My tragic brothers, heroes of the RAF
Novelist Alan Fenton recalls the flying twins who died fighting for their country
An RAF Mosquito
I am the youngest of four brothers. Denis, the middle one, is five years older than me. The two eldest, Basil and Gerald, were twins, 11 years older. At the outbreak of the Second World War, aged just 17, they volunteered to join the Royal Air Force as aircrew. My father begged them to join something less dangerous, but they were adamant. If everyone chose the less risky options, there would be no RAF, they said. Moreover, as Jews, they felt strongly that it was their duty to risk their lives for their country.
Sadly, I can scarcely remember them. I do know that they were sociable, loved tennis, classical music and reading, were serious minded but also full of fun. In their early years they were virtually identical, and at school quite unruly. Separated into different classes because they were always the centre of mischief, they would swap from day to day, much to the frustration of their teachers. As they grew up, Basil, the "elder" twin, was the diplomatic and calm one; Gerald, outspoken and a touch tempestuous.
In March 1943, a telegram arrived at our house in north London. Gerald was missing. My parents were devastated. There was the possibility that he had bailed out of his aircraft and been taken prisoner. I still have the letter Basil wrote to them, in which he quoted Gerald's favourite lines from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas: "Until the day
when God shall deign to reveal the future to man, all wisdom is summed up in these two words - wait and hope".
There was hope, though precious little of it, and of course there could be no shivah. After many months the Air Ministry wanted to return Gerald's personal effects - his few clothes, his shoes, his razor, the books he was reading - and my father asked them not to. "My wife still needs to believe that Gerald is alive," he told them. Finally, though, even my mother had to accept that her son would not be coming home. Basil wrote to Denis: "You have lost a brother. I have lost half of myself".
The end of the war in Europe brought hopes of a quick end to the war in the Far East. Basil was now in India flying missions from an airstrip near Burma, then occupied by the Japanese. A few months before they surrendered, he was hit by a shell in his Mosquito aircraft. The pilot managed to bring the plane back to base, but Basil died of his wounds. My father was a broken man, my mother nearly died. Somehow they would have to live the rest of their lives knowing they would never see their beloved twin sons again.
Twins Basil (above) and Gerald Fenton volunteered for the RAF at the outbreak of the Second World War
As a boy, I don't think I accepted that the death of my brothers was real - probably because it was too painful to deal with. It didn't help that, as a family, we never talked about them. Years later I asked my mother about the twins, but she would only speak of wheeling them in their prams in Lordship Park when they were babies. I believe that somewhere in her fantasy world they were still alive. Even now I find it hard to talk about Basil and Gerald. Once I mentioned to a non-Jewish friend that I had two older brothers who were killed in the war. His astonished reaction? "I didn't know Jews fought in the war." That hurt. I contacted AJEX, the Jewish ex-servicemen association, and sent him the statistics showing that 60,000 British Jews joined the armed forces in the Second World War - the same percentage as any other section of the community.
Do my books, The Call of Destiny and The Hour of Camelot, about the Arthurian legend, have anything to do with my own life? Most definitely they do. They have helped me deal with my brothers' death in a way I was not able to at the time. To me Gerald and Basil were heroes, and King Arthur is the archetypal hero. He, and all those wonderful characters in the myth - Merlin, Lancelot and Guinevere, Mordred, Gawain, Galahad and the rest - come alive in our 21st-century world. Fantasy and reality are blended, just as they were for me when I was a child. And even though the world has not yet been saved from the dark forces, we live in the hope that one day good will triumph over evil. For there is always hope, the one thing that did not fly out of Pandora's box.
I think of my brothers almost every day. The memory never fades. It's like a fire that never goes out. And I wonder about them - what sort of men they would have become, what sort of lives they would have led, the children they would have had - those brave, idealistic men who gave their lives for a cause they believed in. I miss them enormously, and I am very proud of them.
'The Call of Destiny' and 'The Hour of Camelot' are published by Dovecote Press at £8.99 each. www.alanfenton.co.uk