How I met your grandmother: My grandpa's VE Day story is legendary in my family

Today more than any other day, is a day that makes me think of my grandfather.

My grandfather Derek Gibson Mackie
My grandfather Derek Gibson Mackie

My grandpa’s ‘VE Day’ story is legendary in my family.

It’s exactly like one of those old black and white war movies that always had happy and uplifting endings.

I loved my grandpa, he was wry and funny and always sent me really interesting letters, typed on his old typewriter, that contained facts like what the longest word in the dictionary was, or what the highest mountain in Germany was, and I always felt like a grown up getting a letter through the post.

I knew him in the way a child knows an adult, with awe, acceptance of authority, and only able to see them within the context of my own life.

To me he wasn’t a soldier that fought in a war, he wasn’t a divorcee, a father, a businessman, he was grandpa,who picked me up and hugged me when I saw him, and smoked like a chimney outside the house, the smell of stale smoke forever reminding me of him.

He was the man who, when our flight to London was extremely delayed, refused to go with the paramedics after he had a stroke in the restaurant because “his family from Scotland were on their way” and then gave me my first taste of whisky when we arrived.

My grandpa, Derek Gibson Mackie, signed up to the army when he was 18 years old in 1939, and fought in North Africa, tank training next to the pyramids in Egypt, then on to fight in Italy, then back to Yorkshire, to train for D-Day.

His regiment landed in France a day or so after D-Day (“When a lot of the hoo haa died down” he casually mentioned to my aunt once) and advanced into Belgium, where he was shot.

He ended up in a specialist hospital in Wales where he was subject to penicillin injections, saving his arm and his life.

After two weeks of treatment, he was transferred to a hospital near London, where he stayed for the rest of the war.

On VE Day, he leapt out of bed and made his escape from the hospital with a friend, commandeering a motorbike with a sidecar, and heading for London, in his words “stopping at every pub on the way there”.

Finally alighting at a party at St Pancras, he bumped into a beautiful, tall and mysterious brunette, Lily.

My grandmother.

I asked Nana once, years after grandpa’s death, about that meeting.

“I mean, he must have been absolutely wasted” I reasoned to her and she smiled “oh God yes, but then we all were.”

This, coupled with the tragedy of my grandpa’s regiment being sent to post war Berlin to monitor the British sector in the days after the wall went up, and therefore tearing him away from Nana immediately after securing her hand in marriage, makes this story one for the ages.

As much as this story plays out like a beautiful film or book you’d pick up at the airport, the reality was that grandpa carried his time in the army with him, not the black and white movies or the drunken parties in St Pancras, not the romantic stories or still photographs, but the reality of war.

It shaped who he was.

He strongly believed in discipline, and could be very strict.

My grandpa was flawed and scarred, funny and generous, intelligent and often furious.

He inspired me and was slightly intimidating at the same time.

I remember him as if I’m still a child, gazing adoringly up at him like a small, red headed puppy.

I remember him in a series of photos and clips in my head, like my own personal TV show, watching through a screen a million miles away.

But he was so much more than a black and white photo and a film-like romantic story, just like every name on every plaque is more than just an inscription and they are more than a hero. They are human.

I grew up too late to ask him the questions that now buzz around my head about the reality of a world that I will never understand.

So as we mark VE Day and bow our heads in contemplation of the sacrifice made by those who fought, I’ll think of him, and he’ll remind me that our war heroes were and are loved by families and friends, that they were real people with flaws and hopes and lives and stories of their own.

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