Interview with Joy Colbeck


Interview with Joy Colbeck


Joy Colbeck was born in Maidstone, Kent and served within the Women’s Royal Naval Service during the war. Her brother, John, joined the RAF on the 28 of April 1943, qualified at as an air gunner in April 1944, before being transferred to an Operational Training Unit in October 1944 at RAF Westcot. It was here that he, along with the rest of his crew, crashed during a training exercise in January 1945. Joy goes on to explain that she doesn’t believe this affected her family very much, although she does state that people do not recall the war often, likely as they want to forget the experiences they had during it. Joy recounts several experiences of her own during the war, being a typewriter operator after volunteering at age 17. She served on board the destroyers HMS Whitehall and HMS Whitecliff, and the minesweeper HMS 01. She tells a number of anecdotes of her time during the war, including three stories of near-misses with bombs and machine guns. Joy was promoted to a petty officer before joining the Royal Marines at Bermondsey. She recalls meeting her husband during a formal dance at her naval base, but also recalls being incredibly busy during the war, an example being her husband having to meet her parents for the first time by himself as she couldn’t get the time off. Following the war, she believes that people did not talk about their experiences because they didn’t want to dwell on them and would rather move on. Joy continues to take part in memorial services, both Navy and RAF. As part of this, her mother, father, herself and her husband have all written books outlining their experiences during the war and she takes pride in her grandchildren knowing her story.







01:17:58 audio recording

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CB: My name Is Chris Brockbank and today is the 24th of May 2017 and I am in Luton with Joy Colbeck and we’re going to talk about initially Joy’s experience in the war in the Royal Navy as a Wren but principally we’re talking about the experience of her younger brother who was killed on a training flight in the RAF and, in a crash near North Marston near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. So, Joy, what are your earliest recollections of early life?
JC: Well, I think it was recollections were moving house. I remember the house I was born in and my brother was born in. When we were about six or seven we moved to the next road to a slightly bigger house.
CB: In Maidstone.
JC: In Maidstone. All the time my father was a second in command in the grocery shop to Mr Henry Topley, his partner. And my father was, ran the business by his hard work. Mr Topley used to wear a top hat, stand outside and take the customers to the pay desk etcetera but, but my father was the one who drove the van, and he went to all the biggest houses in our part of Kent. Castles. Boarding schools. Had to pick, to pick up the orders from the cookhouse keepers, take them back to the shop, and a fortnight later my father would drive the van and deliver them back to the big houses before all, all mass buying. And so my brother, my brother never seemed to be part of this performance because he was always two years younger than me if you know what I mean. He, he took second, played second fiddle really. He [pause] I don’t remember him. He was a Boy Scout and all the way up and on, on the, we have a photograph here of his War Memorial, my brother’s death, in the Scout camp next to Guy Gibson who was a friend of Scout Master and practicing for the —
CB: The dam’s raid.
JC: The dams.
CB: Yes.
JC: On the Scout master’s lake. In his garden. But that’s beside the point but my brother was, he did it. He, my brother for some reason and we never know, we never got to the end he, he could not read. Now, we find this, I find this extremely difficult. He was [pause] I had left school and had been to secretarial college and was working at County Hall when my brother left school, because the school became a hospital and we were in a war zone. Whatever’s the word. Not war zone, is it? It was [pause] that we were in, it was, yeah, I suppose you’d say it was a war zone in England really, and was treated as such. My father was the chief air raid warden so he knew what was going on. And my brother just got on his bicycle and followed every Spitfire that was shot down and every German plane that was shot down. That was his whole interest in life that I remember. When I used to come home from work we used to say, ‘What have you got hold of today?’ And it was a bit of plastic or something which they all sat down, this little group of boys and made a little cottage out of the, out of the plastic windows. And he didn’t have a lot of friends and when, when his school closed my mother was so worried. He was in elementary school. He couldn’t pass any grammar school at all. And his reading and writing was extremely bad, but of course nobody took much notice of it and we wondered if he was dyslexic would he have been discovered by the RAF? How on earth did he become a bomber when he couldn’t read when he was thirteen?
CB: Extraordinary.
JC: I don’t know. Nobody ever mentions it. But he was, he was a nice boy. He was a lovely boy. People liked him but he, he didn’t shine. He didn’t shine at anything. So when he left school it would have been [pause] 1941 I suppose. I was seventeen in 1941. ’42, the school would have closed and my mother just had a tutor for him and my father got him a job in the brewery next to the shop, the grocery shop. Style and Winch’s brewery. And he worked in the lab washing bottles I suppose. But I don’t know. I’ve got a big gap because I wasn’t there.
CB: So, at seventeen what did you do?
JC: At seventeen I volunteered for the Wrens.
CB: Right.
