Unknown Wedding Couple WW2 Identified!

Unknown wedding couple

And so it begins. Another photo that rears up and grabs me by the throat. Each photo that has done that to me always presents questions to be answered. In this one I can’t believe the answer isn’t readily available. I first caught sight of the photo of three people at a wedding just a few days ago whilst researching Australian war brides of WW2 for a talk I’m giving on 1 June.

The beautiful young woman is about to cut the cake, her bridegroom is holding her hand and in front of them stands a very pleasant, affable young pilot. I glanced below to find out the names of all three. The young wedding couple are unidentified. My first reaction was shocked disbelief. How can that be? Him with his movie star looks and her, very stylish and glamourous. She looks down a little as if to say, “Let the boys have their joke. I’m concentrating on the cake.”

And gosh, her wedding dress is not your run of the mill wartime dress, handmade or second-hand. It looks like something out of Hollywood. Yet I suspect she’s English. Where did she get the dress? It is almost timeless in it’s elegance. And what about him? Can’t you see him in the movies? I know we shouldn’t judge people by their appearances but such beauty in both of them would have definitely marked their lives in some way. They would have been an unforgettable couple for one thing. Gossiped about probably. Envied definitely.

Of course the most important question of all is, did he survive the war? Or was his fate similar to that of FO Allen, the affable young pilot, who died on the 20th June 1942 in a flying accident, not in the skies over Germany-occupied Europe but at Breighton, Yorkshire.

The caption of the photo, held by the Australian War Memorial, merely says that the bridegroom is an unidentified pilot of the RAAF who was presumably, like Allen, attached to RAF 41 Squadron and that he was Wing Commander with a DFC. Surely as a Wing Commander he shouldn’t be too hard to find, although the AWM evidently haven’t been able to.

So many questions. If he survived the war, did they live in the UK or return to Australia, depending possibly on whether she was British or Australian? Hard to tell from the photo. I would love to find out what she did before her marriage. Did she work in an art gallery? Perhaps she was a model? Or perhaps she was from a wealthy family? She obviously had beautiful taste and looks refined. Her new bridegroom suits her completely. Even the way they hold their heads in this photo is similar, also the line of their jaws and noses. Can you imagine their children?

The death of Allen, though, does cast a shadow. And why in England? That’s another burning question. Was he returning after a mission gone wrong? Barely able to make it home and then botching the landing because of injuries he sustained? When you look at WW2 as a whole, complete thing – it is just history and statistics. When you start to drill down and look at each man or woman that died as a result of war, any war, it’s hard not to wonder what the world would be like now if we hadn’t lost a swath of brave, marvellous people. Here’s hoping I can find out more about these three, standing smiling, caught in a moment in time forever.

London, December 1917

As a single woman in 2012 I often look around and wonder where all the single men of my age are. I should not complain! Imagine living in the UK, the US or Australia during the last year or two of World War I (or any major conflict for that matter) and every day seeing maimed and disfigured young men back from fighting; trying desperately to adjust to their new lives as invalids. If you were in your early twenties during those years it was highly probable that you would remain single – so many future husbands lying in cemeteries in Europe instead of alive and well and looking to the future.

In my manuscript The Grey Silk Purse Phyllis has just encountered, in a Sloane Square cafe, one such disfigured young man:

‘When I glanced towards the young man his face took my breath away. It was ravaged beyond belief. One eye appeared to be sewn shut and part of his face from his left forehead down was gone. In that instant I also noticed that his nose looked strange and his lips were shiny and bulbous.’

My character manages to stay calm. I don’t think I would have been able to. During the latter stages of WWI young men such as these were given new faces at The Tin Noses Shop as the Tommies called it – the real name being Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department at the 3rd London General Hospital. There was also some marvellous work being done at Sidcup by pioneer plastic surgeon Harold Gillies  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Gillies and during WWII Archibald McIndoe, Gillies cousin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archibald_McIndoe who worked for the Royal Air Force and  operated on badly burned aircrew.

During WWII my English aunt who was a WREN was stationed near the hospital where McIndoe operated and was instructed to smile and not flinch when she encountered the aircrew wandering the grounds, recuperating after their operations.This memory of hers relayed to me is the inspiration of the scene I just completed today – art immitating life.