A Chat on a Bench

It’s amazing what you can learn from simple chance meetings isn’t it?

The day was like any other day really, but the weather had changed surprisingly from the grey and drizzle of the morning to a very mild almost warm feeling in the afternoon with blue skies and bright sunshine. Although it’s mid February now there are signs of Spring starting to show. Snow Drops gaily litter the undergrowth of the bushes with their nodding delicate white heads, Daffodils, their green stems growing and reaching for the sky, Catkins, some lime green and fresh whilst others look like small balls of shiny silk, both vibrant in the sunshine. And then there are the birds; wonderful, wonderful birds all so busy now filling the still bare branches with movement and such sweet birdsong. It’s enough, literally, to make ones heart soar.

I had left home and had walked along the streets getting round to the point of diverting down a little dirt public footpath. The rains of the last two nights have had their effects by creating path-wide puddles that needed to be circumnavigated over the now muddy-grassed borders. A little litter here and there detracts from what could be a pristine look that would have been, but one can’t have everything. To be able to walk underneath the small trees and bushes with my coat open, the mild breeze and the warming sun’s rays on my face is so welcome.

I walked past the backs of the houses until, clearing the red bricks and man made structures I then walked on and in to green open fields where I was greeted with an almost euphoric feeling of again being ‘in’ nature. Seeing the flowers, the green stems of young plants indicating the rising sap and espying the tiny new pink buds all made me smile. A black blackbird hopped across the path in front of me and I saw that he was following the brown female blackbird. ‘I know what you’re up to’ I thought with a smile on my face. Chiff Chaffs sang gloriously from the twiggy treetops as Blue and Great Tits skittered and scatted from one side of the path to the other. Then I heard such a beautiful song nearby and as I stopped and looked in the trees there he was, resplendent in his red single-breasted coat, a friendly little Robin. “Hello” I quietly said to the Robin, “how are you today?” Oh what glory!

My walk this morning took me down a very old ‘wagon-way’ and in to the countryside around the back of the Golf Course and then, turning right down a Public Footpath, heading towards the sea. The whole route (until I got to the road) surrounded me with nature; natures smells, sights and sounds. Canada Geese flying their ‘Vee’ formation whirling and turning, honking and cackling to each other all the while as they lost height to alight in the fields to graze on the grass. Ahhh … it takes your breath away when you stop to watch and really see and hear and feel what’s going on around you. So with that image implanted in your mind I will continue.

My walk brought me down on to the promenade near to St Marys Lighthouse. The sea was so calm and so blue, reflecting the blueness of the great skies above. People were walking, either alone, with a companion or a dog, all of them enjoying the brief respite in the weather. Glorious. The “good morning” are all said with pleasant and open faces and people, for once, actually looking at you when they either speak or react to you.

My walk then took me along another dirt path past a small wild fowl sanctuary behind the Lighthouse and on along a ploughed field where I could see a small flock of Curlew, their long, slender and downturned beaks prodding the soft dark brown earth.

Along this path there are a few benches strategically placed and so, having walked for about an hour or so I decided to take advantage for a little rest. I sat and watched people as they drifted by exercising, talking, holding hands as they walked, each in their own little world.

Then I saw an old man walking slowly down the path towards me, his aging small Jack Russell type dog slightly limping and struggling to keep up. Getting to the bench where I was sitting, he smiled, said his “good morning” and sat down. Sitting there bathed in warm sunshine and a slight breeze off the sea freshened the airs ruffling our hair. It was so pleasant and so, I wasn’t surprised when the elderly man said “it’s a fine morning isn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it is” I said. “I’ve just come down off the Golf Course up behind the Briar Dene and it’s wonderful up there, just like Spring.”

“You don’t come from around here do you?” said the man smiling, as he petted and patted his old faithful dog.

“No, I’m from the North West, from Oldham actually, near Manchester though definitely not Mancunian. But I’ve worked and stayed in many places all around the country during my time. I’m just out for a little walk because I want to get back as there’s a favourite film of mine on the TV later and I’d like to see it again. It’s been a while since I last saw it.”

“Which film’s that then?” he asks.

“Battle of the River Plate.”

“Oh, right. I know that one. I was there as a matter of fact” he smiled and chuckled.

“Oh, how come?”

“I served on HMS Ajax during the Second World War and I was in that battle. Stirring and frightening stuff when you know the story.” Then, after a slight pause, he took a deep breath and said “People just don’t think or remember these things anymore. You know, the only thing people associate Ajax with is the bloody kitchen cleaner. No, it’s a sad fact that even schools don’t teach the kids proper history any more.”

As I looked at the man and watched his hands as he stroked his dog, I could see him reminisce, his mind and thoughts returning to those days. On board the battle cruiser, HMS Ajax, the roar of guns, the cloying smell of cordite, as his ship engaged that wonder of the German pocket-battleship the Graf Spee in the south Atlantic Ocean, near to the delta of the River Plate which divides Argentina and Uruguay.