JC: I left my job at County Hall and was supposed to go in the Wrens with my best friend who as soon as we got to London said she didn’t want to go and she became a Land Girl and I became a Wren. And they put me, I had no preliminary war training whatsoever. They sent me a letter saying, and a railway ticket to report to [pause] I was just going to say Paddington. It wasn’t Paddington. To the, to go to Lowestoft to report to HMS Minos as a writer to the captain. A writer meaning a shorthand typist but the rank is writer [pause] and I wasn’t welcomed. I was the first Wren and they didn’t want me because they were regular sailors. They weren’t service, there was no conscription in to the Navy at that time so they didn’t really want the Wrens but they got them. And so by the time I would get home on a weekend’s leave all the way by train across London and back by train down to Kent there wasn’t much left of a forty eight Wren’s pass getting there, and I didn’t see a lot of my brother. All I got was that he was working at Style and Winches. He was doing quite well in, in the brewery section and the next thing was that he had volunteered. He volunteered. He wasn’t conscripted. Volunteered for the RAF. And I think I only saw him two or three times after that. I, I’m trying to think how many times I saw him back. Not a lot.
[telephone ringing]
CB: I’ll just stop there.
[recording paused]
JC: And of course then we got, we got, I got shifted from up in Norfolk back down in to London to HMS Pembroke which is all the Wrens working in London. Whitehall. And I stayed there until I went to Westcliff on Sea which was a holding base for sailors waiting for Dunkirk, not Dunkirk, for D-Day. But I spent nearly two years in London.
CB: What were you doing in London?
CB: What were you doing in London?
JC: Well, I just worked in in offices. Office job. And —
CB: Secretarial.
JC: I also, I did one interesting thing. I, because I had worked very hard on the setting up this, I’d been promoted to leading Wren and I was working very hard on the setting up of this holding camp and we had a lot of rather important people on the staff there. And we, the whole of Westcliff on Sea Promenade and the roads adjacent to the Promenade were requisitioned as a block and the civilians were moved off. It was mostly holidays. Small hotels. Private hotels. So it wasn’t difficult but the whole lot moved off and we moved, the Navy moved in and there were four thousand sailors and about four hundred Wrens.
Other: You had your choice ma.
JC: And then I worked very hard. Very, very hard because I worked for a wonderful woman called First Officer Bowen-Jones who was quite a high up ranking officer in the Wrens and she used to push, give me lots of difficult jobs to do. And one day she called me in and she said, ‘You’ve worked very hard. I want to send you on special duties.’ And she said, she’d got a lovely smile and she said, ‘You’re going to, maybe you’ll go with Churchill on one of his ventures abroad, to one of the conferences.’ She said, ‘Go and enjoy it. Report tomorrow to the Admiralty.’ When I got to the Admiralty it was a busy, busy, busy office full of American officers and British Naval officers from all over the world. And they were all [pause] well they would sort of shuffle up. We went on the back of a Land Rover from our billets in in [pause] oh, it was a long time ago. I’ll tell you in a minute. But we assembled at 6 o’clock in our billets. We were taken by Army car to the Admiralty. They had been working all day long deciding which way they’d go. Who’d go, who went and who didn’t. And as soon as we got there at 6 o’clock in the evening, it would be about seven we got there we started and we typed all that the, you know the ships and Naval officers had learned during the day. We typed it during the night on stencils on [reniers], and then we ran them off and we did that for six weeks and we had no time off. And then we were sent back to our posts and told to keep quiet. Not to say where we’d been. Not even to our officers. And we had done the invasion of Sicily and Italy, but in fact we didn’t know it was Sicily and Italy because we didn’t know and they didn’t tell us they were going to go to Italy. They just gave us a map reference along the, along the garden and up the stairs on the, on the grids. It was all done on the grid. And it’s all boring. There you are.
CB: Right. We’ll just take a break.
[recording paused]
JC: You mean one of the AGs ones.
CB: Now, we’re just going to recap quickly on yourself because you had two interesting experiences. One, Joy early on, one experience you had early on was in Lowestoft.
JC: That’s it.
CB: What happened there?
JC: What happened there? It was a Tuesday.
CB: Yeah.
JC: I had every Tuesday off. Worked the rest of the six days. In the mornings we did our washing and sewed on our buttons, etcetera. Well, about half past one the girls, we were, we were billeted in a private hotel in the attic. There were two rooms in the attic either side of the stairs and three of them were occupied over the stairs. They didn’t work, they worked in HMS Minos 2 which was a holding base. I worked in HMS 1, which was a minesweeper base, active service. So, they knocked on the door and said, ‘Are you coming down in to Yeovil, err into Lowestoft for a cup of tea at Waller’s Restaurant because they have cream buns. So I said, ‘Yes. I think so.’ So, they said, ‘Pick you up in half an hour.’ Half an hour later it was snowing. I said, ‘I think I’ve got a cold coming and it means walking both ways to Lowestoft in the snow. I’m not coming.’ And they said, ‘Ok. We’ll go without you.’ I’d been, I decided to have a bath. I was in the bath when the claxon went. We had no air raid warning. The claxon went. Out in the garden. Get in the shelters. Hit and run raids. So we, we just went. Ran down the stairs, out the back door, got in. We’d only just got in the air raid shelter when there was the most enormous explosion and about, we just didn’t know anything about it. About half an hour later the Wren officer on duty said, ‘Wren Wenham,’ that was me, ‘Back to duty.’ So I got dressed in to my uniform and walked in to Lowestoft and the whole of Lowestoft High Street was flattened. And I’ve got a picture. I, I don’t know.
