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Memory Lane: A Messerschmitt angel in India. By Peter Gleeson

Blog | Apr 21, 2023


My father was a career soldier, who joined the Royal Engineers as a sapper in 1926. By 1935, he had attained the rank of Staff Sergeant. He was then seconded to the Indian Engineers with the rank of Second Lieutenant and took his pregnant wife first to Lahore, arriving in February 1936 after a dreadful journey in the troopship Nevasa.

Soon the intolerable heat of summer began, and it was ‘women and children to the hills’. So I was born in the cool hill station Dalhousie, in the foothills of the Himalayas, whose snowy peaks were visible 100 miles away.

By September, it was too cold at high altitude; my mother and I returned to the plains. We continued this annual oscillation to and from different hill stations until 1940, when my father went with his corps to Iraq, there to build a pipeline to take oil directly to our allies in Russia.

My mother heard of a hill station in the south of India that had equable temperature all year round.

So we two made an epic five-day rail journey via Lahore, Delhi, Bombay and Madras to Coonoor in the Nilgiri Hills, where we stayed until the war ended.

As Catholics, we were familiar with the standard Angelus prayer said at noon. It begins, ‘The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary…’ and includes the lines:

‘Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel...’

I must have heard this first as a child of four.

During wartime, in about 1940, I have a vivid memory of visiting Landi Kotal with my parents. We looked into Afghanistan from the nearby Khyber Pass. I was excited to see Spitfires landing and taking off – at the high altitude of Landi Kotal, they did spit fire from the exhausts.

Even remote from the Battle of Britain, we had regular letters and radio news from England, and I knew the main aircraft that were protagonists and thus I thought the prayer went:

‘…the incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by a Messerschmitt angel…’

By Peter Gleeson, Hermanus, South Africa, who receives £50

Readers are invited to send in their own 400-word submissions about the past