Clare J Cavanagh: My ‘war flyer’ grandfather - 75 years later
Edinburgh-based writer Clare J Cavanagh reflects on her beloved late grandfather’s remarkable tale of survival, 75 years after his plane was shot down behind enemy lines in the Second World War.
An article from an Edinburgh newspaper written in 1947 was recently found by my uncle, honouring the survival of World War II RAF flight-sergeant navigator, John Hughes, a
serviceman who had been seriously wounded in action but returned to Edinburgh having made an extraordinary recovery.
This man was my grandfather.
I had heard many parts of his life story over the years but the man in the article is not the grandfather I knew.
As a child, he was the man who asked me if I would prefer my toast cut into squares or fingers while we shared breakfast over the kitchen table. He took the time to step away from the grown-up dinner table to play a game or complete a jigsaw puzzle with me. On occasion, he would sneak a chocolate wrapped in colourful foil to me from a sweet-
smelling tin that sat on the top of his wardrobe. If his daughter (my mum) saw this happening, he would shrug and tap his nose wishing for silent consent before she had a
chance to object.
I remember saving the biggest strawberry for him on a warm summer afternoon when he couldn’t come with us to pick them himself, his walking stick making the
outing more difficult for him. I rushed in, handing it to him proudly and watched the red juice run down his chin, over his scar and on to one of his many grey, buttoned cardigans.
These are the moments by which I remember him but his remarkable life before he was a grandfather has been revealed to me from family members and historical documents over
My grandfather John was a local man, born and raised in Edinburgh, and the press were keen to celebrate his return from World War II and his exceptional recovery.
7 March 1945
On the night of 7th March 1945, the Lancaster in which he flew with six other officers was shot down. Only three of them survived.
He landed badly in a field in Germany and was saved by a local farmer who carted him to the home of the village policeman who had himself once been a prisoner in Edinburgh Castle during World War I. Because John was Scottish, he was cared for.
He was later taken to Sandbostel prison camp where he received medical service from a Yugoslavian officer who repaired his fractured spine and broken pelvis from the fall. John remained there until 29th April 1945 when the camp was liberated by the British Army and he eventually made his way home.
Over the years, I developed a better understanding of his life from my grandmother Joyce and my mum Cathy. I was so fascinated by their stories, I even made John and Joyce the
topic of a project at primary school and learned much more about them in the process.
To me, every aspect of their story sounded as though it had been romantically scripted.
When she stayed in one night to wash her hair, Joyce received a serendipitous phone call which forced her to go to the dance hall in search of the receiver.
John saw her across the room and told his friends that she was the woman he was going to marry.
They only met in person a few times when he was briefly free from his duties but they wrote letters to one another regularly.
The night his plane was shot down, he had forgotten to take his flight jacket with him, having been delayed picking up his allocation of cigarettes. The whole crew had to evacuate and, without his flying jacket, he was able to fit through the small escape door.
John later said, ironically, that cigarettes had saved his life.
He had a bad fall due to the rapid opening of his parachute, also deeply cutting into his chin as it was released, leaving a scar which remained forever.
Joyce received a telegraph informing her that John was missing in action but she never doubted that he was alive.
Despite the horrific elements which have been documented since regarding the concentration camp that he was taken to, John said he was well attended to during his time
He recovered there and when he came home, he knocked on the door where Joyce lived, having thrown away his crutches along the way.
They got married on 27th October 1945, he graduated from Edinburgh University with a Masters degree in English, he became an English teacher, they had four children in Scotland, moved to East Africa in 1955 where John taught, they had two more children in Uganda and eventually returned to Edinburgh in 1970. My grandparents had the best perspective on life, both driven to push boundaries and take risks to build an adventurous life for themselves and their children.
The 1947 article honours his miraculous recovery, returning to competitive sports after his brutal war injuries. It is a tribute to his bravery and a hopeful story to be shared with
readers post-war who were still finding their own ways of healing from the atrocities they must have experienced for themselves.
On 29th April, it will be 75 years exactly since the prisoners were liberated and returned to a world they once knew.
The world had changed but a new life was awaiting them.
My grandfather wrote his own articles later in his life, not about the war, but mainly about his family – his marriage and children that brought him joy daily.
All these years later, his words are a source of positivity and faith. When life becomes chaos, when lives are lost and there is no control how to make it right, perhaps it is these stories that we need to see us through the darker times.
While we remember a world that was torn apart and suffered deeply, these words provide us with moments of kindness, love and redemption that will continue to see us through the difficulties in life all these years later.
In his early 60s, Grandad required further surgery to repair the damage still remaining from his parachute jump but it went badly wrong. He was partially paralysed and was told he
would never walk again, but he had done it once before, he knew could do it again.
He came home and through his inner strength and personal faith, he found a way to overcome the pain and trauma in his life once again. His one-year-old granddaughter Clare came to visit him in recovery and, over the following months, they took their first steps together. I wish I could remember this moment for myself but I can happily rely on my family who will always share their own individual stories of John – the war hero that became a father and grandfather, forever remembered in our own words.
Clare J Cavanagh (@clarecavanagh1) is a writer in Edinburgh, represented by agent Natalie Galustian (@natgalustian) at DHH Literary Agency. Clare's memoir 'My Words Will Find Me' was shortlisted for Portobello Books Prize 2017 in London.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.