CB: Ok. Well, we’ll look at the pictures in a minute.
JC: No, we don’t. Here it is. Here’s my whatnot.
CB: Oh, report.
Other: Yes.
JC: There they are. Digging up twenty years later.
CB: Right.
JC: But, and I went into my office and the captain said that we had to stay on duty because the bomb had fallen on the main supply department and all, all my three, and it had fallen on Waller’s Restaurant next to the Naval supply because we were all in the High Street. So bang on Waller’s and every one, I think there were, seventy were killed. So, I lost my three friends. That was, that was number one.
CB: Right. Very hard.
JC: About three weeks later I was.
CB: This was 1941.
JC: About three weeks later I was machine gunned with two other Wrens walking to our quarters along the cliffs at Lowestoft. We just got down in the, in the whatnot. You had no warnings. So, that was two. I can’t think what the third one was.
CB: Right. So, if we go now towards the end of the war there were the V-1s and V-2s. So what experience did you have?
JC: Oh yes. That was dreadful.
CB: That’s in London.
JC: I, I was, I was at Westcliff. HMS Westcliff. After D-Day they began to get rid of, the numbers went down and the places were closed. We were just a closure. In August, in August 1944 I was promoted to chief, to Wren petty officer and it meant that I had to be moved because there was no, no requirement for a petty officer in there. So I was sent to the Royal Marines at Burnham on Crouch on a single posting as petty, just as what would be called secretary to the Marine’s officers because they had a big Court of Enquiry of, of, to do with the firing of an officer. And I had to go every day and take down in shorthand the doings of the court. I don’t know whether I made a very good job of it because nobody then was interested in, in talking slowly or [laughs] even knowing how to put questions. It was very difficult. And so there I was down in Burnham on Crouch, and every Sunday morning all the Royal Marines assembled outside of the Burnham Yacht Club for Sunday morning divisions. In the middle of the second, second hymn we got this colossal blowing, and we were all flattened on to the roads. Yeah. Onto the ground. Nobody was hit. The thing, the thing exploded up in the air, away up in the air and if it hadn’t exploded we wouldn’t probably have been here I suppose. But that was the third time that and after that I couldn’t sleep. And my posting came to an end and I went to the Royal Naval College at, hospital at Chatham and I was turned out. My husband came to tell me and [pause] I was still packing up my belongings when he came back again and told me that John had died. And —
CB: This is January 1944. Your brother John.
JC: Yes. And my father had phoned my husband who was on duty and he’d been to see the captain who gave him permission to come to Burnham because there was, it was the back of beyond to tell me and take me home. And I went home and, and it was awful really when I got home because my mother and [pause] when, when I was two and a half years old I had double pneumonia, and there was no hospital. I was just, my mother cared for me. My brother was eight months old and John went to stay with my father’s sister for [pause] I’ve no idea but he was certainly away from home for three months. So my mother couldn’t see him. There was, it was a real break and —
JC: It was a real break. Not very nice I suppose. I don’t know how my mother would have coped to have her baby boy taken away from her. She had to look after me at home. I had pneumonia. Pneumonia for six weeks and my father took me out on my first walk and I cried so much that he kept on walking rather than take me home, and the next day I had pneumonia again. So that, so my brother still stayed with, with Auntie May and she features in this book. So he had a real break in his parenting. I don’t suppose it would have been a very quick cut off when I had pneumonia. I mean the doctor would have come. Our doctor, he came on a horse, on a horse, horseback. Privately. And, and my father took my brother in the van and off he went. So I don’t know what effect that would have had on my brother. It must have broken my mother’s heart I think. She was a wonderful mother wasn’t she?
Other: She was a lovely lady.
JC: Lovely woman.
CB: You said, you said your brother John had difficulty with reading.
JC: Yes.
CB: Did that get linked with that experience?
JC: I don’t know. Of course, he was only eight months old. I don’t [pause] that’s the only time. I know that it was snowing and there was no ambulances available. The doctor and the, and the vicar spent three nights at our house. Did their calls in between. He was very well looked after but —
CB: We’ll just stop there again.
[recording paused]
CB: These are all very important experiences to know in the background but returning to your brother John. Returning to your brother John. He joined the RAF on the 24th err the 28th of April 1943. Well, he attested then but he was only seventeen.
