What did you do in the war, Daddy?

Cecil Blacker was a tank major, decorated for gallantry in the Second World War. But like many of his generation, he never spoke to his family of the harrowing events he witnessed, and Terence Blacker only discovered how war - and peace - affected him by reading his father's letters after his death
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There will be speeches, gatherings on the beach at Normandy, the minute's silence. Already, a great fly-past of sombre, memorialising television documentaries has begun. The next few days will provide the majority of us, members of the pampered post-war generations, the opportunity to pay tribute to those who fought in the D-Day campaign at a moment in our history when none of the things we now take for granted were certain.

There will be speeches, gatherings on the beach at Normandy, the minute's silence. Already, a great fly-past of sombre, memorialising television documentaries has begun. The next few days will provide the majority of us, members of the pampered post-war generations, the opportunity to pay tribute to those who fought in the D-Day campaign at a moment in our history when none of the things we now take for granted were certain.

The few remaining survivors will meet to remember their dead comrades, but I suspect that their reminiscences of those days will remain among themselves. War can be an oddly secretive business, the details of which those who have experienced it often prefer to keep to themselves. The comic cliché of the war bore, a whiskery old fool who is forever droning on about fighting the Boche - Buster in Only Fools and Horses, for example - is, as almost anyone who has had a serviceman in the family will know, a convenient inaccuracy.

My father was 27 when he landed on a Normandy beach in his Sherman tank as part of the D-Day invasion. A major in the 23rd Hussars, he was commanding C Squadron, a unit that consisted of four troops of four tanks each. Over the next few weeks and months, he was to see many of his friends die or be horrifically wounded, was engaged in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, won himself a medal for gallantry and ended up commanding his regiment. The four years in which he trained and then fought with the 23rd Hussars were, he later wrote, "the most rewarding military experience of my life".

Yet this unimaginably huge event in his young life was never discussed at home. My father had an almost fetishistic dislike of looking back, preferring to concentrate on what lay ahead, but, even in this context, the degree to which discussion of the war was kept out of bounds was, now I look back on it, unusual. Occasionally a chance remark might slip out - he once mentioned that he would never return to northern France, for it brought back too many bad memories - but further questions were stonily deflected.

Not that there were many questions. For those born just after the war, the events that happened between 1939 and 1945 were not fascinating; the war was simply something that overshadowed our childhood in a vague, unmentionable way. When, eventually, films appeared, recounting the great stories from the struggle for which we were all meant to be so grateful, the whole thing became helpfully fictional. It was easier to associate John Mills or Jack Hawkins, with their clipped accents and modest heroism, with the battle for freedom than it was to imagine Dad, his fellow officers or soldiers, in the role.

With middle age, I found that the second-hand versions and silences were no longer quite enough. As part of the only 20th-century generation of men not to have faced the possibility of fighting for their country, I began to wonder more about the war, and with the inevitable egocentric subtext: how would I have done? Would I have measured up? I was not alone: it was at about this time that middle-aged novelists turned their thoughts and words to modern war, with such novels as Birdsong, Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Atonement.

It began to seem personal, the silence of the soldiers - or at least of the soldier that I knew best. My father wrote well and movingly about the war years in his 1993 memoir Monkey Business (his nickname throughout adult life was "Monkey") but that was for the record, for history, not for us. I wondered whether the reason for not talking about those years was more than simply to do with the pain of memory. What had those of us who followed the war generation done with the famous freedom that they had won with their blood? Soft-skinned, well-fed and untested, we must surely have seemed pathetic with our little struggles and emotional traumas and life crises. How paltry our tiny achievements must have appeared when set against what had come before. That determined separation between family and memories of the war began to feel like a reproach.

My father died in 2002. Recently, I have been reading his letters from the time, which he kept in a small leather bag in his desk. Some were from him, to his grandmother and parents, some from soldiers, wounded back in England, and a fair number are from the bereaved parents to whom he had written in 1944. I was looking, I suppose, for the man my father was before peace, and then family life, broke out.

"On the whole I am rather disappointed in the average British 19-year-old," Major Blacker, then aged 26, wrote to his grandmother in May 1942. "They seem so soft and don't appear to have any interest or enthusiasm in anything either in or out of the Army. My belief is they were so strictly brought up by their own parents and boys were treated so rough in those days that the reaction has been to molly-coddle these boys."

His frustration was understandable. The year before, in a dashing and ambitious move, he had left his own august cavalry regiment, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, with whom he had already served in France and been evacuated at Dunkirk, and had, with his friend and senior officer Lt-Col Perry Harding, joined a regiment that had only just been formed. With no tradition or infrastructure, the 23rd Hussars was recruiting from all walks of life and from all ages up to men in their forties. "They were," my father later wrote, "a cross-section of Great Britain at war - unmilitary, peace-loving, not motivated by any burning zeal - indeed, far from keen to expose themselves to danger but united in a resigned determination to do whatever they were asked to do as well as they could." Ninety-five per cent of those who were to fight in Normandy in 1944 had been civilians until three years before.

