by Pat Strickson, author of Time Stood Still in a Muddy Hole.
As a retired Headteacher I looked for interesting things to do, which can’t be done in a Primary school, like life drawing, working with glass, Slimming World. For the first 6 months I enjoyed coffee mornings and extra holidays. But I also knew I needed something else? I didn’t expect to write a book.
One rainy day in February I was waiting for my husband and had a few minutes to spare. The lights of the Cancer Research Charity shop beckoned. It was a day to find a good book so I headed straight for the bookshelves. But above, a light shone on a watercolour painting. It was of the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, an iconic building at the heart of our town. It was an original by AFJ Hannaford, unframed, wrapped in an old plastic bag. I loved it as soon as I saw it. After buying it and tucking it under my coat I headed to the opticians, showed my husband then set off to the nearest framers.
Amazingly the girl in there recognised the painting and knew the artist and typed his name into her screen to show me his obituaries. He had died on Armistice Day a few months before, his wife of 64 years died a few days before him. They had a joint funeral. He was an unsung war hero they reported, ‘The last bomb disposal officer of WWII.’
There were photos of a handsome young officer and talk of the most dangerous job of the war. It said ‘whole teams blown up.’
Captain Hannaford said ‘they’d been forgotten and written out of history.’
I was drawn deeper into his story.
He had said, ‘they were not officially recognised.’ What did that mean?
I was hooked and set out to discover more. I found his flat up for sale, and through the estate agents I got in contact with his family. They were just as surprised as I was when I said I wanted to write his story.
They gave their consent and trusted me with his notes. I also got his interviews with the Imperial War Museum and a Channel 4 documentary. It was a mystery to unravel.
I had his soldier snaps of his smiling men training, but on the back of one, the poignant message saying they were nearly all killed. It was shocking looking at those smiling faces knowing they came to a tragic end..
The research was fascinating. It transported me to a frightening world when the threat of invasion hung over us. In South Wales where his men were killed clearing mines I walked on the beaches and through dark tunnels remembering and imagining. In Malta, I attended a ceremony to commemorate their brave Bomb Disposal with armed forces past and present and attended by their Prime Minister. Cannons boomed in celebration and I hoped one day that those pioneers of Bomb Disposal here in WWII could get that same recognition John Hannaford so wanted.
Searching for his story in the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives was like treasure hunting. When I found Lieutenant Hannaford in his company’s diary notes I shed a tear in a silent room full of other treasure hunters. I read cabinet papers with Winston Churchill present, aerial photos of Operation Jantzen, a practice for D Day landings on Saundersfoot beach.
Stories from the past greeted me every step of the way, a young boy’s memory of digging up a bomb on the beach, another of seeing 3 bodies in a tunnel, an innkeeper’s son seeing Churchill and his daughter meeting Eisenhower and Mountbatten. My father died whilst I completed the book. He remembered exploring bombsites for shrapnel in Glasgow. He gave me a piece he’d saved over the years. It was my last gift from him.
As I searched one last time I finally discovered a quote from Winston Churchill stating ‘Bomb Disposal deserves recognition!’ Bravo! The end.
But it was just the beginning!
I knew nothing of publishing. Each step was a new experience. I searched for an honest, professional and straightforward publisher.
When I found SPP and read their comments, one rang true with me, ‘They do what they say,’ an author commented. I visited SPP in Bath. I was reassured and signed their agreement. The money was paid in easy chunks with no pressure attached.
Giving my finished manuscript to SPP was like handing over my baby. Each stage I was guided expertly. Editing was hard work but managed rigorously. I liked that!
The design team gave me options for the back and front cover and the inside layout. They were highly skilled and creative and listened to me about colour and my ideas. Their interpretations were spot on.
I love my book, the feel of it, inside and out and want as many people as possible to read it. I have sent a book to the Queen and to contacts in the Royal Engineers. The Mayor of Bexhill and 101 City of London EOD attended the launch with the Deputy Lieutenant for East Sussex. The launch was a way to say thank you to John’s family and so many people who helped me and to get his story noticed. I managed to arrange it at the De La Warr Pavilion. The painting sat on an easel, centre stage, the book fitted in perfectly. It is on sale in their bookshop, Bexhill Museum, the local British Legion club and the Framers.
With help I have now got an author page on Amazon. I’m on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Each day I write emails to editors of newspapers. Authoramp have helped market the book and collected reviews and distributed them on different sites.
I’ve started a Government Petition: ‘Award a separate medal to Bomb Disposal Services in WWII’
Only 10,000 signatures required. Please sign up to have these amazingly courageous soldiers recognised.