Growing up as the child of a prisoner of war

Alec JayAlec Jay returns to Calais in the 1980s

Alec JayAlec Jay returns to Calais in the 1980s - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to author John Jay about his gripping account of his father’s five years as a POW and troubled return to civvy st.

John Jay’s journey to uncover his father’s war was inspired by growing up with a traumatised yet silent parent.

Alec Jay was an apprentice stockbroker from Hodford Road, Golders Green when he joined The Queen Victoria’s rifles in 1938.

The move would take him to northern France, then five long years as a POW, before escaping and fighting with Czech partisans in the dying days of the war.

John from Belsize Road, says these experiences “cast a shadow over our childhood”: “He spoke little about his time in the camps. He had this view in common with other POWs that people who hadn’t experienced it couldn’t understand it so there wasn’t much point talking about it.

“He built a fortress around his feelings and memories, but the full horror would come out on occasions. He had a volcanic temper, if we burned the toast he said the smell was like burned bodies – he had been within smelling distance of Auschwitz. You can imagine little children failing to understand this and I always wanted to try and understand more.”

Alec was inspired by the rise of Oswald Mosley’s fascists and Hitler’s annexation of Austria to join the Territorial Army; training at the drill hall in Lymington Road and doing exercises in the grounds of his former school UCS.

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“Mosley’s fascists would meet at the King of Bohemia pub and hold meetings at Whitestone Pond and local Jewish lads like dad would try to break them up.

“The influx of Jewish refugees to north London in the ‘30s would have been a challenge to dad’s identity, as a thoroughly assimilated Jewish boy whose father’s family had arrived in the 17th Century, a public schoolboy wearing tweed jackets and playing rugby, dad’s ethnicity, blended with his politics and patriotism. After the Anschluss he realised war in Europe was inevitable and he wanted to take part.”

Alec was assigned to a crack motorcycle reconnaissance battalion who in May 1940 were despatched lightly armed to northern France to shore up the disorganised French army.

With little equipment, they fought bravely for five days before surrendering. Their fight took the pressure from Dunkirk where their British Expeditionary Force comrades were evacuated. But 40,000 Calais survivors endured a gruelling march, half-starved back to Germany as prisoners of war.

“From where they surrendered they could see the white cliffs. There were boats ready to take them but they were left behind. Churchill said it was the most difficult thing he had done - it held up the German troops, kept Dunkirk open and persuaded the French the British hadn’t run away. Was my father sacrificed for a giant PR stunt? He felt it was an honourable sacrifice and when he came back from the war he voted for Churchill in the ‘45 election.”

Alec had already buried his dog tags and changed his mother’s maiden name on his papers to disguise his Jewish identity. In the camps he was warned not to speak German in case it flagged him as Jewish, but he often intervened in arguments between guards and friends, fearful they might be shot.

Suffering from poor nutrition and dysentery, his weight dropped to seven stone and he once lost 13 teeth when a guard shoved a gun in his mouth.

As a fully paid up member of “the awkward squad” he would ‘goon bait’ the guards, he once went on strike, and made five escape attempts.

“They got through it because of the life-saving Red Cross parcels, a sense of moral and intellectual superiority to their captors, the idea they were tying up resources, and a camaraderie of ‘muckers’ that replicated the family unit. They would share food and resources, and cover for anyone struggling.”

Alec eventually settled in Hill Close, Hampstead Garden Suburb and raised three children in a turbulent marriage that John describes as “the Somme meets Passchendaele”. He had a chequered worklife that ended in bankruptcy and ended his life as a minicab driver.

“He came back with what would now be called PTSD. Six weeks later his father died and he had a collapse. He thought he had contributed to his death. He was one of ‘the invisible wounded’ but there was little psychological help given to returning POWs.”

Alec had started a memoir and left behind a volume of poems penned during the war. With these and five years part time research in the Imperial War Museum and military archives during holidays from his fund management job, John wrote Facing Fearful Odds (Pen&Sword £25.) a vivid and engaging description of his father’s war experience.

“His generation were tested in extraordinary circumstances in a way that ours hasn’t been. His experience defined his life. He was still at war the day he died and I think rather sadly that he talked about it too late.”