The Quiet Hero

Lt-Col R.O. Wynne  Image courtesy Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine Historical Society.

Lt-Col R.O. Wynne


As well as my grandfather, Jack and his mate, Percy, there were other real-life characters amongst my fictional ones in Angel of Song. One very special hero is referred to by Madame Dupont only as ‘Hugh’s friend’.

He was Lt. Colonel R. O.(Richard Owen) Wynne of the 2nd Regiment, Bedfordshire Rifles and his war record is impressive, to say the least. He was on the Western Front from at least the beginning of 1915 until the end of WW1 and took command of his entire regiment several times in 1917 in what have been considered some of the worst battles of the war. He trained soldiers new to the Front; from time to time commanded other battalions beside his own; and was twice awarded the DSO for conspicuous gallantry and leadership; the second of which he received after the battle mentioned in Angel of Song.

This occurred during March 21- 28, 1918; specifically on March 27 at La Folie when he led a successful assault on enemy machine guns that were decimating our troops, killing their commanding officer and forcing them into retreat.

Lt. Colonel Wynne was a crack shot; with all the speed and accuracy required by the high standard of the Rifles. Later, in his civilian life, he won many shooting competitions. But he wasn’t about to rest on his laurels.

Private research indicates that he led a secret surveillance team ahead of the 6th Division into France in 1940. The team was left stranded to find its own way out when France unexpectedly surrendered to Germany on the 22nd June 1940 and the 6th had to withdraw, leaving them behind.

After many hair-raising adventures, including hiding in olive groves being strafed by Stukas; he finally managed to make it, under Stuka fire, to the Jackal, a destroyer cruising in the Mediterranean; ending up in hospital in Egypt. The Jackal, damaged, but still able to sail out of range of the Stukas, was not as lucky as him and was sunk later in the war. But she got him away to safety.

A letter written from his hospital bed in Alexandria included a tongue-in-cheek comment that the Free French must have been a myth because he didn’t find any of them. In all the months of hardship; making his way through hostile territory, under fire from the enemy; his only complaint was of lice. He said he would always feel sorry for lousy sheep.

From May, 1941, he was found in Australia, maintaining a distinguished but unobtrusive presence as ADC to the Governor of NSW, Lord Wakehurst. Had anything(or anyone) threatened the Governor, Lt. Colonel Wynne would have gone into the kind of action for which his regiment was famous: His ceremonial walking cane was a concealed .22 rifle!

Personification of the courage, integrity and self-sacrifice of the finest soldiers of WW1; modest, unassuming and reserved; with a quiet dignity; yet ‘hell on wheels’ in a battle; Lt. Colonel R. O. Wynne is one of my favourite real-life heroes.

Photo credit: Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine Historical Society.

Private research courtesy of Lt-Col. Wynne’s granddaughter, Avril.

Grandpère Sans Pareil

TSS Demsthenes

TSS Demosthenes

I have been thinking a lot about my grandfather lately, with this year marking the Centenary of the Western Front. I often wonder how he felt leaving a young wife and baby son, not knowing if he would ever see them again. (And, of course, how dreadful it was for my grandmother.)

He left on the T.S.S. Demosthenes, a steamer commissioned in 1861, described by my grandmother as a ‘leaking old tub in which the bilge pumps worked 24/7 just to keep it afloat.’

He was a remarkable man, belonging to a generation who were prepared to sacrifice their lives for ideals of freedom and justice for their loved ones. Truly, to quote one of my characters (and perhaps countless others) they were God’s finest sons.

In 1900, at age eleven, he was apprenticed to a Master Baker because, he reasoned, people would always need bread and he would always have a job. I still have his cake scales that he bought second-hand, at this time, and used right up to the end of his life. They take pride of place in my kitchen.

In the depression of the 1930s, his business went broke because he would not see people go hungry and always gave them bread whether they could pay or not. Unfortunately, the flour mills did not feel the same way about him. But he worked hard and finally opened another bakery with enough turnover to survive his generosity.

Every year, on Anzac Day, he marched with his mates in the morning; got drunk with them in the afternoon; and, in keeping with others of his generation, never mentioned or referred to the war at other times or in any other way. He also looked after Percy, his friend debilitated on the Western Front, until Percy’s last illness took him to hospital. Percy, who suffered from shell-shock(PTSD) and lung complications, was homeless after being thrown out of his accommodation because he was a hopeless alcoholic.

My grandfather was quick-tempered; proud and independent; took no nonsense from anyone; and called a spade a shovel, offending some. On the other hand, he had a wicked sense of humour; was loyal, kind and generous; a man of both physical and moral courage; and a man of honour.

The maxim: If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing properly; and if you can’t do it properly, don’t do it at all, was his rule for life. He set a high standard.

To his grandchildren, he was Farby; and he spoilt us with ice-cream and sodas from the Greek café up the street; to everyone else he was Jack: and you could take him or leave him.

In my dedication, I refer to him as a patissier sans pareil and so he was: It is many years since he baked his last batch of pies, but there are still people today who remember them as the best ever.

In keeping with his maxim, it took me three years to write this book. I worked hard on my research, as did my wonderful editor, meticulously cross-checking my references.

And so I am proud to dedicate Angel of Song to Jack: Grandpére sans pareil.