Daughters put the regiment on parade

A BURNING curiosity about their fathers' war years, has today led two women create an archive charting the stories of a regiment of 500 Suffolk men.

A BURNING curiosity about their fathers' war years, has today led two women create an archive charting the stories of a regiment of 500 Suffolk men. Features editor TRACEY SPARLING catches up with the unique project as it draws to a conclusion.

TODAY just 23 former members of a 500-strong Suffolk regiment are still alive - as far as research can tell - and every one of them is amazed at the dogged determination of two Ipswich women.

For decades the veterans from 67th Medium Regiment Suffolk (Royal Artillery) feared their actions during the Second World War had been forgotten. Their battles in North Africa, their capture at Tobruk in 1942, gruesome time in prisoner of war camps and in some cases their daring escape across the mountains, had all been lost in the mists of time.

But then Diana Watts and Jane Bradburn started piecing together their fathers' story of time in the regiment, and the project soon snowballed. They stories they uncovered came from many men, and their fascination -and new friendship - flourished.

Today the pair have enough pictures, a database, stories on tape, and transcripts of the tapes to create an archive which Ipswich Record Office has agreed to hold for generations to come.

As the police policy officer and Macmillan Nurses charity worker approach the end of this journey, it has been an emotional, not to mention time consuming effort.

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Diana of Balmoral Close, Ipswich said: “We want to fill a hole in history. There is no record of this regiment, it was a territorial regiment and was never very well known, yet there were at least 500 local men in it.

“These were ordinary people, apprentices in factories in Ipswich working on the landing the villages, who had this fantastically awful experience then came home to settle back in to rural Suffolk life. It's an amazing story in itself, with many dramatic stories along the way. One man from a village out of town told me 'Gal, I went to war before I went to Woolies! And the enormity of what they did, struck me. We hadn't realises what we were getting involved in.”

Jane added: “We knew we had to do something now, because all the information was out there with the men themselves.”

Diana's father Ted Thompson of Parade Road in Ipswich died in 1994 aged 74, and Jane's father Kenneth 'Pip' Bailey of Belstead was 81 when he died in 2002. Both had been drivers in the regiment during the war years.

Jane, of Grove Hill, Belstead said: “We needed to know about our fathers, so I think other people will feel the same. A lot of the men we have spoken to, had not even talked to their families about what they'd been through. Lots of people will be interested, grandchildren will be interested in their grandad's stories, and we wanted to help them find that all out.”

They set out to get a definitive list, including who died from records at the War Graves Commission, and visited any veterans they could trace to talk through their experiences and copy pictures.

More than 60 years after they served in the regiment, the 86 to 92 year-olds met at a reunion, organised by the women at Martlesham. The occasion was supported by Ipswich Museum and the record office, and reported in the Evening Star in April - and it confirmed to Diana and Jane the value of what they were doing.

Jane said: “These 'old boys' thought what they did in the war was all forgotten. They were amazed when we came up with all this information. They loved it.”

Diana added: “They were very surprised that Jane and I had stuck with the project. We tried to explain to them the pleasure was all ours. From knowing almost nothing of our fathers' war years, we now have this great collection of knowledge. Finding out what our fathers went through, has helped us come to terms with it, so it works both ways. The archive is a gift from us.”

Jack Knight, 92 from Ipswich was the oldest guest from the regiment. Also present were Italians Remo and Maria Columbatto and Nadia Balbo who came from Varisella Piedmont, the village which had sheltered Jane's father following his escape from captivity.

Nadia showed Jane a locket containing Pip's hair, which her grandmother had given her, with the advice: 'This is the sort of man you should marry.'

Jane and Diana had never met most of the guests before the reunion, but Diana said: “The connection was immediate. That connection is quite emotional really, especially when some of the veterans knew my father and Jane's.

“They were telling us things about what happened that we didn't know, and conversely we were able to tell them some things they didn't know. One of the big mysteries happened when they were being transported from north Africa to Italy as prisoners of war. One of the boats was torpedoed by friendly fire but it was kept secret for years until research was done in 1997, by Brian Sims a son of one of the victims. There were 27 survivors and some ended up in Russia and Sweden. The men never knew what happened to their comrades, and we were able to tell them.”

Jane added: “There have also been some fantastic escape stories, one man walked from Poland to Munich from January to March, and when he told us he made it sound like he had just been for a walk in Christchurch Park. He'd never talked to anybody about that time, and when I asked exactly how he survived, did he sing songs to himself as he walked along? He said 'all we thought about was food!' because he had none.

“Families in Ipswich will have had relatives who were lost on that boat. 45 men died. More men were lost from the regiment in that incident than in their battles at war.”

They have been joined in their quest for information about the regiment, by Ipswich man Jack Adams whose father died in the war, when he was just four years old. His father was one of three Felixstowe brothers who were sergeants in the regiment.

“We are coming to the end of the research now, and although the archive can be added to in future - people can take information to Suffolk Record Office - we want to ensure everybody who wants to be included, is.”

They would like to copy photos and momentoes, but will leave the originals with the owners.

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If you have any information to add, call Diana on 01473 681411 or Jane on 01473 730647.

The archive is already open at Ipswich Record Office in Gatacre Road off Bramford Road.

An exhibition showing the archive, will be at Ipswich Library from November 20.

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