Interview with Janet Denny


Interview with Janet Denny


Talks about her father and her research into his life for her book 'The Man on the Mantelpiece'. Originally a pacifist, he later volunteered and served as a bomb aimer in Bomber Command. Janet talks bout her journey discovering her father’s time in the RAF and his feelings about bombing, including his friends in Germany.



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00:13:52 Audio Recording

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[Other]: All yours.
JD: That means start.
DE: Yes!
JD: My name is Janet Denny and my father was in Bomber Command, but he had quite an unusual story because he began the war as a committed pacifist. [Interference] I never knew him because he was shot down and lost on the very day that I was born and so he was always just a [\interference] photograph on the mantlepiece of my childhood home and I always knew he was a hero, but I didn’t ask very much about him because I didn’t want to upset my mother and my grandparents, and it wasn’t until my mother remarried after she had been a widow for twenty seven years, that I discovered some really interesting books and these were the diaries that my father had written in World War Two. And at the time I had small children, I was busy, so I put them away and thought I’d read them again later. And in fact I didn’t read them until forty years later, when I was myself by then a widow and I’d lost my eldest son, so I was feeling a bit bereft and I thought maybe this man in these diaries, my father, could help me through this horrible period in my life. It turned out he did, very much, because I read the diaries and I quite enjoy writing and I’d been on various writing holidays, and courses and so on, and anyway the top and bottom of it is, I decided to write a book about him. This is the book, which is called ‘The Man on the Mantelpiece’, because that’s what he was to me; he was just a photograph on a mantelpiece. And I needed to find out why he changed from being a pacifist into volunteering for Bomber Command. Now he was a very, he had very left wing political ideals as an eighteen year old. He was very intelligent, well read, but he came from a working class family. His parents had very little education, well, practically illiterate, but he won a scholarship to a grammar school and I think that wass where he was inspired to expand his range of thinking and reading, and he adopted these pacifist ideas. Anyway, this diary, which he keeps for the first month of the war, when he’s expounding his ideals and his beliefs and then it stops. And then two years later he starts another diary and he has volunteered for Bomber Command, and he’s married my mother, a childhood sweetheart in the meantime. So I had a mystery to solve: why did he change his mind? I was very lucky when I was reading this book in that my mother and my uncle, my father’s younger brother, were still alive and very interested and helpful. My mother actually couldn’t really tell me why he changed his mind. She said, well dear we didn’t really talk about things like that, which I found very irritating. Mum, why didn’t you, you’re an intelligent woman, why didn’t you talk about things like that, but then I had to remember that this was the 1940s when women held a very different situation in society: she was the little woman, really, at home. But my uncle was more helpful, I think he realised why, it was partly the Blitz, they lived in South East London, they lived through the Blitz, and my mother, my father found this very affecting, but it wasn’t only that: I think it was also because Hitler turned his face towards Russia and was going to invade Russia. Now Russia, to left leaning young men in the 1930s, was an icon of a good society. I do often wonder how my father’s views might have changed, had he lived, but at the time, yes, Russia was the ideal and the thought that Hitler was to going to invade Russia I think was the thing that really sparked my father into fighting. Well, I was able to follow him through his, all his training, eighteen months of training for Bomber Command. First he thought he was going to be a pilot and then for health reasons he wasn’t, he was demoted to a bomb aimer. Now, this was extra hard for my father because just before the war, the summer of 1939, he’d been visiting his dear pen friend in the Ruhr Valley in Germany, and he had promised his German friends that he would do nothing [emphasis] to harm them, or their country, and here he was as a bomb aimer and likely to be dropping his bombs on the very area where his friends lived. That must have been very tough. I follow him right through, following his diaries, and then I visited the places where he trained and compared life now and then. It was absolutely fascinating for me and I felt all the time that I was gradually discovering my father – very exciting! And anyway, I decided that I really wanted to write about this. First of all I was just going to