JC: Yes.
CB: He started, according to the records we’ve looked at, at Number 19 ITW on the 5th of February 1944 and shortly after that he was admitted to hospital and then he was temporarily discharged and put into hospital again. He then went to a different Initial Training Wing on the 24th of April 1944 and according to the records he then had been identified as an air gunner and you mentioned his difficulty with reading and so on and it may be that that had some bearing on the selection.
JC: Yes.
CB: Of his position in the aircraft.
JC: Yes.
CB: He then went to Number 1 Air Gunnery School on the 1st of July ’44 and from there in October, the 19th of October 1944 he went to 11 OTU, Operational Training Unit which was at Westcott. Which is the point of our story.
JC: Yes.
CB: And then he was killed in the crash on the 4th.
JC: Yes.
CB: Of January 1945.
JC: Yes.
CB: So my question there is that as you were in the Navy and busy and had little opportunity of finding out what was going on, what do you understand about what he was doing and what your parents knew? What did your —
JC: You mean while he was still training?
CB: While he was in the RAF.
JC: I don’t know. You see it was such a different life. Everybody’s son was in, in the Army, The Navy or the Air Force all of the way around him. If, if you weren’t, if you weren’t in the Forces there was something funny with you and I suppose you had to, I suppose you had to accept that your son or your daughter would go off into the Army. And, take my father, he’d spent four years of his, six years of his youth, of his young life not his youth because he married during his service but they’d all experienced Army life. So it was nothing different in a way. And I think they would have accepted what was going on. That he would join. He would join up but whether they would have ever accepted that he was going to be in the Air Force I don’t know.
CB: Why did he join the RAF?
JC: Why did he join the RAF?
CB: And not the Army or the Navy.
JC: I have no idea. I have no idea.
CB: And did you have any, you saw him rarely but did you have any conversations with him?
JC: No.
CB: About his service.
JC: No. No. I had no, you see I saw so little of him. I wouldn’t like to say how many times I saw him. Definitely not during the previous year to his death did I. I was going to. I told you, it’s in my husband’s diary we were going, I was going to take my husband home to meet my parents on a weekend leave because my husband had, we were already engaged but we were going to go home. Became engaged on my twenty first birthday and so [pause] I, when it came to, it’s just written in some, about the middle of October, November we were going to, my husband was coming to spend the weekend with, and would have slept in my brother’s bed and I was going to join them and I was hit by this bomb, V-2 bomber thing. So I was in [laughs] I couldn’t go to Maidstone. So my husband went by myself to meet my parents.
CB: For the first time.
JC: I think he’d met my mother because he came, he came to my mother at Southend on my twenty first birthday when I was in sick bay for a different reason, and they had given me [pause] He had produced my engagement ring while I was in bed covered in, I had a series of boils, awful things all the way around my neck and I’d had them for about a year, and they were trying to do what they could to get rid of it in the sickbay. But they couldn’t and I was swathed up in all these bandages and my mother came on the train to celebrate my birthday and she met Gerry there and he gave me my engagement ring. There it is. There we are.
CB: Very nice. Yes.
JC: And [pause] so it was, it was so natural in a way. It was happening all the way around him.
CB: And people didn’t talk about what they did in the Forces.
JC: They didn’t talk about it.
CB: They weren’t allowed to, and they didn’t want to.
JC: And they weren’t allowed to. They didn’t have the time. They were so worn out. My father was head of the ARP and they met, we were about the only people who got an air raid, a decent air raid shelter, and we had it because our next door neighbour’s brother built the new County Hall. He was a big builder, and while he was building the big County Hall he dug the hole with his digger of our, of our air raid shelter and he built us a double deck, double brick air raid shelter in our, half in their garden, half in ours. Two doors. We were very posh. We had radio and we had electricity and, but my father came home from work he, we were, we were down there. We, we put our pyjamas on as soon as we came home from work and we went straight down and we had our tea down in the air raid shelter. My mother, of course women didn’t work so my mother, my mother looked after my father and all the people who worked for him. And as soon as my father had had his tea he became the air raid warden. So I mean he didn’t talk about, we didn’t talk about family.
Other: I think the horrors were so bad as well.
JC: Yes.
Other: People didn’t want to dwell on them.
JC: They didn’t want to. They used to say —
Other: They wanted a change in their lives.
JC: My, my brother’s friends, four boys came to Maidstone in 1939 when his father built the A20. Not the M20. The A20 over, over the hill, down into the Weald of Kent and he bought these, his four sons all at school. And my father saw the for sale notice on the house and investigated who was moving in. Met them and said, ‘I’ll be your grocer. I’ll take your cards from you.’
CB: Ration cards.