The Battle of the River Plate I discovered later, took place on December 13th 1939. This battle in the South Atlantic was the first major naval battle of World War Two. Ships from the Royal Navy’s South Atlantic Group took on the might of Germany’s fleet in the shape of the pocket battleship, the Graf Spee that was successfully attacking merchant shipping in the South Atlantic.

This particular Naval Division was made up of four battle cruisers. On Saturday, December 2nd, 1939, HMS Ajax, commanded by Captain Woodhouse, was harboured at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. Also at Port Stanley was HMS Exeter, commanded by Captain Bell. Two other ships made up the Division – HMS Cumberland, commanded by Captain Fallowfield, and HMNZS Achilles, commanded by Captain Parry. The commander of the South Atlantic Naval Division was the decorated Commodore Harwood.

The Graf Spee was targeting the route used by merchant ships near the River Plate in Argentina. Commodore Harwood had given the Ajax, Achilles and Exeter orders to engage the Graf Spee “at once by night or day” if the ships ever came across her.

At 05.52 on this particular day, look outs on the Graf Spee saw two tall masts on the horizon. By 06.00, the Captain of the Graf Spee, Captain Langsdorff, had identified one of the ships seen as being the Exeter. It’s reported that he had decided that the ships trailing him were protecting an important merchant convoy and he decided to attack.

The engines of the Graf Spee were put onto a battle footing ~ their power was greatly increased. This gave out a plume of highly visible black smoke from the funnels and the following British cruisers could clearly see her position and change of stance. ‘She’ had changed in nature to one now of aggressive stalking, of an attacking posture, like a cat stalking it’s prey.

The Graf Spee turned to attack and at 06.17 opened fire on HMS Exeter. The Exeter was hit repeatedly amidships and the ship sustained serious damage.

The Achilles and Ajax were also involved in this battle but they had stayed away from the Exeter in an attempt to split the Graf Spee’s fire power. It proved to be ‘the’ successful ploy.

Now the Achilles and Ajax took up the battle. They were up against a ship that had certainly been hit but had suffered minimal damage at this stage even though Captain Langsdorff had been knocked unconscious in one attack. Both ships were ordered by Commodore Harwood to approach the Graf Spee “at the utmost speed”.  Captain Langsdorff, a torpedo specialist, kept both ships astern of him to give them the smallest possible target with regards to a torpedo attack.

This epic battle was, I could see, being replayed in the mind of the man sitting next to me. The emotions on his face deeply etched as the sun emphasied the deep furrows and lines around his brow, his now squinting eyes seeing and watching events through the mists of time, his mouth firmly set. I didn’t, nor couldn’t disturb his reverie. I just sat and waited.

Eventually the old man returned to the present and said, ‘such courage, such valor and honour. I lost some good friends back then and think of them often. But you know, the man I most admire from that experience is the German Captain who scuttled his own ship to save all our lives, both German and British lives, and our own boss (Commodore Harwood) who recognised this action in his battle reports which is part of history now.

I could see tears in the mans eyes.

‘But … it’s like I said. The sad thing is that ~ ask any kid today, or even a young adult, what the word Ajax means to them and they will probably say “a kitchen cleaner”, they have no idea nor concept.’

I left the old man saying my “cheerio” and his reply of “enjoy the film”, and him then engrossed in his little dog and his thoughts, in their own little world. I walked away, thinking, remembering his words. He had no bitterness in his thoughts of his wartime experiences. Indeed, he showed a lot of pride, and not only for the British Naval seamen but also for the courage and honour of the Germans.

Later that afternoon, as I sat and watched the film on television ‘The battle of the River Plate’, I remembered the pleasant old man and tried to imagine which one would be him.

And every now and then I think to myself, what emotions and emotionally intelligent traits did I see, could I see, in ‘him’?

Sympathy, certainly. He was sympathetic towards his shipmates lost in that action and of and with those gone closely around him as the battle raged.

Empathy, as he described his feelings of the connection and pride with the German seaman’s and leaders’ actions.

Fear, and I mean ‘real’ and tangible fear, the sort of fear you can touch, smell and taste, the fear you experience when death comes a-visiting, as ‘He’’, the ‘Reaper’ so often did during those times. The same death visitation I too have experienced and witnessed.

Is euphoria an emotion? I think in certain circumstances it is, especially when you become suddenly aware that you escape with your life in tact if not your whole body.

The thrill of excitement, the joy and happiness of escape, the sadness and depression that truly allows us to recognise and appreciate joy … oh so many emotions and emotionally intelligent traits.

Can you the reader of this short but very true story, discern anything, understand anything, feel anything? Can you, do you, recognise any emotions or see any traits that I haven’t mentioned? There are many and I leave them out purposely, to give you an opportunity to think in response for yourselves.

If you like, write to me, and tell me what you think about the old man and his reminisces? Give me your list of emotions and emotionally intelligent traits that your garner from this story?

And the next time you are cleaning your kitchen or whatever, and you need to use ‘Vim’ or ‘Ajax’ cleaner, remember this old Geordie Seaman, and the life-changing experience he had and the fascinating story he had to tell.

The wonders of a simple chance meeting hey … ? With an amazing man on a resting bench in the countryside, whilst he walking his old and decrepit but faithful dog.



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