagen a couple of days before it finally collapsed. 11/12 April, Jimmy and his colleagues reached Nordhausen.
Over 20 years later my brother Grant and myself watched on TV as the American Space Programme culminated with the Apollo 11 Mission. We were allowed to stay up into the early hours of the morning of 20 July 1969 to watch Armstrong and Aldrin land the lunar module Eagle. Jimmy stayed up to supervise us but watch the landing he did not do; all the time he was sitting in the kitchen, presumably with his thoughts. He knew the real cost of the Apollo missions: he had helped liberated Nordhausen.
The German town of Nordhausen has a more notorious name in history, Mittelbau-Dora, one of the cruellest concentration camps built by the Nazis. Whilst in relative terms of murders of prisoners it is insignificant (only tens of thousands), it stands out for two reasons. Firstly the camp was located inside existing mines. Many of the prisoners on entering the camp never saw daylight again, with many utilised as slave labour only living three months. One historian commented that the Nazis had finally managed to construct Dante’s Inferno. Secondly it was a labour camp whose sole purpose was to construct rockets. Under the technical supervision of Wernher von Braun, the V-1 Rocket was tested and built here before causing death and destruction, particularly over London where it went by the nickname Doodlebug. At the time of the camp’s liberation the more dangerous V-2 Rocket was under production. Jimmy never, to my knowledge, spoke about what he saw, but thanks to the Internet we can all see for ourselves the sights that the Allies came across at Dora and its surrounding satellite camps.
Von Braun never had to answer for his war crimes, with the Americans & British Governments ensuring that the Dutch International Arrest Warrant was never actioned. By the time the camps were being liberated he was safely in the hands of the Western Allies, and very quickly transferred to America. Soon he was crucial to the American Intercontinental missile programme, before becoming the father figure at NASA. It has been suggested that without his genius America might still not have reached the moon. He did thankfully live long enough to see himself portrayed as Dr Stangelove by Peter Sellars. Whilst this is Jimmy’s story, I think he would appreciate more in the world knowing the real human cost of space exploration and the hidden hypocrisy.
Jimmy never articulated any of his actual experiences apart from several short stories I have included. The rest comes from his Military Records and by listening to him for over 25 years. Unbelievable as it may be to us, Jimmy weekly relived his past by watching the war pictures that were the diet of British TV in the 60’s & 70’s. At the end of particular pictures, he sometimes would add a poignant comment about its accuracy/authenticity. Dora never made it to the movies; as children we had pictures that Jimmy had taken of V-2 Rockets being stockpiled or tested, but never with any context. That only came towards the end of his life by way of newspaper articles, documentaries about von Braun and finally books. Jimmy would hand them over to be read but I always knew that questions would be remain unanswered. Unknown to most, Jimmy also always had a daily reminder
By VE Day (May’45) Jimmy was somewhere in Northern Germany and by all accounts he was a man broken in spirit. He was one of the very few British soldiers who fought all the way from the Normandy Beaches through Germany to the Danish border. Walking up to 25 miles a day for weeks/months on end, a hard task at the best of time, he was also fighting on the frontline of one of the bloodiest campaigns in military history.
To complete Jimmy’s story I need to jump through time. As children we knew Jimmy received and sent a Christmas card to Denmark. To whom, why and where we never knew. It was only on my mother’s death that taking possession of Jimmy’s extensive photo collection I came across pictures of an unknown family with Ringkobing written on the back in Jimmy’s handwriting. Thanks to the internet it didn’t take long to identify that this is a small town on Jutland’s west coast. Ringkobing Museum identified the house in the pictures as well as the name of the family who stayed in the house at the end of the War. Luckily their name is very rare in Denmark, and that was how I was introduced to the Risdal family.
The Risdal Family in 1945 consisted of Mr & Mrs Risdal, their four children; three girls, twins Kirsten & Bodil (17), Tove (14) and one boy, Bendt (11) along with an elderly grandmother. I have thought long and hard about the next section, still finding Bendt’s, his daughter’s and Kirsten’s story emotionally raw, but I have decided to just edit some of Bendt’s comments. The context is set by Bendt’s daughter, who commented that when her grandparents had asked the Senior British Officer if there was anything they could do to help, he replied that in the camp they had a soldier who probably had had the worse war he had encountered, and unfortunately was now in a bad way. A normal home environment might help him; that was how they were introduced to Jimmy.
