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Heroes of My Youth – 5 b ihr hms RORKE’S DRIFT

y Rc ad T o a Vera Brittain’s friend, Winifred Hotlby became a

The battle at Rorke’s Drift which took place during the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa in 1979 cannot be described without due reference to the preceding battle at Isandhlwana on 22nd January of that year. This occurred after the deaths of British citizens by the Zulus and the refusal of their king, Cetshwayo to hand over the perpetrators to Britain for trial. In the event the British army under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pulleine mustering some 5000 men, part British part African, clashed with a Zulu army of about 12,000. The result was a crushing rout for the British described at the time as the worst defeat of such forces against native opposition, only a handful of men finding their way back to their supply base at Rorke’s Drift. The base consisted of a dwelling house and a

chapel, the house being used as a field hospital, the chapel full of stores, and with only 104 men fit enough to fight led by Lieutenant Chard of the Royal Engineers and with Lieutenant Bromhead in command of the 2/24 Worcester regiment. Barricades were formed between the two dwellings; when the Zulus attacked armed with short stabbing spears they were met by rapid rifle fire from the defenders. After several attacks the Zulus gained sufficient ground to set fire to the hospital. Valiant work was achieved by the defenders, particularly by a private, Alfred Henry Hook, and his friend John Williams as they succeeded in dragging several patients from the burning building into the improvised shelter of the barricades. The incredible bravery of these men whilst under heavy attack must stand as one of the outstanding episodes in the long history of the British Army. Fighting raged throughout the night with neither

side gaining an advantage. When dawn came the Zulus withdrew having lost some 350 warriors plus several wounded. 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the British soldiers including one to Lieutenant Bromhead who was later portrayed in the film Zulu by a young Michael Caine (1963). A later film, Zulu Dawn gave a vivid account of the battles both at Islandhlwana and Rorke’s Drift. I was much impressed in my late teens by the

work of two women writers, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. The former written in 1933 recalled Vera Brittain’s life during WW1 from 1915 on when she delayed her studies at Somerville College, Oxford to work as a nurse. She suffered the misfortune of losing her fiancé, two close friends and her brother, Edward Brittain to the mincing machine of that War; events which drove her firmly towards pacifism, a cause she espoused for the rest of her life. Marrying George Catlin in 1925 she bore a son, John Brittain-Catlin in 1927, followed by a daughter Shirley Williams in 1930, the present Liberal- Democrat peer.


life-long companion from 1919 to the end of her life in 1935. Her book South Riding was written in haste after she was diagnosed as suffering from Bright’s disease and had only two years to live. Both Testament of Youth and Vera Brittain’s subsequent works Testament of Friendship and Testament of Experience and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding show the warmth of character of both women and it is little wonder that they were deeply affected by the events in WW1. I did not know that I, too, would be involved in action in 1940 serving six years in the RAF. Both Vera and Winifred would have been delighted

to know that present-day women, particularly in the Western world have made such significant advances in their way of life, in choice of career, in learning and in equality with the male sex. “Hi fellers” The voice of Fred Astaire rang out to the group of

RAF airmen standing in the Autumn sunshine outside the portico to Boston station railway station, USA. We, a party of 14 had travelled down from Halifax, Nova Scotia en route to our new posting to the Bahamas; a mixed group of Wireless Operator/Air Gunners and Navigators sent out from England to pass on our knowledge of combat operations and techniques to the new crews undergoing training at the two airfields on that group of islands.

The famous dancer and film star had almost reached

our position when a girl’s voice called “Fred, you’re wanted here”. Fred turned and headed to the first jeep of four and started to help with the selling of Victory Bonds in aid of America’s war effort. I had long been an admirer of his twinkle-toed technique on screen, and particularly with his partnership with Ginger Rogers in a series of musicals with scores provided by Cole Porter and George Gershwin. To see him within touching distance and hearing his voice was a moment of magic for a young man of 23. As we turned to re-board our train I saw the wave of a hand and a huge smile from a man who had taken the trouble to notice us. Fred Astaire started life dancing with his sister,

Adele, in cabarets and music halls in several parts of the world before he was 20. He went solo after his sister married Lord Charles Cavendish in 1921. Paired with various artists in stage shows and films his big break- through came when he was linked with Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorce, a short sequence in the middle of the film bringing them to the attention of the new cinema- loving audience. It led to a successful run of six musicals in which he and Rogers were the main attraction. Later Fred played serious non-dancing roles with actresses Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Betty Hutton et al. Fred died in 1987, living in my mind as a superb performer, not only with his feet but allied to wise-cracking wit in many of his roles.

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