Todmorden U3A: A few handshakes away from Adolf Hitler

Ernie Rogan, Chairman U3A  Todmorden, with Alun Pugh. Photo by Roger Howard

Ernie Rogan, Chairman U3A Todmorden, with Alun Pugh. Photo by Roger Howard

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It’s not everyone who can say that he has shaken the hand of a man who has shaken the hand of a man who has shaken the hand of Adolf Hitler, but Alun Pugh is such a one, and on Thursday, 19th January he told U3A Todmorden all about it.

Alun’s father, Dei, was a bomber pilot during WW2 and at a reunion many years later he met some Luftwaffe pilots. One of them had shaken the Fuhrer’s hand; he shook Dei’s hand; Dei shook Alun’s later that day, and so family history was created.

Indeed, family history was partly what this excellently delivered talk was about, and Alun’s stories about his father were composed both of personal memories and objects, photographs and documents that had come to light in the attic after Dei’s death.

Dei Pugh was brought up on a farm in Tywyn in West Wales. Dei’s own father lost his left arm in WW1 in Egypt, and meted out family discipline with a metal prosthetic wrist. Dei may well have been motivated to join the RAF by way of escaping the regime at home as well as by a natural urge to see the world.

At first, Dei was stationed at Bomber Command in Pocklington. Statistics for Bomber crews were not promising: of every hundred men 51 were killed, 9 died in accidents in the UK, 3 were seriously injured and 12 became POWs. Undaunted, Dei became, in spite of his 6’ 4”, a pilot. At least his height saved him from the riskier placement as rear gunner.

Training took place in Canada in Halifax, Monckton, and Alberta where Dei found himself living in a Welsh-speaking community. A photograph taken while he was there always stood on the dresser in his parents’ farmhouse even though his father had opposed Dei’s joining the RAF and had for a while disowned him.

Back in the UK, Dei went on operations from Pocklington. At a local dance Dei met his future wife, who commemorated their meeting with the phrase ‘I went with a Canadian navigator and came home with a Welsh pilot’.

Alun recalls his father recording in his war diaries (which he kept in Welsh) that the night raid in August 1943 on Peenemunde where V1 and V2 rockets were being developed was carried out in bright moonlight at 6000 feet and was an ‘eerie, frightening and suicidal’ mission.

This, however, was not the worst incident in Dei’s career as a pilot. In a raid on Berlin in January 1944, Dei’s Halifax was hit. He managed to pilot it homewards, but he ran out of fuel 100 miles from England and had to ditch in the North Sea. He and his two surviving crew members managed to stay alive in a dinghy for 2 days and nights with nothing to drink before being rescued suffering from exposure and frostbite. After this, Dei only flew non-operational frights.

Alun recounted three other memorable consequences of this traumatic experience. Dei ever after had cold feet and always wore two pairs of socks in winter, and he became a member of the Goldfish Club (Alun had the badge to prove it) for ‘people who have escaped an aircraft by parachuting into the water, or whose aircraft crashed in the water, and whose lives were saved by a life jacket, inflatable dinghy, or similar device’.

But Dei had also acquired a perfect laxative, for whenever he was feeling costive he would take out a map, any map, and within minutes he would have found relief. The map reminded him of the fears associated with preparing to fly a mission when he and his fellow aircrew had spent a lot of time shuffling to the toilet.

After the war, Dei became a teacher, and presented some of his memorabilia to Elvington Air Museum which he and his family visited one day and where Alun recalls Dei enjoying the chance informally to regale visitors with a first hand account of the significance of his material on display.

Most touchingly, Alun concluded this heartfelt talk with a description of ‘The Game’ he used to play with his father. On the lino floor of Alun’s bedroom, Dei would pretend to be ‘in the drink’ and it was Alun’s job to rescue him by hauling him into his dinghy-bed. Sharing this was, I think, a sure measure of Alun’s affection for his father, and his father’s appreciation of the security and joy of family. We thank Alun warmly for speaking to us.

Our next meeting will be held on Thursday, 16th February in the Central Methodist Church in Todmorden at 1.45 when our speaker will be Maria Glot whose subject will be ‘Titus Salt and Saltaire’. Our contact details are (website) www.u3atod.org.uk, (email) enquiries@u3atod.org.uk, or (phone) 01706 812015.