As the number of World War Two veterans dwindles with every passing year, it becomes an ever more urgent task to record for posterity the testament of those who remain. The memoirs of the generals and commanders have long since been committed to paper – but it is the recollections of the 'ordinary' soldiers, sailors and airmen which often paint the most vivid picture of the battles and capture most revealingly the human element of tumultuous events.
Stephen Simpson was just 17 years old when, in 1941, he left his job at Peckfield Colliery, Micklefield, and strode into a Leeds recruiting office. “You're how old?” queried the recruiting sergeant when Stephen told him he was 18. “Nineteen, sir,” replied the young miner, convinced (correctly) that his initial lie had been seen right through.
“That's more like it: sign here,” was the response, upon which 2664217 Simpson was accepted for basic training which would, in time, lead to him and his comrades in the 5th Battalion, Coldstream Guards, fighting their way from the Normandy beaches, through Belgium and Holland and deep into Northern Germany before the war finally ended, at which point he had attained the rank of sergeant.
Many who took part in the 1939–45 conflict (and, indeed, wars before and since) have taken their experiences to their graves, having found the best way of coping with the lifelong effects on body and mind to be by keeping their memories to themselves. Others, however, are happier to share them, usually with their family, as was Stephen Simpson – but in his case, those memories are now reaching a much wider audience through the efforts of his granddaughter, whose book, Grandad's War, was launched over Remembrance weekend.
It has been more than a decade in the making for Amanda Reynolds, a 39 year-old mother of three, from Allerton Bywater, who was inspired to begin the process of recording Stephen's story by a chance observation he made to her one day.
She said: “I'd not paid much attention to World War Two, or that my grandad had been in it, until that point. He didn't bore you: if you didn't want to listen, he wouldn't tell you – he'd just make little jokes about it. I knew the Coldstream Guards Association was super
important to him but I didn't know why; it wasn't something I ever thought about.
“Then one day, about 15 years ago, we were sitting in my kitchen when an aeroplane flew over and he said, 'that sounds just like a German mortar, like a thousand dogs whining in agony as they wind it up'. In saying that, he engaged me for the first time, so I said, 'I'm going to sit you down one day, get one of those dictaphones, and get you to tell me your story from the beginning to the end'.” And that – eventually – is just what Amanda did.
“Him talking about the war had been with me since childhood but, as an adult, I recognised that he wanted to tell his story,” she said. “I can't explain it – but something just told me that's what I should do.”
Despite her intention, and Stephen's willingness to co-operate, it was nevertheless some time before the pair put their plans into practice, spurred into action by the increasing focus around the 60th anniversary of D-Day, in 2004.
“More and more people were recording interviews with veterans but also making the point that there were fewer and fewer at each annual commemoration,” said Amanda. “That was in the back of my mind, too, and I thought I really had to do this for the family, as something to pass on if I had any children but mainly, at the time, for my nieces and nephews.” So, in 2004, she bought the promised dictaphone, arranged a day with Stephen, and began to record the experiences.
“I've always enjoyed writing,” said Amanda. “I've written poetry, I've written for myself, so this became a little family project to work on.” That, at the time, was all she intended Grandad's War to be but, as he shared his memories and she realised how close he had
been to the front line, and how many key engagements he took part in – including Operation Market Garden, Operation Goodwood and the liberation of Brussels – the thought dawned that his story perhaps deserved a wider audience than the ten books she had printed and bound for the family.
This feeling was magnified when, after he had returned from the D-Day 60th anniversary celebrations in Normandy, Stephen told her how many members of the Coldstream Guards Association wanted to read the book and had requested copies. Another 30 were printed, which were sold at £5 each to cover the cost, then Stephen told his granddaughter: “I've got some more to tell you, you know.”
In 2006, she accompanied him to the Coldstream Guards Association annual dinner, where a surprise was waiting. “They made me guest of honour, because I'd written this little book,” she recalled. “I thought 'all I've done is typed his words up' but the amount of interest being shown started flagging things up in my mind. People were saying 'this is amazing, this is wonderful', but as far as I was concerned, I'd done nothing more than sit down with my grandad with a cup of tea and listen to him! It took other people to make me realise this was more important than I'd ever thought – and I think that's when I decided we ought to do a full book.”