JC: The [Riccomini] family. I’d love to know what happened to the [Riccomini] boys because as far as I know only the eldest one, who had a cleft palate survived and I think my brother was, was very friendly with the second boy called Geoffrey. And I don’t know what the other two were and I wouldn’t have met them anyway but Geoffrey used to come and play in our garden, and was the same age as my brother. And to think that they could, my father knew the mother and parents. To think that he knew that there was a family losing three and his was one. It was—
Other: I see what you’re saying.
JC: I’m sorry.
CB: Very difficult.
JC: We’re getting off, aren’t we?
CB: Well, it doesn’t matter because the point in the background there is Maidstone is in the front line.
JC: Yes.
CB: Effectively closest almost —
JC: It was.
CB: To the continent.
Other: Well, it’s about —
CB: So to what extent did you suffer air raids there?
Other: [laughs] She was hit by one.
JC: Well, we didn’t really suffer any real damage but we did have an unexploded bomb come through the roof of our detached house and my mother ran. Obviously, it was in the middle of the afternoon. There were no men. My mother, when the men came home from work ran to the ARP post, and said that there was a hole in the roof and they sent, they sent a man, an ARP man to investigate and he went up inside the house on a ladder and he got stuck in the hole. In the, in the, he was a big fat man and he got stuck.
CB: In the loft hatch.
JC: And [laughs] he became [laughs] didn’t he? All our children remembered the second world war was the man who got stuck in the hole. We had, we had behind our house was a place called Vinters Park which was a big private place and was used as a war, as a hospital in the war and their guns came over in to our garden at the back. So we were very close to the, we had every night we slept when we were there. Even when I came home on leave we slept down in the, we had six bunks in our —
CB: In your air raid shelter.
JC: Mr and Mrs Shaw didn’t have any children so there was my mother and brother. We mostly played cards and sent the money to the Red Cross. But we don’t, I don’t remember that we talked about people who’d died that day.
CB: What about these, these were anti-aircraft guns.
JC: The?
CB: Anti-aircraft guns you are talking about are you?
JC: We didn’t meet them.
CB: No. You had anti-aircraft guns next to you.
JC: They were over the field.
CB: Right.
JC: In Vinters Park, and they came over. The men didn’t come into our garden but in 19 — before I joined the Wrens, that was July ’41 Detling Aerodrome which was a mile from our house was bombed by the RAF and obliterated.
CB: By the Germans.
JC: And my father was on duty that night at the top of the road called the Chiltern Hundreds, the public house and he, he had the road closed and they wouldn’t allow anybody to come over the road. Well, about 11 o’clock that night he, my father brought two men to our house. They were soldiers. They were men from the Royal Air Force Defence Regiment. It wasn’t a very, it wasn’t an active, it was [pause] then anyway, they’d come back from a day, they’d come back from holiday leave to find they’d no air, no, no air base left. Not allowed up on the road. My father brought them home and they slept upstairs in my father’s bed that night, and the next morning they went back on duty. And the following night they came and knocked, morning they came and knocked on the door and said, ‘Can we, can we please come and sleep again because we’re frightened.’ And my father said they looked it. And they came for about three weeks and my father said, ‘Yes. You can come and you can sleep in a bedroom in the house in the daytime and you’re to help the men dig the hole and finish off the air raid shelter.’ So these men built our air raid shelter. And that was the only contact we had with, with soldiers.
CB: Yeah.
JC: But they were all the way around us. So my brother must, my brother was down in that air raid shelter every night. Had to be. And they weren’t allowed, boys they weren’t allowed to go off to the cinema in the evening. I mean, you didn’t go out. You went in to the air raid shelter. And what he did I don’t know, apart from the fact that after I left probably somebody else came and borrowed a bed for the night. Any vacant bed was taken up and it was, it was busy. It was really, really busy.
CB: We’ll take a break there.
[recording paused]
JC: My husband.
Other: Just one second.
CB: Right. So where did you meet your husband?
JC: At the Royal Palace Ballroom, Southend on Sea. And it was, I’d been in the Navy then for, I met him on the 28th of April 1944, Saturday night. And it was only the second dance I had been to in the whole of the war and the whole of my service. We seemed to spend all our time working. And so I met my husband at the dance and he asked me for a dance, and I met him then. And he was, he had just arrived at HMS Westcliff. I had been there already since, I think the 4th of September 1942. So I had been there nearly two years. My husband was a year younger than me.
CB: And what did he do? What was he?
JC: He was, he was, he was a sub lieutenant in the Naval Coastal Forces. He tried to be in the RAF VR but he failed one of his. I don’t know which one it was, but he failed one of his tests.
CB: And when were you married?
JC: 31st of March 1945.
CB: Right.
JC: And that was arranged before my brother died and we hadn’t told my brother. That would all have been, I don’t know if, well I suppose of course my husband would have told his future brother in law that wouldn’t he? So my brother must have known, but we didn’t send many letters. I can honestly, I can’t remember sending many letters.
