The tales which my father told did however have a much darker side which I came to understand more clearly in my later years. I vividly recall him having nightmares and shouting out, sometimes in German, Polish and even Russian. The nightmare was always the same. Our family was being pursued for our lives and shot at by Nazi soldiers along the banks of the River Spey near our home village of Aberlour. My father was doing his best to protect and save us. There was real terror in his voice as he shouted.
I have no doubt that the experiences of cruelty and brutality were permanently etched into his being. Time had done little to erode some of these memories.
As a well known preacher my father often used his POW experiences of answered prayer and miraculous experiences as evidence for the reality of a living Saviour in Christ Jesus. One such instance is recalled in his retrospective of the war years: ‘We’ve Been a Long Time Coming Boys’:
“I FEEL it only right that I should give a mention to some of the gun-toting guards under whom we were to serve as prisoners-of-war. In all, there were twenty-five of them and they were quite often assigned to us in pairs. I have a list of the names we gave them, as we were never able to find out what their real ‘handles’ were.
I suppose I could recall a few tales about each one of these twenty-five guards we had to endure in five years, but I will try to limit my memories to just one or two. First on my list is Big Jim. He was built like a battleship, as his name would suggest. Unfortunately for him, the main feature of his appearance was his prominent teeth. The middle front tooth had been crowded out by its fellows and protruded quite a bit farther than it should have. When he smiled, which was very seldom, he sucked this protruder like a wine gum. When he fumed, it stuck out like a rhino's tusk. He was a real loud-mouthed chappie and loved to hear his own voice. We were soon to learn, however, that he was all big mouth and no real guts.
My 1942 diary tells me that we were getting regular air-raids from what I recorded as “Arthur's pals”. These were allied aircraft, mostly British, but with the occasional Russian bomber thrown in. I called them by this name because I had a cousin, Arthur Clark, who was a fighter pilot and I had to be careful with those entries in my diary. Remember, I was suspected by the censor of being a spy already and I am a canny Scot. Reading from my records, we were under air attack at least three times a week and sometimes twice a night, the latter raids coming from both ends as it were, that is, from East and West. During one particular raid, we got a pretty good hammering and we knew the reason why. Dummy factory walls had been erected quite close to our billet, with huge bonfires set alight to show them up should an Allied air raid take place. Clearly these dummy walls were meant to be decoys to lead the attacking aircraft astray.
One night, this bright idea paid off and we became the centre of an attack by our own four-engined planes. Gradually the situation became more dangerous and finally, we were all flat out, lying down for cover on the floor. All at once, we heard a thousand-pound blockbuster coming screaming down out of the sky. It sounded like an old-fashioned railway engine letting off its spare steam. This one, we all knew, was going to be too near for comfort. When it landed, it blew one of our green-houses into pieces. Bill Brooks, our sergeant, asked me to check if anyone had been hurt. There were no lights to see with and it was one of those pitch-black nights. Nervously, I got off the floor and groped my way around, trying to find out if all was well. Suddenly, I blundered into the billet wall. Cautiously feeling my way along it, I made contact with a body standing upright like someone out of Madame Tussauds. “Are you all right?” I repeatedly asked but could get no reply. Surely the guy was either struck dumb or dead. Getting more annoyed by the split second, I ran my hands all over him but not a word was said. Then I exploded in exasperation, “I'll find out who you are!” I shouted and landed my fist on his head. On that head, there was a tin hat — a German one. The “dummy” was Big Jim, absolutely petrified with fear. Next morning, we learned from the Polish girls that Big Jim had told the farmer he had trouble with his prisoners. They had got into a panic and he had to stay with them to keep them in control. What a marvellous fairy tale! Yes, just a bag of wind was Big Jim.
I think his finest hour or his worst nightmare took place one Sunday afternoon. We were not working that day and I noticed two little smartly-dressed schoolgirls go through the gherkin beds, pick one of the miniature cucumbers and finding it pretty bitter, throw it away. Presently Farmer Burdin came down the same path on his usual tour of inspection. He saw the remains of the gherkin and hared off back to report the matter to Big Jim. Now, Big Jim had a particular hatred of a little Russian boy who had been taken prisoner with his mother and sent to join us on the market garden. The little lad's name was Lonya, at least that's how it sounded. He was the bane of the guard's life, as he was an expert work-dodger. Jim decided that Lonya was the culprit and would pay the price for his crime. Presently, we saw the guard appear dragging the Russian boy by the scruff of the neck (Lonya was only about nine years old). Big Jim was shouting that he had caught the thief and he would teach the little fellow a lesson. Lonya, it was clear, would have none of it and said so vehemently and repeatedly — in Russian. Deciding that he would have the last word in the matter, the guard picked up a heavy tree branch and beat the lad so fiercely that he broke the cudgel over the boy's back. Lonya was now screaming. Suddenly, round the building in full flight, came the figure of a woman. She ran straight to the scene. The guard saw her, dropped the boy and shouted “Halt!” Ignoring the command, the woman kept on towards him. “Halt!” came the shout again and to enforce his words, Big Jim drew his gun. Like a tigress, the woman sprang at him. His revolver flew through the air and before he could retrieve it from the grass, woman and boy had gone.
I've often described that scene to youth groups and asked them to guess who the woman was. Without hesitation, I always got the answer, “His Mum, of course”. Who else! Then I would go on to apply the lesson. This mother risked her life for her boy because she loved him. After all, he was her boy, and no doubt he would love her in return for her heroic deed that Sunday afternoon. Here was just a faint picture of the love which led Jesus to die for you and me on a Roman cross. Ought we not to love him in return?”
One of my late father’s favourite hymns is ‘The Old rugged Cross’. Written by George Bennard in 1913, prior to World War 1, this hymn sums up the immeasurable love of Jesus that is freely available to every individual.
My father truly cherished the cross, and his life exemplified that fact in many different ways to the very last.