However, marriage and motherhood then intervened, meaning Amanda had more pressing calls upon her time. Stephen died in 2009, at the age of 85, but his granddaughter's determination to tell his story was strengthened when his son made a discovery while clearing his father's house.
“My uncle Steve got in touch and said he'd got 'some bits' – which turned out to be box with more than 200 artefacts my grandad had saved, covering right through his training, his time on the front line and with the Coldstream Guards Association. I went through them all and was blown away to think how carefully he'd collected and
preserved all these items – and that we'd no idea about them. He'd told me he had 'a couple of photographs' but nothing like this. Looking at them, I think this was his way of coping with the memories of what he'd seen and the friends he lost.”
The contents of the box – photographs, letters, maps, press cuttings, medals, badges and a German iron cross – formed the centrepiece of the book launch, which was held at the Old School, on Vicars Terrace, Allerton Bywater, on 6, 7 and 8 November. However, perhaps the most eye-catching item was a bright red Coldstream Guardsman's tunic, on which were pinned Sergeant Simpson's medals. It was lent to Amanda by former member of the regiment, Mick Colburn, while another ex-guardsman, Phil Lee, played a small but vital part in gathering the information for what would become Grandad's War by recording 'soldier-to-soldier' conversations with Stephen which drew out some of the more horrific aspects of his experiences, memories Phil believes Stephen was holding back from Amanda owing to the closeness of the grandfather-granddaughter relationship.
“The interest shown by the Coldstream Guards Association and the encouragement and help from so many people has really inspired me,” said Amanda. “A guy called Mick Colburn, I'd never met him before, but he gave me his tunic and bearskin. I never asked him, it's just amazing.”
Similar unprompted generosity was also displayed by John Smith's brewery, where Amanda works part time. When they learned of her plans to launch Grandad's War – and that Stephen had much preferred a pint of bitter to a glass of champagne –
they donated three crates of beer with which to drink to the book's success: one for each day of the launch event extended weekend.
“It has touched so many people. For example, there's a man called Jack Oxtoby on one of the pictures, which isn't a common surname, so I checked on Facebook and found a Dan Oxtoby in Garforth. It turned out he's friends with my cousin – and Jack Oxtoby was his grandad! Dan's dad was over the moon that I'd got in touch: his dad [Jack] had died years ago, he'd never talked about the war he'd never seen a photo of him from then.
“I feel that I'm the vehicle for all this, for my grandad's humbling and inspiring story. People are so grateful to me: they respect what he did and what I've done to bring his story to light but it's not me that's achieving all this – it's him.
“It makes me feel that if I've never done anything else in my life, I've done this and I've delivered it to people to carry on for future generations.”
Copies of Grandad's War are priced £9.99 (including P+P) from www.amandareynolds.co.uk or the publishers, Matador, at www.troubador.co.uk/shop.asp
Wf Live interviewed Amanda for this feature in the week before she launched the book. After the event, she got in touch to express her delight at how the three days went and people's reaction to it. She wrote:
“The book launch and exhibition was a real success. I sold 124 books and had approximately 200 people through the doors over the three days it ran. I have made some new friends and links with other veterans, and the local community turned out to be a very supportive bunch indeed.
“There were many tears throughout the days as it touched the heart of many and their own family lives and losses, both with past and more recent wars. There were a good few Coldstream Guards attended and the standard bearer representing Leeds Coldstream Guards at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday brought the standard in with him and educated some of the kids.
“I am working with some younger veterans next, to develop a programme and to raise some money and awareness, focusing on PTSD and deconditioning the mindset created in the military. So lots of positivity has come from what I have done and this alone made it worth all the hours I have committed to it.
“When I packed the last box into my car on Sunday evening, I suddenly thought: 'I've done it!' I felt quite overwhelmed and really proud of myself. I cheered to myself all the way home and opened a bottle of prosseco when I got in! I still can't believe I've done it. The response I've had has been amazing: folk telling me it was wonderful, I'm inspiring and that it was really interesting.
“People helping, donating their time to help me set up, baking cakes to raise money for the poppy appeal, donating John Smiths and bottles of champagne. I tell you something: I have been blessed
to have experienced more wonderful things than I bargained for when months and months ago I thought, 'Do you know what? I'll exhibit this lot!'.
“Community does exist and so do good people. Hurray!”