A soldier’s diary
As New Zealand marks Poppy Day, one family remembers its fallen relative with a look back through his World War II diary. Ged Cann reports.
Within Jack Crawford’s war diary, behind a worn black cover embossed with the faded greywords My Trip Book, are stories a young soldier might leave out from letters home.
For Crawford’s great nephew, Dave Yaxley, these are among his favourites to read. There is Jack’s embarrassment after guiding his Lancaster bomber to the wrong airfield after amission, leaving friends fearing him dead and his superiors furious.
Therewas the night out in Englandwhen he met Edna Edwards, who he would propose to three days later and marry not long after.
Then there’s Jack and a friend’s trip up the Empire State Building in New York on their way to military training, where they carved their initials into a concrete seat at the top.
‘‘Whether that’s still there – I don’t know. But I’m going to go and have a look some time,’’ Yaxley, from Beachland, Auckland, says.
‘‘It reads as if they are off on this exciting adventure, never expecting not to return. I think probably once they got there, reality struck.’’
But it’s Crawford’s final entry Yaxley decides to read: ‘‘It was brightmoonlightwith no clouds, and was a suicidal mission from the start.
‘‘The target could not have been clearer in daylight, but we paid heavily. The fighters were waiting for us on the way out and within about half an hour 13 of our planes went down in flames.
‘‘Through the starboardwindow I saw a plane go down to crash in a burst of flame.
‘‘The flackwas scattered and very moderate, mostly light. One burst came very close to our tail and several times we were caught by search lights. The next day we lost CV Gallagher.
‘‘Jack’s diary ends here.’’
The return of Crawford’s war diary to his Kiwi family was never assured. Crawford, a Royal New Zealand Air Force radio operator and gunner, was shot down on March 4, 1945, as the war neared its end. Germany would surrender barely twomonths later.
The diarywas handed to his newly-wed English wife. Edna then handed it to her daughter, Rose, who lent the diary to friend and amateur historian John Herbert. This began a hunt for Crawford’s relatives on the other side of the world.
Herbert transcribed the entire diary, deciphering spidery writing to discover the story of a 20-yearold’s journey through the Panama Canal, to New York, military training in Canada to become a wireless operator, and finally to the war in Europe.
It was 70 years after Jack’s death that Rose emailed a newspaper editor in Hamilton and a story was written about an English woman whose mother had been wed to a Kiwi soldier, and now wanted to return a diary to his family. There was little to go on – the mother’s name was Elizabeth, he had a sister named Phyllis, and amale relative named Barry.
By chance, the storywas seen by a reverend in Tauranga. She had been married to aman named Barry, and knew the faces in the picture. She contacted Jack’s last living relative – his niece, Pam, Dave Yaxley’s mother.
Yaxley now keeps the diary in a box with his great uncle’s war medals, letters and browning photographs. He says receiving the diary was a great comfort to this mother, who died last year.
‘‘We always saw it that when Johnny left New Zealand that was the end, the end of him, but of course when you read the diary therewas a lot of life that went on after that as well. The diary brings that through. His mind, his hand had written it, it’s really important.’’
World War II was a forbidden topic in the Crawford household, Yaxley says, in part because of the guilt Jack’s mother felt at agreeing to sign her son up. ‘‘I was born in 1959, and ever since I can remember he’s always been remembered. They did talk about him, they just didn’t talk about the war.’’
But Jack – or Johnny as his family always called him – was often brought up, the cheeky young man who had built his own small race car in which he tore around the family paddock.
His marriage to Edna was a classic wartime romance – quick, passionate, imbuedwith the urgency of a young couplewhose future together could be cut short any day.
Jack had actually been engaged to a Kiwiwoman – also called Pam – when he left. It is with a certain lack of regret that Jack recounts the breaking off of the engagement.
As he left his stationing at Barford he wrote: ‘‘A week before I left, I got a letter from Pam breaking off our engagement. Just came in nicely as I had asked Edna tomarry me the night before.’’
Such levity deserts the diary’s pages as Jack’s entries become shorter and mentions of lost friends and heavy flack fire becomesmore numerous.
Eventually entries suddenly turn chillinglymatter-of-fact: ‘‘Had a letter from Allan Hart. Wally Barnes, Stan Shutt, Henry Faulkner, Te Waaba, have all gone. Letter from Stan Poter. Bruce Tees, Hugh Linn, Bercuson, Robertson and Whitmack are all killed.’’
The diary ends with the abruptness of a blank page, but the storywasn’t finished. Hiswidow Edna wrote an epitaph in 1974, a full 29 years after his death, giving an end to a story deserving of more than unfilled pages.
Four of Jack’s aircrew escaped the crash that killed him to be taken as prisoners ofwar. When the war was over, they sought Edna out.
In the epitaph, she recounts the last moments as they were told to her by fellow crewman Tom Thompson.
‘‘[Tom] bailed out. But of course he had no way of knowing the other three were trapped in the smoke, which mercifully must have overcome them before the plane crashed in flames. He gave his life trying to save his two buddies who were trapped in the tail part of the plane.
‘‘I was 20 when we married, I was not 21 when he got killed – my birthday was 13 days after. So the gold locket he had bought me and left in the jewellers’ to be engraved, he didn’t ever see me wear [it].’’
Edna wrote that she had known instinctively the moment Jack’s plane was shot down. Despite only knowing the man for three weeks, she kept his name even after remarrying.
Yaxley has visited Jack’s grave in Reichswald Forest British Cemetery, RAF Section, on the borders of Holland and Germany. ‘‘Once I knew where he was buried, I always felt the need to go over and pay my respects.’’ Yaxley says it is important to remember the sacrifices of previous generations, and the importance of their actions.