My fiancée, I’ll refer to her as Veronica to protect her real name, was introduced to me by a member of my Russian course as a 'blind date'. He told me that she was the widow of an officer who had been killed in an RAF flying accident about 18 months earlier. Sadly, deaths as as a result of flying accidents were not that unusual; in fact I had recently lost five good friends in flying accidents during my last two years on Victor Tankers so I never asked her which accident her husband had been killed in. After a while we all met up at a course party in the North Luffenham Officers’ Mess. Some months after that party Veronica and I got engaged to be married. Veronica was a strict Catholic and I went through several sessions with her and her local priest during which I formally agreed to bring up the small boy from her previous marriage “in the faith”.
Following my double hernia operation and my recovery from Glandular Fever, there were two crucial events in quick succession in the final two weeks before the wedding. First of all it dawned on me, from hints that Veronica dropped from time to time that although I had never met her first husband, she had known from our very first meeting that I had been a member of the five-man court-martial convened to try the captain of the aircraft that had crashed killing her husband. The captain, who had safely ejected from the doomed aircraft, was charged with mishandling an in-flight emergency and thereby causing the loss of the aircraft and the death of several members of his crew as well as some civilians on the ground. We, the Court, acquitted the captain of the charge for reasons that I cannot reveal because they are legally privileged – as all court-martial decisions are. (The President of a Court Martial announces the Court’s verdict but not the decisions that led to it, The verdict then has to be confirmed, or not, by the convening authority.)
Veronica told me one day, as the date for the wedding neared, that she had been “talking” to her late husband when we had been in bed together! That seriously worried me, and I told her so, but the next night she told me again and added that he forgave me for being part of the Court Martial that had acquitted his captain of any wrong, and he approved of me – and my wedding to his widow. That was the first time she admitted that she knew about my part in the Court Martial. I found that even more disturbing and told her firmly that it smacked of entrapment. She did it for the third time on the very next night, the day her two-year old boy, whom I adored, had called me “Daddy” for the very first time. That decided me: there was no way I could live with the idea of a dead husband watching over me and approving or disapproving of my every action. For her little boy’s benefit I decided that the break had to be immediate and irrevocable. I left her house in the middle of the night and never returned. I have no idea what happened to Veronica but I think of that little boy every single day and I still have the photographs I took of him.
After the wedding had been cancelled, my friends confirmed to me,that Veronica had known from before our very first meeting that I had been a member of that court-martial and they knew that was the reason she wanted to meet me on a blind date. From what colleagues told me, Veronica was convinced that the decision to acquit the captain was wrong and she had persistently harangued the RAF about the injustice she believed had been done to her husband and all those killed in the crash. It seems she had some idea that I could do something about getting the court martial verdict changed. My friends had anguished over whether or not to tell me that, even before I had called off the wedding, but in the end had decided not to. I have to admit that in their position I would probably have done the same; you interfere in a friend's love life at your peril!
To recuperate from my glandular fever, my double hernia operation, and the cancelled wedding, I was granted 14 days compassionate leave - and I certainly needed it! I decided to get away for a complete rest without telling anyone where I was going. Very early in the morning, I set off up the A1 from North Luffenham and, apart from several refuelling stops, continued driving until, 600 miles later, I ended up in the Royal Hotel Thurso. That was almost as far as I could go without actually leaving the UK.
A few days later, I crossed The Minch on a MacBrayne Ferry from Ullapool on the mainland to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. I stayed a couple of days and nights in the splendid Caberfeidh Hotel in Stornoway. I then continued south from island to island, hopping on and off ferries, until I eventually came to rest in Lochmaddy on the island of North Uist.
Above: Lochmaddy Pier on 15 August 1977 with the MacBrayne ferry in the distance just leaving
Before breakfast one morning, the cleaning lady came into my room in the Lochmaddy Hotel and caught me sitting on the bed, wearing only my underpants, with headphones on and spouting Russian into a hand microphone connected to equipment in my half open attaché case. The room maid looked both flustered and suspicious. She insisted that she'd knocked twice before entering, then muttered that she would return later, and departed. The equipment was actually nothing more suspicious than my portable tape cassette recorder and the Linguaphone Russian tapes. I had decided that while I was on leave I would try and catch up on Russian lessons I had missed in recent weeks. Remember: there was still a Cold War with the Soviet Union on-going at that time and anything Russian was suspicious. I heard nothing more about that incident but, as it happens, I had already decided to move on that day to South Uist. I set off as soon as I had dressed and paid my bill; one might suppose that was indecent haste.
Above: The causeway to Benbecula
On my way south from Lochmaddy I had to cross the large island of Benbecula which lies between North and South Uist. I knew that there was an important RAF air defence radar station somewhere on the island but I had absolutely no wish to meet the RAF while I was on compassionate leave, so I gave the station a wide berth and continued my drive south on empty roads. It was a beautiful summer day and, for the first time in many weeks, I was feeling both mentally and physically fit and I was at peace with the world.