Remembering Billy, killed in Burma, May 1945
I want to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the death in action of my half-uncle Billy Filson-Young in Burma on 15 May, 1945, aged 25.
His mother was the poet and painter Vera Bax (it’s complicated) and she wrote a series of poems about the deaths of her youngest son Richard (a pilot killed in action in 1942, aged 21) and Billy himself. They are of course grief-stricken poems. But they embolden me, too.
[I have also posted an eye-witness account of Billy’s latter RAF experience and his death, written by a fellow pilot, Bill Powell.]
It means something to say that Billy’s story was typical of his generation because it was a wonderful one. And yet it is important not to mummify the war dead, not even in glory. The last of his mothers’ war poems, The Fallen, written for VJ Day, 15 August 1945, insists that the proper memorial for the young dead is to join “the throng”, because “their spirits linger there”. (Her five main wartime poems have all been anthologised and some can be found online.)
The facts are pretty simple. Wing-Commander William Loraine Filson Young died with his navigator Flight-Lieutenant R C Waters (the son of C D Waters, the headmaster of the Chipping Sodbury Grammar School). They were brought down by Japanese fire whilst flying a two-seater Mosquito bomber as Billy led two formations of four aircraft in an operation against a concentration of 2,500 of the enemy whose forces were all-but defeated but were still fighting desperately. Based not very far from Mandalay, the two flyers died three hundred miles south, over the Bilin River, not far from Rangoon, which had recently been re-occupied by the Allies.
The day before his death Billy’s mother had written to him about her unenthusiastic experience of VE Day on 8 May. Her “bluey” was returned to her, unopened I think, at the end of the month. That series of letters is both low-key and compelling and I intend to post them in full soon.
When he was killed, Billy was newly in love with a married woman who never forgot him and was willing, in her 60s in 1975, to let me write about their affair. He and his unit were, she wrote, weary and determined warriors. They were the sort of man one can read about in John Masters’s extraordinary war memoir The Road Past Mandalay (that author, at once imaginative and analytic, himself in love with another man’s wife). Billy’s letters have the same tone of voice of many of the diary entries collected by Richard J Aldrich in The Faraway War. The story of his unit and its war (especially in 1943/4) was very like that of a brother squadron as told in Beaufighters Over Burma: No 27 Squadron, RAF, 1942-45 by David J Innes. (Airborne over Burma by D H Sutcliffe is a good extended memoir of a slightly different branch of the air war.)
I last wrote about Billy Filson Young and family 40 years ago and it was easier then because I could get my father to look at the result and, as it were, sign it off as a decent account of people he knew and loved and most of whom I had never met. In one way, I feel bolder now. I know more about the characters involved than I did. Some matters (long-gone romances, for instance) have become less sensitive. On the other hand, I am older and wiser. So, though I am probably now better equipped to write than I was then, I am more conscious of the impertinence of over-imagining this man whose short life was so different to my own much longer one.
Billy had joined the RAF in 1938 and he had flown on active service – in the Atlantic War from the north of Scotland and West Africa; over the Aegean from North Africa; and in the Burma campaign from India and in-country – for every one of the war’s six years. He had won a DFC and bar and been mentioned in despatches. He had flown a high number of missions, and become a young Wing-Commander: he was in every sense a veteran except in age and experience of peace.
He was a warrior, but in at least one important sense a reluctant one. He hadn’t really wanted a military career but by the end he rather expected that his best, far from ideal, hope would be to stay in the peacetime service. At 19 and 26 alike, he worried about his lack of commercial prospects. He didn’t say but must have known that he had become a leader with limited management experience; a hero with few technical skills; a man of the world who had done little networking. He was articulate, but without a particular literary bent, just as he was artistically literate but with no academic training. Like many servicemen, perhaps especially officers, he had earned quite well in the war, and spent freely on his leaves: post-war life was bound to be very different. He was fatherless and such family as he had was not well-connected or even prosperous.
