J: Could you tell me a bit about his background? Converted a studio above the garages. Sounded reasonably grand.
D: I didn’t know him then. Not very grand. His people were middle class people like you and me. They lived in Hampton and his father was quite old when Dennis was born, about 50 I should think, and so that he was the youngest son of the family and fairly oldish parents. And he went to Repton to school. Repton is a public school near Derby. And from there he went to the Royal Academy Schools in Bentonhurst[?] with a scholarship. And he was an arts student there when war broke out. He’d done about two years there.
J: He was on a scholarship?
D: I think they only take scholars there. It’s how it works. He was very gifted. He was always terribly interested in aviation. And he’d already got a civil pilots license before 1939. And he flew off his ++, which he enjoyed very much. Sounded dangerous to me but I suppose was great fun. So as soon as war broke out he went off and signed up with the RAF to fly.
J: It sounds from the book as if he had a bit of soul-searching about the whole thing?
D: Well he did. A great friend of his at the RA Schools was a nephew of Sybil Thorndike who was a great actress at that time. She was very well known. And she was a great one for what was then called the Peace Pledge Union – a bit like the CND – and Dennis and his friend Stephen joined this in the 1930s, but as with so many young when war starts then immediately all that flies out of the window and you think well I must go and do my bit. Which he did. And joined up. But things were just about as well organized at that time as the National Health Service is now. Because it took 6 months before they got these young chaps off to do their flying training. As a result it was I suppose Easter 1940 before he went out to Zimbabwe – what was then Rhodesia – for six months flying training. He had a wonderful time out there. And not surprisingly passed out top of the class because he was about the only one who knew how to fly already. And came back here. He missed the Battle of Britain, of course. But he was with the squadron by the end of 1940. As you probably know they had to do a lot of operational training before they actually joined a squadron. Which he did. I met him in the summer of 1941 when he was up in Lincolnshire flying with the squadron there. And about a fortnight after I met him he was sent down to Biggin Hill, to 609 squadron.
J: What circumstances did you meet?
D: We met at a dance at the RAF mess. I won’t bore you with the details but it was quite entertaining. I was never introduced to him, put it that way. Anyway, he went straight off down to Biggin Hill. And he was with the most interesting squadron. 609 was the West Riding Auxiliary Squadron. You know there were there were a lot of territorial squadrons, really they were from different parts of the world and there were University ones as well of-course. Dennis had tried to join one before the war but they wouldn’t have him because he had migraines. Curiously enough he never ever had one again. Completely stopped. Just an adolescent thing you see.
J: So it must have been quite hard to see him?
D: Well yes it was. I was working up there. Because I was a student at the Royal College of Music. Actually when war broke out I’d just started there. But you couldn’t really do that sort of thing very much. I was there through 1940 and through the Blitz and my parents were worried about it and so I went up to Lincolnshire. My father was a regular soldier and was commanding the anti-aircraft brigade on the defences of the Humber. Anyway, Dennis used to fly up in his Spitfire and he used to park it in the field beside our house, just over the fence. But he had to be back on dawn readiness next morning so it meant a pretty early start. Anyway, this went on through the end of 1941. One of my father’s staff went down to Biggin Hill and went into the ops room. He saw a solitary little Spitfire taking off from Biggin Hill and making for Kurten Lindsay and he said Oh I think I know why that pilot is going up there, I can tell you his name if you like. Of-course I’m afraid they realised what was going on. And then, of course’ he got orders to go overseas so we thought well lets get married. So we did.
J: Where did you get married?
D: I got married in Lincolnshire at my home. And his best man was another fighter pilot in the same squadron as him. Chap called Alec Atkinson (Sir now, he’s a civil servant).
J: Then he was off to Malta.
D: Then he was off to Malta, in April 1942. And you know all about that because you’ve read the book.
J: Obviously delighted for him to come back safe and sound?
D: He was jolly lucky actually.
J: When did you first hear he was coming back?
D: He just turned up. Ah you’re back. Looking an absolutely wreck I can tell you. Wearing his tropical kit. He hadn’t eaten anything for about three months because you know they were on half rations. Very thin and very haggard. And that was it. And after that he instructed for quite a bit. And I followed him round whenever possible, and then he went back to operational flying again.
J: Where was the next operational tour then?
D: It was ++. They were supporting groups of ++ with air support.
J: He carried on with Spitfires did he?
D: Yes. I think he flew Mosquitoes a bit. I’m not quite sure.
J: So what happened when war ended?
D: Well you hung about. And you came out when you were allowed to. And you were given a dreadful suit and a hat. It was unbelievable. And Dennis of-course went back to the RA Schools to finish his course. The forces were very good about this. If you’d got stuck half way they’d support you to go back or if you wanted to go to college they’d pay for you. An awful lot of people went to University as mature students after the war, paid for by the forces, and quite right too. He found it very difficult. But, I mean, it isn’t easy in your late 20s, married with family by then to go back among the 18 year olds as a mature student. But a lot of other people did it. And he did a spot of art school teaching, and then became art master of D[?] college where we stayed for 20 years. Built up a very good art school.
J: Did you enjoy it?
D: It’s a lovely life. We weren’t actually living on campus. Because they never actually had a full time art master in all their a hundred and something years, so we bought ourselves a house, a very nice house, and it was very nice because public school, boarding school life is very pleasant. There you are with a whole lot of contemporaries. Whatever your interest, you’ve got somebody who’s teaching it. They’ve all got young families like us. And you’ve got their tennis courts, their swimming pool, their everything you know. Very, very pleasant life.
