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Billy and Richard:
Vera Bax, her sons, and the poems she wrote on their deaths

Billy and Richard Filson Young were killed flying airlanes during the Second World War. They weren't famous or celebrated (though one was decorated); but they were young, and typical in more than that of a generation of men and women whose first adult decision was to hazard their lives in their country's cause. Their photographs have stared out at me from silver frames for as long as I can remember - the elder, Billy, pinstriped and insouciant, wry and knowing; Richard, youthfully gay, the beaming possessor of new “wings”.

Not much was said about her two dead sons by my grandmother, whose private and inviolable icons they constituted. In her studio room in Chelsea there seemed to lie fossilised a whole world of elegance, and in their portraits another, of heroism. English reticence made the most important event in the immediate pre-life of a post-war child almost impenetrable, as it did their part in it.

The First World War had produced poetry in the midst of its carnage. But the Second seemed to strike people as a more numbing entity. It was a job which had to be done, my generation were told - and not much else. My generation is bound to want to enquire further, if only from a misplaced sense of romance - or more soundly, perhaps, of continuity.

The pre-war world in which the two brothers were brought up was already showing signs of strain. This was Neville Chamberlain's peacetime: grappling with slumps end socialism, trying to hold the line (and in the Prime Minister's case, trying to reform it) for the next generation. Mr and Mrs Filson Young lived in London: they were modern, not least in being one of the yearly 3,500 divorced couples the Twenties saw (by 1950, there were ten times as many). Billy - born in 1919, two years before Richard - had been baptised under Nelson's lee in St Martin-the-Fields, with water brought from the North Sea and with Admiral Lord Beatty in attendance. Filson had fallen under a maritime spell after writing a book about the hero of Heligoland, and was in any case a snob.

The nautical fancy did nothing to deter the boy from growing up in love with the machines of the air and the road. Richard's boyhood was plagued by asthma and it seemed unlikely at first that he would be able to stand the rigours of boarding school; in the event he went to Lancing College, boxed, and actually joined his RAF unit hot from the lst XI football field.

In 1936, Filson was learning to fly under Captain Baker - who in that year was also teaching the King and the Marchioness of Londonderry - and giving talks about his experiences on the BBC. He and son Billy went flying, and saw the Queen Mary far below them in the Solent one clear April day: she had been launched in 1934, a symbol of what even a depressed Britain could build. Back at school, the boy hired a "decrepit Woolsely" (his diary's spelling was erratic) and went illicitly and beerily about the countryside with friends. This was the short-lived dreamtime of liners, cars, wireless and smart skylarks.

Chamberlain's time petered out: he had used delaying tactics and not been unduly proud to do so. LilliPut had characterised him as a llama: we needed a different breed, and in May 1940 his starched wing collar gave way to Churchill, and the bulldog's studded one.

The previous September war had been declared while Billy was piloting a London flying-boat somewhere off the Shetland Islands. Industrial career openings had come to nothing and he had opted for the services rather as a younger son might once have headed for holy orders. The life suited him well enough. He was a successful middle weight boxer for his squadron (a man who knew him later says "he was a strongly-built chap, 5'9" or so, and about 12 stone. By the way he was inclined to walk pigeon-toed"), but was rather badly beaten-up by 'a pretty tough-looking bloke' (his own rueful comment), which dampened his ardour for the sport. He had the solace of reading, and Wilde, Arnold Bennett or Waugh satisfactorily whiled away free time. He enjoyed Cardinal Puff drinking bouts, and frequently reports himself to have been "sewn-up", "stewed" or "blind" with friends, who - if they passed muster - were "good types". He never lost his scorn for the vulgar, and he recalls with more horror than real amusement sharing a train compartment with "some rather blatant people with dogs and oranges". Still the undercurrent is of a sensitivity which never pretended to world-weariness. He had a definite eye for what he noted as "a bit of orl right', for instance, when he met "a dance hostess from Romano's, on holiday "Yoohoo!" This would sometimes cut across his more solemn passions.