Filson Young, Billy’s father (a celebrated writer and a war correspondent from the Boer and First World wars), had known everyone who was anyone for the first third of the 20th Century. But he died aged 62 in 1938, and his legacy to his sons was slight, except perhaps in writing skills. Even with no blood connection, FY contributed to my own ambitions. (Silvester Mazzarella, a relative of the Young branch of the family, chronicled all that in his biography of FY, mostly researched in the 1970s.)
Billy knew from his mother’s letters that whilst he had been away in the Far East without home leave, his England had been battered into privations and even a new pessimism. He was aware of a new drabness in the homeland.
Would Billy have cut it, in post war Britain? Because I know of that generation of service people most from their writing, I see in him something of Nicholas Monsarrat, Hammond Innes, Nevil Shute or Nigel Balchin. He might have blossomed into a John Masters. I mean that he was hard-bitten and sensitive: he seems to have had a sensibility which mixed modernity, liberalism, a certain cynicism. I cannot tell whether he had become, like many service people a Labour voter, or had clung to the Toryism of his late father and probably his mother. Plenty of his general sort became sad figures found in Terence Rattigan’s post-war plays (Rattigan served under Billy and they knew each other well at one point). Plenty of others, even starting from scratch at 26 or 27, went on to become great successes.
My own strong feeling, actually, is that the post-war economic difficulties, and the socialism of the period, have been overdone by modern commentators, let alone as caricatured in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four written in 1948.
Both world wars and especially the second, were fought by thorough-going “moderns” – modernists, even. The bolshiness of all ranks was an innovation, as were their fighting tools of fast planes, tanks and wireless. At home, the pre-war Bauhaus and the post-war G Plan are as it were joined by wartime Utility. I know my own father – the eldest of Vera’s children – had a thoroughly modern aesthetic and it included a love of bright colours and plain decor, as befits a man in the paint business who loved contributing to the 1951 Festival of Britain and subscribed his son to The New Elizabethan. The Shell Saturday Book was a feature in our house, with its spirit of the Neo-Romantics.
Recovered from exhaustion, bright and staggeringly good-looking, who knows what Billy might have achieved in this world which was entirely his?
If he didn’t think his prospects were bright, in the world in which he had lived and fought, and he died, he was much admired.
My father, ten years before his own death in 2001, started to gather recollections from anyone who might have served with Billy. The results, garnered from men and women by then old, describe a confrere and officer who had led his aircrew fearlessly and to his aircraftsmen (as one of them had written to my father) was “a proper officer and gentleman”. There was nothing stiff-necked about his generation of officers, especially in the RAF, and he was probably much less of a snob by the end of the war than almost any public schoolboy of his time would have been before it. I want to post this material, not least to honour its authors’ intention that it would appear in a book by a well-known historian of the war (a project that was abandoned).
From a great deal of reading of biographies, memoirs, diaries and letters, I know a lot about what all sorts of people were like in the war, and what happened to all sorts of people after it. Still, I have to remember that I have very sharp but only patchy details about and above all from Billy himself. I have several letters from mother and son because they were both scrupulous in keeping them. These are wide-ranging and yet only a snapshot of the correspondents’ hearts and minds. Like their diaries, some of which I also have, they hover in a very difficult terrain. They are there in black and white, like historical records, but were intimate and private.
Besides, I am not at all sure they would like their fate to be in my hands. I am not at all sure my grandmother liked me much. I admired her as the trailblazing Edwardian she was in youth and as the rather grand relic she became in old age. We might call her Boho throughout. She was certainly a stunner, a bit unlucky in romance if not in marriage, and highly talented
She had been born Vera Rawnsley. She first married the artist Stanley North in 1911 and quickly produced my father Paul (a couple of years before he illustrated a modernist Child’s ABC of the War). Just after WW1 she married the writer Filson Young and produced Richard and Billy (whose hyphenated surname was an affectation); and then in the 1930s married the affluent man of letters Clifford Bax from whom she soon separated. That is three marriages before she or the century were forty years old.