CB: So —
JC: We didn’t send many. Didn’t send many [laughs] we sent food parcels to each other [laughs] but we didn’t send much else.
CB: We’ve talked about the fact that what your brother John was doing that your parents didn’t seem to know about it.
JC: Yes.
CB: And you certainly didn’t know.
JC: No. I didn’t know.
CB: So, how was it that you learned about your brother John’s death?
JC: But what I learned, I arrived home with my husband on the 6th. Let’s see. Yes. It took, it took twenty four hours for the news to get through to my husband so that would have been the 5th of January. And we travelled back. There was no over, no trains out of Burnham on Crouch in the evening so it was morning of January the 6th that we got the train to Maidstone. And my mother was sitting there with her sister in law, Auntie May who’d brought John up as a baby, and they were just sitting there on the settee next to each other. They didn’t, they didn’t even seem to talk. It was absolutely unbelief on their, on their face that this could really have happened.
CB: Then what?
JC: Hmm?
CB: So you got there and saw mother and aunt.
JC: Saw mother and aunt and then all the, all the family and friends came up. I had to, my husband had to go back the next day. They wouldn’t give him any more leave. I had. I was given seven days, because by this time I was already on, I’d already been shifted to the Royal Naval Hospital at Chatham for despatch. And it was the old Naval physical standard.
CB: So, when your parents knew about your brother’s death, Joy —
JC: Pardon?
CB: When your parents knew about your brother’s death.
JC: Yes.
CB: What happened next?
JC: Well, we heard that, my father got on the phone to the, to the vicar in Buckinghamshire and asked him to find out some news. This young curate, eighteen, nineteen, no he would be about twenty. Twenty years old. He went to Westcott and requested an interview and was told, they said they wanted a letter. Well, actually my parents were very happy when they got this letter which is dated the 9th of January. But what they didn’t know was that every one of that, every one of the aircrew got the same letter. I mean actually lettered the same letter. I mean this must have been the standard letter one or two because we’ve seen it mentioned in the New Zealand papers. So, my father, all the other members of the crew, the five members were buried at Westcott.
CB: At Botley.
JC: Nearby. My father arranged, my father was church warden of our church and he arranged that my brother would have [pause] my brother would be buried at, from the funeral in his own church. My parents were Christian. Church of England. I’d say fairly strict Christian people but were very good people. Very, very good people. They, all the way through the war they entertained next to the church. Our family church was the Kent Royal Regiment’s Headquarters at Sandy Lane, Maidstone and every Sunday we entertained soldiers. And these soldiers were collected at church. I think the word got around, ‘Go to church on Sunday morning and Mr and Mrs Wenham will invite you to lunch,’ because we had a procession of soldiers and my father would write letters for them, because lots of soldiers were illiterate. My father would write letters. My mother mended them their socks, knitted their things for them. So they, they were very good people. They weren’t [pause] how do you put it? I don’t think they showed their grief apart, my mother became very quiet. She, she must have talked to my father about it. She must have told to him she didn’t want to stay. And as soon as we’d married within a year they’d sold the business which was due to be, my father had always hoped that John would follow in his business but that was no longer possible. And they, they sold everything up and moved to Hastings. Although my father at that stage was only borderline retirement and he went on to work for a further twenty years, but he really didn’t know what else to do with himself.
CB: So after the, after the funeral.
JC: Yes.
CB: The funeral was in the church at Maidstone.
JC: No. No. The funeral in the church was absolutely full of people. There was standing at the back. We all went and there were six airmen who carried the hearse, and we all went by transport of some sort to the Maidstone Cemetery. The military cemetery attached to Maidstone Cemetery and we had another service at the graveside and we had the Last Post and it’s the one bit of music I cannot abide. But it was snowing. Snowing again. Afterwards we went back to my parent’s home and his close relations were there and our neighbours and people from the church and we all had afternoon tea provided by my mother. Two of the airmen came up to, to my father and said that it made life easier to know that people could be so sensible over the loss of family they, they just thought that the fact that my mother had baked all these cakes for them eased the problem. It didn’t, did it? But so they all came back and then the men, we’d no idea they, I seem to remember I didn’t speak to them an awful lot but I seem to remember that, that they weren’t close members of [pause] they weren’t colleagues. They didn’t actually know my brother. Perhaps they had a special job, ‘Your turn’s come up,’ you know.
CB: They were representing the RAF.
JC: RAF. Yeah. Representatives of the RAF.
CB: Were, were they ground crew or aircrew? Do you remember whether they were —
JC: The men? I’ve no idea. No. No idea at all. But they spent the whole afternoon and part of the evening with us. And we didn’t know. We had no idea. I think that my father must have known that the New Zealanders were involved, but apart from that I don’t think my mother and father knew anything about these airmen.
CB: The other five were buried at the —
JC: Hmm?
