1981: Tony Geraghty in freefall from 26,000ft in a HALO (high altitude-low opening) jump favoured by the SAS

 

 

1970(approx): Sibson airfield, near Peterborough, kitting up for the next skydive.

 

 

Canal Zone of Egypt 1951: taking part in a heavy drop which did not go according to plan.

 

 

Canal Zone of Egypt 1951: part of the British army of occupation, serving with 16 Independent Parachute Brigade Group.

 

 

17 April 1941 : Sutherland Terrace, Pimlico, about 200 yards from Geraghty's childhood home, the morning after it was hit by two German parachute mines and three high explosive bombs. In 19944, Geraghty was buried by debris from a V1-flying bomb. He was aged twelve and a war veteran by then. (Picture copyright City of Westminster Archives)

 

 

As war reporter during the Biafran/nigerian civil war 1968, marching with warriors of the Tiv tribe.

 

 

Taking a break from skiing, 2008.

 

 

At the workface, as an author, 2009.

 

 

Preparing for a Remembrance Day parade.

Blitz

an extract from Geraghty’s upcoming autobiography: "Lucky Bastard"

On Saturday 7 September 1940, my parents took me on a ghoulish outing to the hard-up, working class East End of London to look at the damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe on other people’s homes. We lived in Cumberland Street, Pimlico, in far-away West London, a strategic spot near Buckingham Palace, Victoria Railway Station, the rail link to Dover from which the Dunkirk survivors were retrieved, Battersea Power Station and Chelsea Bridge, a main road route across the Thames. Wisely, as war was declared, Mom and Dad rented a basement flat. This was probably father’s idea. He was an unusually tenacious survivor of the Battle of the Somme and knew about incoming fire. He had recently dug trenches in Hyde Park.

There was plenty of vacant property for us to rent. The Rich Bastards who owned it had fled to America, Canada, Rhodesia, South Africa, Australia and Windsor Castle, leaving empty buildings vulnerable to incendiary bombs. I, aged eight, pasted sticky brown paper on the windows and waited as if for Christmas, for sight of my first Germans in their jackboots and funny helmets.

The sightseeing trip to the East End was a less good idea. Two weeks earlier an exploratory Luftwaffe raid lost its way. Taking a short cut home it ditched its cargo of high explosive, causing minor damage and few casualties from Islington to Bethnal Green and beyond. In retaliation, the RAF bombed Berlin and killed ten civilians. Hitler lost his rag and ordered his airmen to launch total war on London. He believed that by paralyzing the London docks, through which much of Britain’s food and aid came, he could subdue Britain at one stroke, breaking our morale as he had done to Rotterdam the previous May.

So it came about that on that fine, late summer Saturday afternoon, as we travelled east on a red London omnibus, 348 German Heinkel 111 bombers escorted by 600 fighters were coming the other way. And that was only the first wave. It would be followed by another 133 bombers, plus escorts: say, 1,100 enemy aircraft concentrating their firepower on a few, densely populated square miles. London was defended by ninety-two anti-aircraft guns and a depleted RAF fighter force. More pilots were being killed by this time – the 60th day of the Battle of Britain - than replacements could be trained. It was a day later known to the history of London as Black Saturday, the largest assault on Britain since the Spanish Armada and far more destructive.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we were ambling through a small park near the 18th century Limehouse church of St Anne, about 500 yds from the Thames and the London docks. I don’t recall hearing the banshee wail of the air raid siren that calm, sunny evening, just aircraft engines above us, and some explosions. I looked up. I saw the silver silhouettes of aircraft caught by the sun, like nursery mobiles pinned to the ceiling of a blue sky on which an invisible hand painted puffs of smoke. Then everyone started running. We followed the pack, mother holding one hand, father, the other, towards the sanctuary of St Anne’s crypt.

This filled to bursting with frightened people as the bombs whistled down, growling and spitting fire like dragons. The earth moved. Darkness came on. I was pinned against the wall by the weight of bodies. For some reason a Chinese gentleman struck matches to illuminate the scene. Perhaps he sensed the nearness of the dragons better than we. But some of the grown-ups around me concluded that he was breaking the blackout regulations. Could he even be an enemy spy sending a signal to the Luftwaffe? After all, he was not one of us. They raised their voices in a chorus of reproach: “Put That Light Out!” It was becoming a mantra of the blitz, a new London street cry performed by Air Raid Wardens, authoritarian in their steel helmets bearing the letter “W”. The fires that spread outside the crypt were more than a match, as it were, for the “Chinaman” Some of the crowd saw the joke. Or perhaps they were slightly hysterical. For whatever reason, many of them began to laugh. Others prayed aloud. Still pinned to the wall, I fell asleep as the bombs, the banter, the tears, the nervous laughter and the whispered prayers continued.

Next morning, after we heard the “All-Clear” – a long, lament for the dead on a single note – we shuffled out. It seemed we had been on some sort of journey through space. It was still dark but we had apparently arrived on a different planet. Dockland had been hit by 625 tons of high explosive bombs. It seemed that everything – the whole world around us except the church - was on fire. There was also water. Fire hoses snaked like gigantic pythons among the tombstones. From some of them, tiny fountains spurted through pinprick holes. My mother squatted behind one of the graves and I saw her blood. I thought she might have been wounded. I also inhaled for the first time, the odour of the blitz: an essence that combined burning wood with wet plaster and something else, a sort of sweet decay. I met it many times over the next four years. It had an aphrodisiac quality, the exciting perfume of disorder, chaos, in which – as I would soon observe in London’s parks and public gardens – couples fucked as if it were their last day. In many cases, it was. At least 436 Londoners were killed that night and 1,666 injured, many of them near St Anne’s Church. Other (normal) children of my age probably took up ornithology, or following Chelsea FC as a hobby. I became a voyeur of war and sexual behaviour, a precocious graduate of Dante’s 7th circle of hell.

© Tony Geraghty 2010