Bill Carmichael: A generation of modest heroes

WHEN I was a teenager, I read The Cruel Sea, by Nicholas Monsarrat, about a group of Royal Navy officers serving on a corvette in the Second World War.

Curious to know if the novel was an accurate portrayal of life on a warship, I asked my dad, who had also served on the Atlantic convoys – although as a stoker rather than an officer. He cut me short. It wasn’t worth talking about, he said. Books and films always made war out to be interesting and exciting, but the truth was it was boring and miserable.

Didn’t I have anything better to do than to read silly stories about those awful, best forgotten, times?

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

This was a bit unfair on Monsarrat perhaps, but my dad’s attitude typified many who fought against Hitler and the earlier generation that defeated the Kaiser.

Those terrible conflicts clearly made a huge impression on their young lives, but back on Civvy Street the topic quickly became taboo as they struggled to rebuild relationships and raise families.

I was reminded of my dad yesterday when reading of the sad death, aged 110, of the last World War l combat veteran.

Claude Choules, joined the Royal Navy at 15, served on HMS Revenge during the war and then moved to Australia, where he served in the military until 1956. Mr Choules in old age became a pacifist who refused to march in the annual Anzac Day commemoration march.

My dad was no pacifist, but he too refused to march. He gave his medals for the grandchildren to play with. On Remembrance Sunday he’d watch from a distance as the wreaths were laid on the town war memorial, before slipping away for a pint with his mates at the Royal Naval Association club.

But then, shortly before his death, and after 60 years of steadfastly refusing to discuss his wartime service, my dad suddenly felt the need to unburden himself and came out with a fund of fascinating and sometimes terrible stories.

One incident in particular affected him; a depth charge attack on a German U-Boat in the Bay of Biscay in 1944. As the stricken craft reached the surface, my dad’s ship moved alongside and managed to rescue 35 of the crew, but the last five, including the captain, went down with the boat.

The sight of those poor men waiting on the ladder as the waves closed over them was something that remained with my dad until the end of his days. With Mr Choules’ passing, we say farewell to the men who fought First World War, and the veterans of the Second World War are well into their 80s. Let’s pay tribute to this remarkable and overwhelmingly modest generation before it’s too late.

Beyond a joke

After a lifetime of listening, I’ve finally given up on the BBC’s Radio 4.

The once influential Today programme is now a lightweight, dumbed down joke and PM must be the smuggest show in history.

But what has finally done it for me is the nightly “comedy” slot featuring a succession of dreary, clapped out Left-wing whingers. I’ve had enough of Marcus Brigstocke, Mark Thomas, Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel ranting on about Israel and global warming. But even though I’ve switched off, I’m still paying the salaries of these “alternative” comedians through the licence fee.

That’s the biggest issue facing the new chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten – why should people who don’t use the BBC be forced to fund it through a £145.50 a year compulsory tax on owning a television set?

In the digital age, this is simply untenable.

As the genuinely funny Jeremy Paxman pointed out, it is a bit like taxing people for owning a washing machine in order to fund the manufacture of Persil.