Alfred (Tubby) Eltringham, from Lawe Top, stayed tight-lipped about his role in the Second World War until the 1990s.
Then one day, as he was watching the movie Memphis Belle with his son John, Alfred said: “I was there, on their first mission.”
Alfred died in 2007, but John has shared his father’s story with the Shields Gazette as the 80th anniversary of his heroics approaches.
John said: “To me, my dad was a war hero, but I didn’t know why.”
Then came that day in the 90s as the father and son watched the movie together.
The film Memphis Belle is the story of a US Air Force Flying Fortress Bomber plane of the Eighth Air Force. Its crew were trying to survive 25 sorties over Europe which would mean they had completed their tour of duty.
The movie was the fictionalised story of an original real-life documentary about a Flying Fortress Bomber.
John described it as ‘quite a heart in mouth movie for it’s time and I did enjoy it, but for the most my dad sat quietly. At the end he spoke softly. “I was there, on their first mission.”
I said: “What! What do you mean?” From memory I was a bit shocked and didn’t really know what to say but then dad just continued.
“They lost so many and were only boys. Admittedly we were tired, but they were young and fearless, they were indestructible.”
Dad looked deep in thought then gave a smile, “What a party we had that night, there was beer and food we hadn’t seen for years.”
And that was it, subject over.
Alfred suffered a major stroke in 1997, a month after the death of his wife, but lived another 10 years.
"Sadly, it was without any mobility and speech and so we, my brother Brian and sisters Gillian and Heather, never had the opportunity for any further conversations with him except the awkward one- sided affair with a nod of the head in response,” said John.
"But he could command a room with his smile and would always point to the drink’s cabinet in his small room.”
John embarked on his own mission to find out more about his dad.
"The squadron also operated out Swanton Morley and later Upwood where he stayed until April 1943. After that he spent until the end of March 1946 flying around the Middle East as an instructor and transport pilot operating out of Cairo. Nothing notable or dramatic or so I thought at the time. But that all changed in 2020,” said John.
His cousin Scott is a keen family history researcher. John said: “Out of the blue he sent me an email saying he’d come across an article about the American involvement in the Second World War and their first action in Europe, from a nearby airfield at Swanton Morley, and my dad was mentioned.”
Flying Officer Alf Eltringham was part of six RAF aircrews which accompanied six US crews on a daylight attack against four German Fighter airfields in Holland.
It was the ‘first official American combat mission’ alongside the British, said John. 12 planes were involved. Six of them were manned by newly trained American crews and six by seasoned British crews from 226 squadron based at Swanton Morley.
As if that wasn’t historic enough, Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower were there to see them off.
The mission was to attack four German fighter bases in occupied Holland but the element of surprise was lost when the raiders were spotted by German boats.
Pilot Officer Eltringham was heavily involved in the attack on the group’s second target of Fliegerhorst Haamstede just before 8am on July 4, 1942.
He dropped bombs on a maintenance hangar and camouflaged buildings. He also fired his four nose guns at a pair of HE-111 bombers parked on the ground.
Then it was time for home where the returning crews were greeted by General Eisenhower.
John said: “I don’t know how I missed this important event but in reality it was hidden in plain sight in the log books.
"I looked at the page for the 4th July and there it was, with the simple wording in dads own hand writing, ‘Operations. Low level. Haamstede’
"So why did dad never mention this event? I suppose like so many of his contemporaries he saw and experienced things that were too distressing and so preferred to lock those memories away.
"So Alfred (Tubby) Eltringham, was a war hero, not in the same way as the famous names of the day like Guy Gibson and Douglas Bader but like the thousands of servicemen just doing their duty. But this was an historic event and Churchill and Eisenhower knew it. So as we approach the 80th anniversary of that first American action, we’ll raise a glass. After all, dad did like a party.”
After the war Alfred married Aileen. He joined the family run accountancy firm at the bottom of Fowler Street sharing an office with his father Alfred Eltringham and his grandfather also Alfred Eltringham.
He was also a mean bat for South Shields Cricket Club.