Richard Willis's Blog

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From Horror to Heroes

One of the privileges of my current job is the many very interesting people I get to meet. Last Friday I was thrilled to be able to share a drink and a meal with eight Battle of Britain fighter pilots. Great names such as Bob Foster, William Walker and Geoffrey Wellum were present and I was able to chat to each of them. They are in no way special in the ordinary sense of the word and you would not spot them in a crowd. They are generally unassuming and modest individuals and certainly do not see themselves as heroes. However, one characteristic which stands out in most of them is their wicked sense of humour. Some of their comments and jokes would no doubt be frowned upon by the “politically correct” crowd which so dominates modern life but it is worth remembering that without their efforts and many like them, the modern politically correct crowd would have no democratic space in which to operate.

Today I met a completely different group which included holocaust survivors and some of the British “liberators” who were the first into the camps at Auschwitz and Belsen. They were around the same age as the first group of Battle of Britain veterans but included mostly Jewish  people from across Eastern Europe (Hungary, Poland and Lithuania) and even Berlin.

One of the sweetest ladies was Lilly from Hungary who had survived the horrors of Auschwitz, along with her sister and brother, although she had lost other family members there. She showed me her tattoo of a series of numbers on the lower underside of her left arm, inflicted on her by the Nazi’s to ensure that she could be traced and documented like the slave that she was considered to be by them. I have seen an Auschwitz tattoo before and to be honest I could feel myself welling up again!

I have never been to the site of Auschwitz but I know that people who have are greatly moved by the sense of what happened there. I know that the survivors I have met are the fortunate ones but I cannot help but be moved by the appalling suffering that they embodied standing there before me.

My generation read and heard about the events of World War 2 and we have watched most of the classic films but there is something enormously moving about meeting people that lived it. Whether it be the fighter pilot dashing across the sky in his Spitfire or Hurricane, or the emaciated survivor of a Nazi death camp they are heroes to me.


August 24, 2010 - Posted by | General Musings


  1. Great Richard

    My brother was Sgt Pilot Stanley Andrew who was in the RAFVR from 37 – 39 and then in 46 Sqd – went with them to Norway May 40 on HMS Glorious, youngest pilot to fly a Hurricane off an Aircraft Carrier with no special training.
    Back in the Battle of Britain he shot down a Dornier over Kent in September but crashed on returning to base at Stapleford Tawney, Essex. andf was sadly killed.

    I am a member of the Battle of Britain Historical Society and organise our School Memorial Plaques for these Heroes.

    I will be meeting some of the Veterans on Saturday at Heathrow.

    Comment by Mark Andrew | August 24, 2010 | Reply

  2. Excellent. Battle of Britain fighter pilots and Auschwitz survivors all deserve our honour but most of all acknowledgement of their sacrifice and struggles.

    Comment by Doodlebug | August 26, 2010 | Reply

  3. Hi Richard
    I haven’t visited Auschwitz but I have visited Belsen. A vast clearing in the middle of a pine forest. They tell you beforehand that the birds don’t sing and the grass doesn’t grow there and you think, yeah, yeah, then you get there and find it’s true …
    The grass does grow, though, on the mass graves. Ten big raised areas, squares of different sizes, all raised about three or four feet, with a plaque on one of the four sides saying how many are buried in that particular grave. The smallest number was 500 and the largest was 5,000 …

    My memory of the detail is fading, I think it was 1962 or 63 I was there, but the degree to which I was moved is just as strong now as I recall the experience as it was then.

    Comment by Kevin O'Shaughnessy | August 31, 2010 | Reply

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