Two chapters in my father's book recount, with pride in his men and humility in regard to himself, how these former civvies, including the molly-coddled youths who had so dismayed him in 1942, landed shortly after D-Day and took part with considerable distinction in the great battles for Normandy. The 11th Armoured Division, of which they were part, incurred heavier losses than any other armoured division of the Second Army. "It seems that medals are 'ten a penny' in the 23rd Hussars," a Corporal Baird wrote from his hospital bed to my father later in the year. "Won't I be able to tell the young Bairds a tale when, in due course, they are issued with history books at school?"

None of the horrors of what he was experiencing, naturally enough, was contained in my father's letters home. "We have had a pretty strenuous time and have certainly done our share of work," he wrote to his grandmother after the 11th Armoured Division's first major engagement of the campaign.

The strenuous time had seen the 23rd Hussars leading the division behind the 15th Scottish Infantry in a concerted attempt to break out of the beachhead, cutting off the defenders of Caen from the south-west. The battle had started badly with the discovery, outside a village called Cheux, of massive casualties from the Scottish infantry division, the first of many, who had been mown down as they advanced. Later, my father watched as a brigade reinforcement unit, led by his friend Bob Clark, had advanced up the notorious hill known as Point 112, then held by a battalion of the 12th SS Panzer Division "Hitler Jugend", and being utterly destroyed. Picking up the survivors, my father found Clark with both his legs blown off and dying. "There was nothing I could do," he wrote later.

Over the next few days, those in the tanks regiment learnt a few uncomfortable truths about their latest theatre of war. The landscape, known as bocage, consisted of small fields between high banks on which thick hedges grew and meant that ambushes were a sudden threat and the tank formations, agreed by those used to war in the desert, impossible to maintain. The Sherman tanks of the British were not only less powerful than the German Tigers but were also quickly revealed to be what were known as "quick brewers". The most common form of injury was severe burns suffered by those unable to escape from their tanks in time.

At one point during the battle, my father seems to have taken matters into his own hands. As the 15th Scottish battled inconclusively around a village called Mondainville, C Squadron were asked to take a bridge over the River Odon held by the Germans. This, essentially, involved rushing it, piercing the enemy lines and establishing a position in the countryside beyond so that the rest of the regiment could make its way over the bridge. The dash through German lines earnt my father the Military Cross, a fact that he characteristically omits ever to mention in Monkey Business.

After the battle, there was a sense of exhilaration, even as the troops buried their dead. "We found this entirely natural," he wrote later. "It was caused partly by relief that we had been spared, but mainly because at last - at long last - we had proved ourselves... As I walked round the crews to say 'well done', their normal manner of humorous diffidence was touched by an almost arrogant self-confidence."

Worse times lay ahead. Before the launch of Operation Goodwood, a desperate combined offensive involving three armoured divisions, my father was devastated to be told that he should give up the command of C Squadron - "his beloved squadron", as his mother put it in a letter to her mother - to become second-in-command of the regiment, a promotion of sorts but seen then as "almost a non-job".

A few days later, ordered to capture a hamlet called Four, C Squadron was attacked on all sides by fire from German Tiger tanks with horrific casualties, including the death of Major Bill Sebbeare, a friend of my father's who had taken his place in command. With medi- cal services badly swamped, the 70 wounded and badly burnt were stranded overnight. "The gallantry of the wounded, with the less serious ministering to those with terrible burns and injuries fills me with deep emotion to this day," he wrote later.

The pages of his book are full of scenes of unimaginable courage, pain and violence but oddly it is one of relative peace that has stayed with me. After Operation Goodwood, the 11th Armoured Division, which had been reduced to a third of its tank strength, was withdrawn to prepare for the third and last of their great Normandy battles. There, sitting in an apple orchard, Major Blacker wrote to the families of the bereaved of C Squadron and to those, badly wounded, who were being transported to hospital in England.

Among the replies, received a few months later, is one from Corporal Baird, who had been dragged, badly burned and shot up, from his tank. "You asked in your letter, sir, if there was anything you could do. May I take the advantage of that offer and ask if you can get me back should I make the grade required?... I shan't ever be able to face the tanks again, somehow my nerve has gone - I know that. Nevertheless, I want to be with the boys again, and if possible, when the time arrives, to be discharged from my own 'mob' - the 23rd Hussars!"

How can any of us compete with that? After the war, my father went on to live a full life of high accomplishment, remaining in the Army and retiring as Adjutant General, but there was maybe always part of him back in that orchard in Normandy. Reading his letters now, I can see clearly why, for him and maybe for many others, family life was a paler, less engaging, more dutiful thing than the intense comradeship experienced at war. "It has been very exciting at times, also very frightening," my father wrote to his grandmother in early July 1944. "On the whole, it has been most inspiring to do something which will be history one day."

Despite the horrors and the waste, there is something to be envied there, and also something sad. For, while there is obviously no real comparison with what was suffered and achieved by those extraordinary heroes of 1944, there were losses too for future generations on those beaches and in the fields and lanes of Normandy.

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