As a hippy drop-out with Rolling Stones hair and horribly undecided about everything, she probably thought I had squandered the peacetime upbringing her eldest son and his rather common wife had quite painfully provided me, and that I was not worthy of the freedoms her two younger sons had died for, nor of the name which had been passed on to me from her youngest son. Billy himself jossed her about her stern moralising.
If these were her opinions, she was more than entitled to them, and they inhibit me a bit as I now poke about in the material I have from all their lives. There’s a fair amount of it. In one letter to Billy, Minka (that was what everyone called her) describes the business of moving from the tedious safety of a seaside hotel back into a more hazardous but far more familiar London. She was wrestling with boxes of historic paraphernalia, just as I have done in the shifts of my own pretty mobile life.
My immediate solution is to post pocket collections – riffs, runs, themes – from the material I have inherited. The Xmas begging letters, detailing objects of desire from Hamleys, across a tactfully selected range of prices. Stuff showing an evolving taste, as the childhood years pass and public school looms, and popguns mature into wireless kits. The dutiful short thank you notes becoming the considered reviews of books sent from home. The reactions to records, movies and shows, let alone the West End restaurants and night clubs the young officer enjoyed.
There are lots of drawings and photographs. At 11, here’s a sketch-plan of daddy’s new-old motor launch at St Ives, with a bigger engine on order for next summer. There are studies of aeroplanes, beginning with childish scrawls but becoming military recognition exercises within a few years. And there are other rapid evolutions: frank infatuations with distant film stars, which would blossom into dates with singers and dancers. In the early years of the war, Billy often goes out with his mother, and meets her starry, arty friends. And he juggles girlfriends.
One matter remains quite tricky. When her marriage to Stanley ended and she took up with Filson, Minka farmed out Paul to a Cornish connection of her new husband. When that marriage in turn ended, she was forced (I think it was a legal matter) to farm out Billy in the same sort of way (though Filson was a much bigger presence in that boy’s life there). She kept Richard in London (and I think her third husband Clifford helped with that). There is an undertone of heightened feeling in everything here. Minka and Billy and Richard all adored each other, and badly missed one another when apart. A part of Billy’s attachment, I am guessing – here’s that impertinence again – was almost chivalric, and not least because Minka’s life was as glamorous as she was herself.
You may wonder why I have barely mentioned my father Paul. He loved his half-brothers and was loved by them. After their deaths, he looked after his mother in post-war Britain, as she remained vivid, but perhaps found life less amusing or distracting. He didn’t have a very dangerous or exciting war (marooned in West Africa, as he felt it, teaching Nigerian soldiers) but after it, he showed several lovable virtues. He was as consistent in giving me a fulfilling childhood – one full of texture and fun – as he was diligent in looking after his mother. He was forced for all sorts of reasons to take up a business career, rather against type, but he was always on-side with my own muddled search for a living as a writer.
It was he who first collected and maintained the material of his family’s life. He passed it on to me when I was still young, and I can’t remember why. He may never have said. But he encouraged me to write whatever I wanted about it all, and I still find that emboldening. And yet he was so private a person that I am even less confident in writing about him than in writing about his mother, or half-brothers.
Anyway, I shall digitise a good deal more material, I hope. Maybe I shall store the whole lot, or try to donate it to the Imperial War Museum, as a record of a creative family’s involvement in two world wars and the exciting if uneasy periods surrounding them.
Certainly, it is an obvious duty to pass on this heritage. My sister Pauline died young aged 50 in 1991 and her own daughter died last month, in her 40s. Cathy was in the London fashion world (with its centre way east of where it once was) and liked the tradition of her great grandparents enough to name her own daughter Minka. Perhaps this new Minka, or her brother, or one of my own children, or one of theirs will find their background fascinating.
For now I am confident that Richard and Billy made their sacrifices knowingly and even willingly. I want to play my part in making sure they – and Minka and Paul and all the rest – are not forgotten.