Recently I read A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson for my book club. It is the story of Teddy and his life pre, during and post WWII. While it flipped backwards and forwards from Teddy’s childhood, through the war, his marriage and children the part of the novel that hit home most with me with was Teddy’s wartime experiences as an RAF bomber pilot. I continually transposed Teddy with my Uncle Frank.
Frank Trevor Kelf was born on 28 March 1923 and joined the RAAF in 1941 as a Flying Officer When he left for training in Canada on one of the US Army troop carriers Frank carried with him a diary and a small camera. Frank, aged 18 travelled from Sydney to Dunnville, Canada via Cuba, Guantanamo, the USA, Montréal and finally arrived in Dunnville, Ontario where he did his major training in flying and map reading.
Later he went to London and finally was stationed with the RAF in Grangemouth in Scotland in 1943 where he was shot down once, crash landed twice, once after an engine failure at takeoff. By the end of the War he had 510 hours flying and 65 hours operational flying. After his last crash he professed his nervousness during operational flying and was somewhat doubtful of ever wanting to fly again. His Commanding Officer said “he has however at all times been and extremely good officer.”
Initially his diary entertains us with his “Contiki holiday”. Frank was continuously chronicling the minutiae of his tour of duty. The stuff a young backpacker would write in postcards or posts on Facebook to the friends back home. We heard about most the thrills and spills, girls and pubs. He celebrated his 20th birthday and reminded us he had missed two Christmases at home but was welcomed into the homes of others.
His annotated collections of photos take over from where the diary leaves off and are a mixture of larrikin and perhaps the dawning horror of war. For example, his squadron photos begin to be a countdown those who are “lost” with “x”s through the men’s pictures.
His artistically composed photos of aircraft are interspersed with smoky lines of a friend’ aircraft after being shot down. Interspersed with graphic photos of dead Germans and injured Japanese planes are shots of the “Boys Own Adventure”, a visit from the King and Churchill, dead Germans, crashed planes and photos taken on missions.
Later in March 1944 when he is posted to India, Libya and Burma he revels in the sights of snake charmers, camel trains, Hindu culture the Taj Mahal and the Himalayan foothills amongst other things.
At the conclusion of the story Frank’s life departs from Teddy’s. (Both are shot down and while Frank moves to India, Teddy is a prisoner of war.)
A God in Ruins continues to chronicle Teddy’s life through marriage to old age. It is clear both Teddy and Frank suffered from their experiences and memories of that time. No doubt Frank came back a very different person to the beloved son who went away to serve his country. Back in Australia in 1945 he married Betty and later Aileen and fathered three lovely children: Jillian, Airdrie and Chris. He joined the N.S.W. Fire Brigade and went to the airport fire service. Sadly the demons of war haunted this man who charmed people all over the world and his life ended too early in 1960. Frank succumbed to his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Our finest memory of Frank is his portrait in the Australian War Memorial painted by war artist Sir William Dargie. He was attracted Flying Officer Frank Kelf by the kerchief he wore. Overall we have some strong memorabilia, his photographs, his diary, his observations and sense of humour. Teddy’s story was fiction but Frank’s is real.
We are thankful for Frank's legacy of his diary and his annotated photos.
The night my book club met I couldn’t wait to get the discussion of Teddy’s exploits over. I wanted to pass around my “show and tell”- Flying Officer Frank Trevor Kelf’s memorabilia.
11/11/2016 Lest we Forget