Sometimes, you will come across stories that will grow more and more inspiring and special as they are unfolded. Sometimes, these stories are just that – great stories. Sometimes, they are a little bit more. They might somehow strike a chord with us, or they might be extra special due to the fact that they are actually true, that this actually happened to the human begin sitting in front of you, telling the story.
Personally, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear a number of true stories like that, but few of them rival the story of Reginald Matthews. What started as a 30 minute interview that was supposed to be about him winning his first award at 90 turned into 2½ hours about the Second World War, Religion, the South West, Asia and why he’s never retired. What was supposed to be 700 word piece on an award and a teaching experience in China turned into 2500 words about…well, for want of a better description, I would call it a life well lived. A story about a 90-year-old man whose fascination with airplanes somehow ended with him sailing the seas until the tender age of 79, and going to China to volunteer and an English teacher at the age of 89.
Luckily, the editor at the local newspaper who had originally committed the cardinal sin of telling me to write the ‘long version’ of Reg’s story (and knowing me, he should have known better) was able to edit my meandering tale down to a newspaper-friendly length. That version – which I would say is by far the superior one-sitting-story – can be found here.
The version found here is the original, unabridged script that I sent to the editor, and perhaps a chance to learn a bit more about Reg and his inspirational life.
Any attempt to sum up a life in words – even 2500 of them – will invariably fall short. I’ve chosen to focus on three main parts of Reg’s life, and split the story up into four separate posts. I hope this also makes it a little bit easier to read.
Now over to Reg.
The War Years
I was at the Air Centre when the war broke out and immediately joined the RAF Junior Cadets, in order to prepare myself for when I would be old enough to volunteer. I desperately wanted to be a pilot, but my eyesight let me down. Instead, I trained with the Fleet Air Arm and was posted to Scotland as an air mechanic and attached to a Swordfish squadron. These planes were often regarded as relics, which actually worked in their favour, and they were instrumental in several key naval battles, including the sinking of the Bismarck. Their airspeed was so slow that the gunners on enemy ships could not target them with the systems that they had installed and calibrated to track the flight of modern planes.
When D-Day arrived, everyone thought that it would be a matter of months before the war was over, and I was concerned that I had not yet been to sea. Along with two friends, I applied for a sea-going draft. People thought we were crazy, but they could not dissuade us.
Within weeks, we were aboard the Queen Mary, heading for training in the US. I can remember how every inch of wood on board had initials carved in it by the allied soldiers that she had carried. Once we landed in New York, we had some days of leave and used them wandering the street, craning our necks and taking in the building around us. Of course, every time we stopped to gape upwards, a crowd of locals would gather around us and look up as well, thinking that we had spotted someone who was about to jump.
Following a month of intense training in the north of America, we were put on the HMS Thain, which was a light fleet carrier and sailed with a convoy of ships for the British Isles through some of the worst storms I have ever seen. We travelled for 15 days through waves that would seem to swallow whole ships as they disappeared behind grey walls of water, pop into existence for a second and then be lost again.
Finally, we made it through the storms, docked at Belfast, and soon set off again for Scotland. I was due some hours leave when we arrived and was busy packing when there was a sudden flash of white, and the next thing I knew, the ship was keeling over. There is a saying in the navy that there are the quick and the dead, and without thinking, I rushed out of the quickly flooding compartment. Luckily, the ship remained afloat, and we were towed into harbour.
Others had not been as lucky. Of the 14 who had left England for training and were returning on HMS Thain only myself and a man named Ron Bullock survived the torpedo which had hit us. I only recently learned that it had been fired by the German U1172 submarine through checking the German records from the war which are now available online.
Ron went back to his family in London for sick leave. A few days later, he was having a bath when a V2 bomb fell down close to his home and resulted in the ceiling falling down on him, meaning that I was the only one of the group that survived the Second World War.