J: Did you make the most of the holidays and go away and things?
D: Oh yes, we went away a lot. And Dennis was lecturing on architecture a great deal because that was his big interest and so we spent our holidays looking at and photographing whatever he was going to lecture on the next time.
J: Did he lecture at the school or elsewhere?
D: Both. So I mean we went and looked at French Romanesque Cathedrals and bits of Italian ruin or Baroque churches in Southern Germany or whatever it might have been. And it was lovely really because it made very interesting summer holidays. We did that most years.
J: Did he have favourite artists and architects that he admired?
D: Oh yes, but he was pretty Catholic in his tastes. And of-course he painted a lot all the time. And he exhibited quite a bit.
J: Mainly up in London?
D: London. Well we were living in London so it was very convenient.
J: When did you come down here?
D: Well he was ill and had a horrible operation. He had a brain tumour and he had to give his job up. And I didn’t come here, I went to Dorset. And lived in a pleasant quiet Dorset village for quite a long time, and he died while we were down there. And I stayed on quite a bit because I was teaching at Bryanston School. I’m a musician as you probably gathered, and I was on their music staff, and I stayed down there really until I retired and then I came here. So I haven’t been here all that long. I was lucky, one of my sisters lives here. I’ve got lots of relations and friends here.
. [talking about books]
D: I think one of the pleasures about Malta is that you’ve got a little enclosed society there haven’t you. It’s much easier to write about that than a great big broad canvas.
In some ways his time in Malta, well it certainly was the most action-packed time of his whole life. Inevitably.
J: What do you think led him to write the book?
D: He didn’t say. I think it was therapeutic to a certain extent, as you can understand. Because it was a pretty extraordinary time. Can you imagine yourself at 22 or 23 being pushed into that?
J: I find it easy to relate to him because I can see I might have reacted in a similar way.
D: He writes like a painter doesn’t he though? I wasn’t quite sure. I typed it for him. I corrected his awful spelling. Don’t put that in! My children would kill me. None of them can spell and I can.
I knew very well John Bisdee who was his Squadron Leader, who died about 18 months ago, awfully nice man. But he was an old, old man of about 26 at the time you see which made such a difference. He had finished at Cambridge, got a job with Unilevers. He was man, the others were boys.
J: You said he was the youngest son. Did he have siblings then?
D: He had two sisters. Both dead.
J: I wanted to ask you about his diary.
D: Maybe you’d like to have a look at what I’ve got in the way of books on the subject.
He was a very good looking chap. About six foot, and very good looking. With lots of lovely black hair. And a very athletic sort of chap. Skated magnificently.
He refused to wear a collar and tie, he said it was ridiculous when he was painting. He also said he wouldn’t go to chapel and I think he was about the only person who was brave enough to say that. And another thing which is quite interesting Dennis ran the CCF RAF bit. And he got them a primary glider and used to take the boys up and teach them how to glide. Frightfully dangerous but he loved it. Dennis used to do gliding after the war you see. He used to go to Lasham and do it. I went up with him in a two-seater once. Very scary. Actually it was lovely. It was like sailing. Just you and the wind.
J: You were saying that Dennis refused to go to chapel, there’s quite a lot of things about god and religion in the book?
D: Didn’t like organized religion. I don’t know why.
J: I was going to ask you was he religious beforehand and was it spoilt by the war?
D: No, I don’t think so. His parents were terribly conventional in that way. I think you take any family like his and it’s taken as a matter of course that you go to church every Sunday and you dress up decently for it and all that stuff. And then, of course, Repton again, you have your chapel and you have to go. RAF again, you’ve got to go and people are, as Dennis said, passing dirty postcards round the back row and he felt it was right not to go. He didn’t like the organized part of it. I think he was a deeply religious man but not a dogmatic man. Very wide in his readings and thoughts.
J: He ponders a lot in the book about what it all means.
D: Well so would you if you were up against life and death every day. An awful lot of people didn’t but I think probably more than one suspects, because they didn’t talk about it. I mean Dennis talks about it now but I mean it was ten years after the war that he wrote that book.
J: There’s a very touching bit when he’s only been on the island a couple of days and he sees this young pilot walking towards him looking ashen and terrified and he asks what’s wrong and says it’s alright to be scared and the pilot says am I? I thought it was just me. I was talking to a mother of a friend of mine who lost her husband when he was comparatively young and she was talking about it and she said everyone mocks the stiff upper lip now but there was an awful lot to be said for it because it kept her going and its been a real help to her.
D: I think all my generation were brought up that way. Very strongly. And I think to a certain extent that my children, but my grandchildren are now. They’re all grown up now: all in their 20s now.
[talk about Americans in the war]
D: We had Eagle Squadron who were Americans, before America came in the war, at the RAF station in Lincolnshire, which my father’s brigade and the Group Captain of the the army and the airforce shared the ops room up there and it was run jointly by my father and the Group Captain commanding the RAF station. They worked in close cooperation. And I think this was done throughout the country.
J: Were you working throughout the war?
D: No. Well I started off as a music student, as one does. I did all sorts of things. Once Dennis got back from Malta, I was below the age that was conscripted and so I followed him round and did odd jobs wherever he happened to be. Eventually I got pregnant and then after that, of course, I didn’t really want to follow him round to that extent. I went on doing war work. Funny jobs: I would go to the labour exchange and say what’s going? And do it. Can drive, can type. Terribly interesting.