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Seventy years ago

Posted by on May 28, 2013

Peggy would never forget the day in May 1943 when she was sitting in the garden at Mardens , the house near Guildford where she was living as a paying guest. Pat, just six months old, was on her knee. There was a knock at the front door and then one of her fellow lodgers appeared, holding a telegram. ‘It’s for  you, Peggy,’ she said, ‘but it can’t be important as they don’t want a reply’. Peggy took the envelope. The message only took a few seconds to read, a few seconds to change her life for ever.  It told her that Major M.A.T.Burke was missing in action, believed killed.

She remembers almost dropping her baby in shock, and with a scream running down the garden trying to escape the news and the dreadful certainty that she would never again see the man she loved most in the world.

Some time later she heard what had happened to her husband. He was with the Reconnaissance corps, seconded to the Royal West Kent regiment, involved in the bitterly fought North African campaign. He was in charge of the crew of a light armoured car, trying to find out enemy positions near Medjez-el-bab in Tunisia. Their armoured car came under attack from a German Tiger tank, which had spotted them before they could get away. Some of Mike’s crew managed to get out of the vehicle and ran to take cover nearby. They were the lucky ones. The armoured car took a direct hit and exploded. No-one inside had a chance, and it was over in seconds. Later, the survivors managed to recover some of the bodies and arrange a burial in the military cemetery at Massicault, now a Commonwealth War grave site.

Peggy know nothing of this at the time, but she had somehow to get used to the idea that Mike was dead , that he was never coming home and that she was on her own with her baby son. Until that day, her life had been relatively untouched by the war apart from the daily difficulties of finding food and clothes due to rationing, the lack of petrol and the crowded trains. The corner of Surrey where she lived was peaceful, far enough away from

Peggy and Michael's engagement photo 1940

Peggy and Michael’s engagement photo 1940

London not to be affected by air-raids. But now the war had come to her in the cruellest way, and she had few resources to face the challenges ahead. In an instant her youthful happiness and her new-formed family life was torn from her and she had somehow to find the strength to carry on alone. She was only 23 – the same age as Michael, and they had been married for just eighteen months.

If you look up the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the web, you will find Massicault War Cemetery in Tunisia where 1446 casualties are commemorated. Nearly all are young men in their twenties. This is just one of about 23000 cemeteries or memorials maintained by the C.W.G.C. worldwide.


2 Responses to Seventy years ago

  1. Nicola Stevens

    What a good looking couple Peggy & Michael were. I never ceased to be amazed at the young ages of war time casualties. Especially as most were conscripted into the army & had little choice as to what happened to them during their military lives. Thank you for sharing this vignette of Peggy’s life.

  2. Clare Travers

    In our travels we have visited war graves in Kenya, Turkey and France and I never cease to be amazed at the wonderful beauty and peace they offer, and the profound silence. The ages of the dead, so young, stand as a stark reminder of the sacrifice so many made when their lives had only just taken off. Your story of Peggy being left alone, widowed at 23, with a son who would not know his father, just underlines the true meaning of the sacrifice and the losses suffered by so many.

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