It was to be a happy and nostalgic event, yet the emotions of the veterans who gathered beneath a Halifax bomber on the outskirts of York were as conflicted as the war they had come to remember.
“You get a sense of the camaraderie and the ribbing between them, but then you see a glint and a reflection in the eye, and you know they’ve drifted off to a memory of a comrade they have lost,” said Ian Richardson, at the Yorkshire Air Museum on what had been RAF Elvington.
The 80 guests yesterday had been veterans of the Second World War, some having witnessed Dunkirk, others D-Day. Now mostly in their 90s, they had been brought together by the charity Age UK and the North Yorkshire branch of Ex-Forces Support. The occasion had been conceived as an opportunity for them to socialise and to remember their National Service.
“It was wonderful to see such a large number of veterans. It’s something that unfortunately is very rare now,” Mr Richardson said.
Among the attendees was Dennis Jackson, from Leeds, who was celebrating his 97th birthday.
He had been a wireless operator and a gunner and had notched up 836 flying hours with 36 Sqdn, one of the RAF’s oldest. He left with a birthday cake.
Another visitor, Tom Carter, from Sheffield, who piloted Typhoon bombers with 263 Sqdn, said: “This was my first time at the museum. It was wonderful meeting new friends and reliving old memories.”
John James Bowe, an armourer on wartime Spitfires, said he had had “a wonderful time” and regretted only that it had passed so quickly.
The charity said the veterans “enjoy the company of others who understand the lives they lived in the forces, which some happily recount, while others still find too difficult”.
Mr Richardson said: “This memorial museum has long been a place where veterans and their relatives from all over Britain and indeed all the Allied nations from where aircrews originated, can come and reflect on the service and sacrifice of so many in the cause of freedom from tyranny of any guise.”
Hilary Thompson, who helped to organise the event for Age UK, said: “Most of our veterans served in the Second World War or immediately after it. They have stories to tell and enjoy still getting out and about when they can.
“We cannot begin to understand how life was for them, and it is a huge privilege to work with them.”
Yesterday’s guests, who were treated to lunch and shown footage compiled specially by the Yorkshire Film Archive, had the big banks to thank for their hospitality, though not through any corporate largesse. The Yorkshire veterans’ project which Age UK helps to administer has been funded by the Ministry of Defence with cash from the Treasury’s Libor Fund, which consists of fines levied on financial institutions for fixing their interest rates.
The project has supported more than 600 veterans to date, and Ms Thompson said yesterday’s event had been “ an opportunity to highlight that there is help for veterans who served their country when they need it, both from Age UK and the Forces charities”.
The Halifax under which they posed was younger than any of them, having been reconstructed from parts of other aircraft. The wings came from RAF Catterick but the fuselage had been a hen coop on the Isle of Lewis, where it had crash landed, until it was rescued.