CB: The other five were buried at the Military Cemetery at Botley.
JC: Yes. Yes, and there are pictures.
CB: Oxford.
JC: In it. In Sue Chaplain’s book.
CB: So when did you find out details of the crash?
JC: Oh, well that was when I belonged, I joined the U3A in Luton about ten years ago, I suppose. And I joined the family history group because I’d got an awful lot of pictures and things of Maidstone and that’s my that’s —
CB: Did you —
JC: That’s Maidstone. London Road, Maidstone. Sharp’s Toffee Factory Headquarters. That was the Sports Club.
Other: That was a Sports Club.
JC: And that house was built by my great grandfather.
Other: That’s right.
CB: Now —
JC: There he is.
CB: Just —
JC: And there she is.
Other: Listen. Listen, Chris is saying something.
JC: Hmmn?
CB: Just quickly, just —
JC: Yes. So, that —
CB: You didn’t know from the end of the war, well January ’45, until ten years ago are you saying you did not know how the crash had occurred?
JC: No. No. No, it wasn’t —
CB: And —
JC: It wasn’t mentioned. And I, I believe I’m positive that my father and mother, or my father never knew that. How the plane had crashed. I think he would have talked to us, don’t you?
CB: Did, where, when your own children were born did that cause your parents to wonder how their son, your brother had died?
JC: I don’t somehow think it did. We weren’t [pause] we weren’t actually living close to them. But Christopher the oldest was born when my husband was in Germany and my husband didn’t see Chris until he was nearly eight weeks old.
CB: Right.
JC: Graham was born, and his father had just had a heart attack so myself and Christopher and baby Graham we couldn’t go back. We were, we were living with my father in law. We couldn’t go back there. We had to catch a train and go to Maidstone where my mother took over.
CB: But your parents weren’t prompted to recall.
JC: No.
CB: The death.
JC: No.
CB: Do you think they had —
JC: No.
CB: Accepted that they would never find out or they were pushing it to the back of their minds?
JC: I don’t know. I can’t think. I really can’t think what —
CB: I think we’ll have a pause there.
[recording paused]
CB: We’ve talked about your perception of your parent’s attitude and the fact that they didn’t really talk about it but when your parents moved up here to the Luton area and settled here they had pictures, family pictures in the house did they? And how did they explain that?
JC: My parents.
CB: Yes.
Other: Yeah. They didn’t.
JC: My parents never lived in Luton.
Other: Luton.
CB: Oh, they didn’t.
Other: No. We lived together.
CB: No.
Other: We lived together after my parents, my grandparents moved to Hastings. My father my mother and us moved to Somerset to his parents and we were born and brought up in Somerset. So they never lived, we lived together.
CB: Ok.
Other: In Somerset. My grandparents then moved to Somerset so the whole family were in Somerset.
CB: Ok. So, I’m trying to focus on the pictures that your, your parents, Joy had in their house.
JC: Well, they had —
CB: They had pictures of your brother.
JC: My mother’s, my mother’s brother in law, her eldest sister’s husband was a photographer. A private. Made his own, hung his own things across the —
CB: For drying them.
Other: Plates.
JC: The negatives. And developed his own, and this was my mother’s and she had another one and she was very proud of the fact that they were always taking photographs and putting them in this book.
CB: But what I meant was in the house.
JC: In the house.
CB: Did they have pictures and how did they explain?
JC: Yes. Inside the house you mean.
CB: Yes. And what, how did they explain the picture of your brother?
JC: I don’t, I don’t think they needed to explain because —
CB: If they were asked.
JC: Because my brother was so much a part of, of the tight little family that there was then in Maidstone.
CB: Yes.
JC: That we all attended all the family dos. My father wasn’t very happy about it because they would drink, and they would have a singsong around the, around the, around the piano but my father wasn’t very keen on that and neither was my mother. But we all met together and I think my father was, you would describe him as the steady one of the family wouldn’t you? He was the one who, who worked hard and bought his own house.
CB: Yes.
JC: And he bought his sister a house because she was a complete invalid and any family trouble they went to my father, and my brother grew up in that. They didn’t have to talk about him because he was part of it.
CB: Yes. I’ve got that. What I was trying to get at was after the war.
JC: Yeah.
CB: After the war.
JC: After the war.
CB: There would be pictures in the house and your children —
JC: There was always a picture of my brother.
CB: Yes.
JC: Yes. There isn’t one in my house because I decided that that we’ve always got our poppy and we always talk about him but I, we’ve got three great grandsons. Nine, twelve and twelve. And although they came to, they were there at, at the parish meeting. You know. The church.
CB: In North Marston. Yes.
JC: They came to them all but I was, I was delighted. The two didn’t come up from Bath because it was a long way. No, but my, Sue’s daughter brought Woody who is now twelve. He came and he was a good boy. He enjoyed it and he, he, you know, took part. But apart from that I think on the whole that we, we don’t talk about it but they all have four of these books.