write a few pages, and transcribe the diaries, add a few comments of my own, staple the pages together for my family. But then on a writing course I was encouraged by a tutor to take it more seriously and I went off and I did an MA in Creative Writing and they, very kindly, the markers gave me a Distinction and said I really must publish this. So that is how the book came about. Now in his diaries, my father says, there’s one section, where he’s, before he’s joined up, when he’s a clerk in a sugar factory, and he says, “Oh, I must be creative, I must write a book, build a house, do something creative,” and he says: “oh Lord help me! Cause I am a clerk,” and then another section when he says he really wants to live his whole span of life so that he can see his children – he’s talking about me – so that he can see his children, see if they are men or women, see if they are great or little and see if they are artists, and he says: “Let there be artists!” Well, I am doing my best to carry on the tradition. He himself was a writer and I have scraps of his writing, but not many unfortunately. Then another section in his diary he says, that, he said, “I really want to live my whole span of life, and I must survive, I will [emphasis] survive,” he says, “but if I don’t, well maybe those who are dear to me will like to keep this diary and find me still living in these pages.” Well, I feel quite jubilant that I have [emphasis] found him in those pages, and I hope others may find him in the pages of this book I’ve written, so, and I feel, at the end of the book I talk about, I talk to my father and I tell him how life is today and how his sacrifice and the sacrifice of all those other lives that were laid down, not only in Bomber Command, but throughout the world, actually on both sides of the conflict, how they have really benefited me and my generation, and future generations, because I have been able enjoy the benefits of post-war Britain. I had a very good free education, I had the benefits of a free National Health Service and I feel that really my generation is a very blessed one, thanks to his [emphasis] generation. Enough?
DE: Absolutely wonderful! Thank you very much. Is it okay if I just ask you a couple of questions?
JD: Of course.
DE: How do you feel about the way Bomber Command has been remembered?
JD: Well, I think it’s very sad that Bomber Command has not [emphasis] been at the forefront of our remembrances since the end of World War Two. I do understand the reasons, you know, the carpet bombing was very controversial and still is, I suppose, and within Bomber Command itself people had different views. In his diary my father talks about a conversation that he has with a veteran of World War One who tells him and his colleague when you get over Berlin, you know, just annihilate it and his colleague says yes of course we will, whereas my father says I couldn’t agree and he’s drawing back from that, it’s his pacifist conscience coming through. But, in recent years of course we’ve had the Memorial in London, which is lovely, but it is just a memorial with wonderful statues, but it doesn’t tell the story of Bomber Command and that’s why this project here is so exciting, because it does tell the story of exactly what happened and how these young men, and they were such young men, such young men, and the losses were so [emphasis] great, but it made such an enormous contribution to that victory, that we really must celebrate it.
DE: Smashing, thank you. Listen, I think we’ve got exactly what we need, thank you. I’m just, probably not able to, it fascinates me that the motive he had for leaving his first job was because he didn’t want to be part of a total war, and then the motive for joining the RAF was because he wanted to be part of the total war.
JD: Yes, I know. It was a complete turnaround, but so many people must have had that struggle, I think, you know, and I think it, that’s why I’m quite pleased, and people have said to me that this is an important book, because it does show that people had that struggle, okay some, like a lot of my father’s friends, who were pacifists, remained pacifists, but as he says, he admires them terrifically for standing out for their beliefs and of course they did their part. They were down the mines as Bevan Boys, or they driving ambulances, or you know, they were doing their bit for the war effort without actually [emphasis] fighting, so they were just as important.
DE: The struggle, it comes across in the book and now you’ve drawn a portrait of your father as a rounded character who has his flaws and his good points and I think it’s absolutely smashing.
JD: Well thank you, I’m really pleased to have written the book and I hope that lots of people are able to read it and gain something from it.
DE: Smashing, thank you.
JD: Good. Right.



Janet Denny and Dan Ellin, “Interview with Janet Denny,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 4, 2023,

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