“When the British troops arrived in Denmark, a division (regiment? I do not now, but many soldiers) including Jimmy located in Ringkøbing, in order to get the defeated Germans repatriated and to remove and destroy the German (now abandoned) defenses (large radar installations and cannon gun emplacements along the Danish coast). My parents and other households in the city invited the British soldiers who wanted to visit our family. Already on the first day showed Jimmy up with us. In my boyish memory, he was the personification of a librator and a hero. In my parents’ eyes, he was also a badly damaged man of horrors of war. It was a hard mentally and physically included man we saw. He looked very tired and wasted, and he was certainly in doubt about what the purpose of his visit was. This problem, I think my parents solve in a short time through word and deed. They made clear that with us he could relax without obligation of any kind. In between there were also other British soldiers to visit (no more Scottish), but it was usually only one or two visits. Jimmy was contrary to us, and there grow a warm friendship between him and our family. My mother came with the best meals you could get. We could now get all the good agricultural food products, which the Germans had previously seized and sent to their troops in the war on the German fronts. it was items like butter, cheese, cream and meat of pork and beef. My mother said that she almost immidiately could see an improvement in Jimmy. It took a long time before we saw the first smile on Jimmy, but it came, and it shows in the photos we have and have sent to you.
With regard to the psychological pressure he has been exposed to, we experienced the same as you describe Michael. We soon realized that we were not to talk about the war. If we tried it, went Jimmy resulting to a halt, could not speak and shook vigorously on the head and hands. We were told by our parents that we should not talk about the war.
Jimmy never talked about his role in the war. We have since been told that his symptoms pointed strongly to shell shock. With regard to the time before he was with us, we know that is not much, but some of the other soldiers who briefly visited us told us that Jimmy probably had been with the whole trip from the Normandy invasion to Denmark.”
What was remarkable to me was that the family was so grateful to Jimmy that, despite many of their relatives being in the Danish Resistance, they all, down to current great grandchildren, know and are still most proud that Jimmy stayed with them. Whilst this is Jimmy’s story I must add one further comment on this remarkable family. In one of Jimmy’s photographs there is a young girl, whom I always assumed was one of the girls. I could not have been further from the truth. She was a French orphan who the Red Cross had asked the Risdals to look after whilst they tried to find her mother who they believed might be alive somewhere in Europe. Mother and child were finally reunited, staying with the Risdals for a further year until it was safe to return to Paris. Personally, perhaps we all need to reflect on the unselfish kindness shown to strangers by this Danish family.
It was in Bendt’s daughter’s first phone call that she said that from what the family had been told Jimmy was clearly suffering from PTSD. It was a revelation that perhaps help explain the man Jimmy became. On his military discharge in late Spring 1946, returning to Glasgow, he quickly finished his training becoming a Chartered Surveyor, married our mother and raised four children. Unfortunately, there were several occasions when under pressure/crisis Jimmy figuratively froze; my mother could never get an explanation nor, not unreasonably, understand. With hindsight, Jimmy was probably no different from hundred of thousands of service personnel who returned to civvie street and were expected to resume their pre-war life, with no consideration of the mental scars they carried; stiff upper lip was the order of the day no matter the consequences.
Those of you who knew Jimmy probably remember a short, slightly overweight individual who was happy to remain in the background reading or taking one of his beloved boxer dogs out. His dog was never far from his side or his thoughts, and there is the final ironic twist in his story. Remember that daily reminder I referred to? By Jimmy’s own admission, the first time he saw boxer dogs was at Dora; they were the SS Guards’ guard dog of choice.
If you had asked Jimmy what he was most proud of, he probably would have said the achievements of all his children. What we could not tell him was it was us who should have been proud of him. No man could have done more.
Jimmy Duncan 1918-1988