CB: Yes.
JC: This is the first book one. And then each one. We did it because in 1986 my husband had to leave the Civil Service because he was a driving examiner and he was injured in three work accidents.
CB: Right.
JC: And couldn’t, couldn’t undertake doing eight or nine emergency stops every, every day.
CB: Yeah.
JC: And he worked for Brian’s family and, but we, we, I was having to make the decision to carry on working.
CB: Yeah.
JC: Because otherwise we, you know we couldn’t manage to pay the mortgage etcetera and it was, it was [pause] oh, I don’t quite know how you would explain it but we felt a bit as if we were the bottom of the pile. All our children were successful. They were all running their own businesses except for Richard in Canada who worked in a furniture store. But all the rest were very successful and we felt that our grandchildren were growing up thinking of us as these were poor relations down the bottom. We didn’t have this and we didn’t have that, you know. We didn’t have lots of things. And so I sat down not thinking in, in 1986, three weeks before Christmas I wrote that book in my lunch hour at work.
CB: Right.
JC: Straight on to the typewriter. Straight on to the photocopier.
CB: Yeah.
JC: At the Post Office.
CB: Right.
JC: We had no other equipment. And it was to try and show them that we didn’t all have all these wonderful trips to America. One of them had been off in Concorde. That we didn’t live that way.
CB: No.
JC: Ours had been a wartime struggle.
CB: Indeed.
JC: And of course there’s that, part of my book was about telling them about my brother.
CB: Right.
JC: So we, we put it in to print for them.
CB: Yes.
JC: And they’ve still got that book.
CB: Right.
Other: Treasure it.
CB: A real treasure.
JC: Reduce them by half.
Other: It’s lovely. A lovely book to read.
CB: Yes. So the reason I asked the question was because so many people after the war, veterans didn’t talk.
JC: No.
CB: About their experiences.
JC: No. True.
CB: And what happens is that grandchildren, children of the children, children don’t, direct children often don’t get the information but the grandchildren sometimes —
JC: Yes.
CB: Elicit the story from their grandparents. So that’s why I was asking about the picture.
JC: Every one of our grandchildren has taken that book to school, haven’t they?
Other: Yeah.
JC: And it’s as I say it’s only half this size.
CB: Yes.
JC: It’s —
CB: It’s A5 size.
JC: A5.
CB: Yeah.
JC: And they still produce it and on occasions and they take, all of them all of them have taken them into school and we heard from the teachers how helpful it’s been.
Other: Helpful.
JC: And Woody’s family, when he was leaving junior, infants [pause] Junior School to go to a Senior Academy they did turning Luton into wartime as an event.
CB: Did they really?
JC: With an evacuee section.
CB: Amazing.
JC: And he used to, he took our book, and they wrote a book for me. His class. Telling me about —
CB: About Luton.
JC: About what they knew about. Yeah.
CB: Yeah. It was a catalyst for wider.
JC: It’s been a real. I wish everyone would do it.
CB: Yeah.
JC: And it did help me. It did help me through going through the U3A. We had a wonderful tutor and she told us, I told her that I had got in the back of my book here the obituaries of my great grandfather, Mr Joe. And my husband’s great grandfather who was a wool merchant. A scrimmage man. And we got them printed from the paper and I showed them to her and in my husband’s book it said that Mr Colbeck’s background were mostly public ministers in the Methodist Church, but one of his great grandfathers fought at Waterloo. So she said to me, ‘Send your money to the Waterloo Society. Three pounds.’ I waited nearly six months for an answer.
CB: Did you?
JC: And the Waterloo Society Man said, ‘We’ve had a reply. Somebody would like to meet you.’ So I said, ‘Well, can I have their number?’ ‘No.’ she said ‘But you, can we give her your number?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And so I met my husband’s cousin. No. Yes. My husband’s second cousin. A lady in Lancashire where the family came from. Or Yorkshire. And they invited me to meet the family and I was the only relative left and it was incredible.
CB: Extraordinary.
JC: I don’t know. I can’t see that we can be any interest. Any, we haven’t got anything to tell anyone have we?
CB: People are very curious about their history.
JC: Pardon?
CB: People are very curious.
JC: Do you think so?
CB: About their history. Well, that’s why some —
JC: They are?
CB: Well, on the television there are two programmes based on finding out your history.
JC: Yes.
CB: Anyway, I think we’ll stop there. Thank you very much indeed, Joy.
JC: Yes.
CB: For a most interesting interview.
JC: Yes.
CB: To do with —
JC: Yes
CB: The air crash of John Wenham.
JC: Yes.
CB: And the loss of his life.
JC: Yes.
CB: In North Marston.
JC: Yes.
CB: In January 1945.
JC: You’ve got all the rest. It’s wonderful.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Joy Colbeck,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 24, 2024,

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