Coastal Command were operating Stranraers and Londons from Sullom Voe, where now oil is king, watching for enemy shipping and defending our own from submarine attack. Later Sunderlands took over - "seems enormous after the old London, but it’s a lovely job", enthused Flight Lieutenant Filson Young, who loved their unlikely and monstrous mastery of water and air. Perhaps the sea was exerting its hold after all. Mr Jack Moore, who was a garage proprietor in Scalloway in 1940 remembered in the 1970s how Billy and his crew forced-landed their 'boat in the shelter of a bay near the town. "I saw them come down; it was a bitterly cold January afternoon, with snow and a gale of wind, I think from the south-east." After a while, he and a fisherman went out to the 'boat, and having it securely, persuaded the "wet, hungry, and well-nigh frozen" men to come ashore. They spent the evening playing Monopoly till 2am. Billy never forgot this haven and the immediate warmth of the islanders.

There were other alarms and excursions. The destroyer "Punjabi" took his sinking flying-boat in tow after he had come down with engine trouble in the North Sea, and, after a comfortable night in the Captain's day cabin, he had to watch the heavy swell take her to the bottom. Often, however, he hankered for more spectacular action: when a machine he should have been flying returned from "quite a dogfight" he wrote that "it was just like a slaughter-house inside, with blood everywhere. Damned annoying that the one day I wasn't flying 138 she should have bumped into some fun - just my luck". Does anyone actually mean those sorts of statements? He volunteered for fighters, but was posted, still with Coastal Command, to West Africa.

In early January 1942 he returned to England on leave. For three years he had been in love with a Wing Commander’s wife whom he had met in Scotland. From this experienced woman he was able to gain the self-assurance he hankered after. They used to dance to band music relayed from London on the wireless, in deserted hotel lounges. One Saturday they had gone to the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr to see “Ace Revue Comedian”, Jimmy Bryant in Sweet and Lovely (The Ayrshire Post thought well of the evening's fun, and took special pleasure in the Lynton Twins' tap-dancing - "two boys whose feet twinkle your troubles away"). Billy had always loved the luminous flicks of Ginger Rogers or Madeleine Carroll, two ladies who had struck his childhood pen as particularly "slick" and "wizard".

The bands and dance music of the period, etched on those whirring 78’s moved him, especially when they reminded him of a girl, as These Foolish Things and over the Rainbow did. Showbiz always appealed, and sometimes came to his humdrum services base: he was very tickled when some musicians from Geraldo’s band joined the station, and he took them for a joy ride in his machine. And he was well-connected for London leaves: Annette Mills (the girl who brought the Charleston to England) was a friend of his mother’s, and came and socialised with them at the Mayfair when her cabaret turn was over.

Listening to the wireless was often unbearably evocative, and never more so than when a show came from some night club where he and his mistress had been. Since the early days of stolen encounters they had come a long way, and now they met in the double-rooms of a West End bent on leave-taking pleasure. They were living it up: "We’ve been having a fling .... lunch at the Savoy or Ritz, a show every evening, and dinner at Hatchettes (sic) or Grosvenor House etc, Spent an awful lot of money, but well worth it. Alan Ross's The Forties describes the nightlife and the clubs (Billy’s favourite was the Gargoyle): "Fingers sought each other and lips remained glued while crooners sang As Time Goes By, and Long Ago And Far Away, and Loin de Toi, and this unbearable parting and coming together in dark, confined place was worth all the suffering and boredom and fear; for the time being anyway”. Billy’s mother noted that he had grown very fond of his whiskey; he was unsympathetic when he heard a friend's girl had become pregnant: “Bloody careless of her in the first place”. There was no boyishness left now. He might only be 23, but he had been promoted, and the Winco’s moustache bristles with almost Victorian severity and his eyes hold a steady gaze with no innocence about it.

He was making forays into his parents’ literary terrain. Terence Rattigan was an officer air-gunner in the squadron (where by now Billy was commanding) and wrote Flare Path, in Africa, by hand, with a monkey from a neighbouring tree on his lap.

There were two copies, one of which Sir Terence asked Billy - whom he held in some awe - to deliver to Binkie Beaumont of Tennent's. By 1943, when Rattigan was ensconced at Albany writing for propaganda films, Billy visited him and seemed to enjoy the evidence of a new and comfortable life. After his brush with the theatre world - he thought it contained one or two 'peculiar" people - Billy bumped into Paul Richie, whose Fighter Pilot had just been published; they got drunk together at the St James' Club. The book narrated No 1 Squadron's fighter exploits in Prance, which they had followed by training pilots from other squadrons - amongst them Richard Hillary, whose The Last Enemy became a classic account of an advance from cynicism towards commitment to the battle to "defend the bad against the worse".

