Remembering Flt Lt Bill Astell DFC - and my father
Tuesday 19th November 2019
In the week following Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, I dug out a very special book that was sent to me last year. It is called Casualty of War - Letters home from Flight Lieutenant Bill Astell, DFC. It was conceived, written and compiled by Chris Ward who is a Bomber Command historian and author and has written more than anyone about the wartime history of 617 Squadron, aka The Dambusters.
On May 17th, 2013, I wrote a piece on this blog entitled 617 'Dambuster' Squadron 70th Anniversary In this I talked about the privilege of living in Bill Astell's former home and I feel no different today. The joy of the book I was sent is that I can now place a living, breathing personality into this space that we have both called home.
Chris's book is founded on his research and knowledge as a war historian but, more importantly, from his friendship with Bill's youngest sister, Heather, who was 14 years his junior. Heather was able to provide the photographs and letters that make the book such a profoundly personal tribute to Bill's life and war effort, his career, bravery and skills and, most poignantly, to his ultimate sacrifice. It comes with a health warning for the sensitive as there are many elements in his letters which are a far cry from the world we live in now so it would be unfair for him to be judged based on current social mores. Instead it should be seen as a window into a different world - a world of 76 years ago when there was a very different world vision.
However, as the current incumbent of his beloved home, it is the little scattered snapshots of the family life he left behind that I cherish. Buried in the descriptions of his training and travels and exotic experiences you suddenly get Would you please send me out all my RAF blue shirts and collars, they are all in my chest of drawers, there should be about three. Or, I expect you are in the midst of great preparations for Hen's wedding. I expect it will be great fun, let us hope it is a fine day (vain hope in the Peak District as I've come to understand so well!). While to his little sister Heather he says, I'm so sorry about the blackbird, it was really very naughty of Tinky to eat it. (Just this morning I watched my own cat eat a fat mouse outside the kitchen. Some things never change.) He notes of his other sister, who was going to join the Wrens, It is funny to think of Betty with her hair up. She must look very grown up (the observations of an older sibling on a younger one, just as my own children make on each other). At another point he refers to the height of the cockpit of his Lancaster as being about as high as the nursery window at S.H (S.H being an abbreviation of the name of the house, of course) and, referring to the skull of an antelope he proudly shot while training in Africa, he quips, I will bring it home, whatever happens, and I refuse to have it put in the garage! (the garage is currently full of our own useless objects which no-one knows what to do with)
Family life, it seems, has many constants but in this case it is strange to think that the windows, garages and rooms he refers to are the ones I know so well; that the garden I gaze upon is the same one as where Tinky killed poor blackbird and our own cats prowl, and that the photos in the book could be identical to anything we have taken over the years - including the fact that we have placed a bench, unwittingly, in exactly the same spot under the window on the front terrace as they did and where many a similar family photograph has been taken.
At the end of a letter written to his parents from Egypt in January 1941, his final lines before signing off, are: I am simply bursting for news from you. I have kept an excellent mind-picture of Spire H, which is rather good for nine months, don't you think? For Flight Lieutenant Bill Astell, Spire Hollins was clearly as magical a family home as it has been for us, all these years later. Lives have come and gone, times have changed, but the spirit of place endures. That, undoubtedly, is something to celebrate.
I write this on the day my father passed away in 2014. He was a child of World War 2, living on one of the 'front lines' on the Sussex coast. The painful memories of the effects of war had something to do with his passing. The emotional impact of his childhood experience never left him. He fell ill on Remembrance Sunday and never recovered.