Novel Preview: A Boy’s War Journal
In September 1940 the Battle of Britain was over. In March 1941 the battle for Britain began when the Germans invaded Kent.
There have been many books on the subject, but few from a personal perspective. This is a collation of diaries, discovered in an attic during a house clearance. They were written by Billy Palmer, a boy of fourteen; but not on a daily basis, only when he had spare time. He was one of hundreds of runners who carried messages to and from the front. Inevitably their casualty rate was high.
What impressed me most was Billy’s matter of fact attitude to death and injury. His courage and pragmatism when he rescued a badly injured friend under fire and his “kill or be killed” fight with an SS Major, whom he beat to death with a shovel.
The most intriguing part of the diary was written in a very difficult code. It took the efforts of a number of crossword compilers to crack it. As Jean Wilson, who finally cracked it, said “Hot stuff!” It tells the story of a love affair between Billy and a woman – ten years his senior – who was a successful West End actress and also a member of the aristocracy. She could have had any man in the land, but fell in love with a youth. This wasn’t just a passing fancy, as so many war time affairs were, but a deep and lasting passion. Such an affair would raise eyebrows now! Sixty odd years ago, the consequences of discovery would have been dire for both of them. As I read the coded diaries, I had a strange foreboding that a Nemeses lurked in the shadows that would destroy the lovers.
Fortunately for posterity, Billy was persuaded to keep a journal which began with the following letter to his Mother.
Dear Mum. I hope this letter finds you as it leaves me, fit and well. In your last letter, you asked me what my duties were. Well, the best I can do, is to describe my last run.
I ran – and ran – and ran – surrounded by silence and the dark, with only the sound of my boots on the granite chippings for company and the faint light of the stars, to show me the way.
To my right the shops, their windows plastered with anti-blast tapes, in the middle of every window a poster – “LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT.” A hollow threat, the shops and the village are empty, except for the 18 men and the 2 boys of the “stay behind sabotage squad,” or as we call ourselves – “the suicide squad.” When the Germans take over the village, we will be hunted down and killed. However, there’s talk of us being moved to a different sector. Don’t worry Mum, we’re more use alive, than dead. When I get there, I will write to you.