During 1940 Richard had been passed fit for the RAF and by December was posted to a training wing in Rhodesia. His twentieth birthday fund him the required moustache burgeoning, sitting in the Service’s Club quiet room, the writing desk looking over a deserted back street, where he could write and think in peace. He had grown into a young man who was nearly priggishly alert to the feelings of others. His his concern for the blacks of the country seems genuine and was probably courageous too, given his environment.

He deplored, in a letter to his mother, the "attempt to transport a foreign way of living into a dry wild land, and impose it upon the original inhabitants who neither understand nor desire it. They exist to help the white man to exist." This was in contrast to his brother’s more conventional robustness as looked forward to having a “good-type wog batman”.

Richard was too shy for drinking and dancing, but adored music and spent hours deliberating over the HMV catalogue. He quite fancied a "bit" in the town, but thought that, “perhaps owing to the presence of the RAF, all the girls are horribly sophisticated”.

Richard flew his first operational mission in July 1942. Tobruk had fallen the month before and his squadron, 208, was engaged in tactical reconnaissance of the enemy's positions in the Western Desert. L E “Chas” Hyde-Parker told me that "Filkinstein" (Richard’s proper name suited the RAF no more than anyone else's did) struck his fellow pilots as young, and a little different from the others. After about a month of operations, on August 16th, "Filkinstein" and "Chas" (who was in Hurricane 11 Z5468) flew together in what turned out to be a particularly happy sortie. Mr Hyde-Parker, a Suffolk farmer, says, "We flew home along the desert escarpment in the evening light, singing alternate verses of Widecombe Fair over the R/T. But later he got rather depressed. He seemed to feel that something would happen. He said, ‘Oh, by the way, if anything should happen to me, would you like my camera? I'm afraid I won't last much longer’. It was often like that, you know." The next day Richard took off (in Z5468), and he and his weaver failed to return: they had been bounced by five Me l09’s on their way back across the Qattara Depression.

In England, the first of a dreary procession of buff telegrams arrived at his mother's hotel.

In the Public Record Office, where all the minutiae of squadrons, wings, commands, groups and their daily excitements lie prosaically bundled and boxed, tied in white ribbon like bureaucratic love letters, or collected in great red story books, Billy's last years - and thousands of others' - are open to inspection. In 1944 he added a bar to a previously-won DFC, for sinking an enemy freighter off Crete. It made the papers.

By 1945 he was stationed at Kinmagon in Burma. He had fallen in love afresh, with a girl in Ranchi: they were enormously happy on the occasional leaves when he could fly to be with her. But they were old hands and had grown to a complete dedication to the war effort. Nothing mattered more, in the April and May of that year, than that Rangoon should be taken before the monsoon season. When VE Day was celebrated, the station records report, the men's ammunition was confiscated for fear of unruly behaviour. But the joyful scenes at Buckingham Palace could not conquer the jungle and "there were no signs of exuberance". That was the 8th. On the 15th the record notes that there was much sadness when Wing Commander W. D. L. Filson Young failed to return from a mission. His Mosquito had been shot down, and crashed "in Bilin River and esploded (sic). No Parachutes were seen." On a brighter note, beer and spirits had at last arrived and the men were consuming it "in their own style".

Again, in England, the small brown envelope marked PRIORITY. The forlorn business took only 3 days: the machinery for delivering "We regret to inform you......” had been perfected at the Air Ministry. It meant something to his mother that he was in love when he was killed. (He was wearing his girl's white silk scarf.) It had meant something to here that Richard appeared to give his life willingly. Theirs had become a chivalrous way of thought.

Amongst all the professional paraphernalia of his tent had been found, and duly shipped home, "Silk stocking. Lady's. One." The equipment and images of life and death always seemed to be jumbled together in the brothers' short I-lives.

On a cold January night in 1947, their mother wrote a grieving note in her diary, which was full of sympathy for the post-war world. She had been thinking of her sons' love of jazz and dizzy blondes, and how the men who came back from the war were in a very different mood. "None of them any longer plays the gramophone, or wants to dance to it, or to the radio, and there is little laughter. They just sit and chat like elderly people."

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