Little Ostend

In 1940, a flotilla of Belgian fishing craft crossed the Channel, a perilous journey under the circumstances, in boats piled high with furniture, food and belongings. Their families were on board, too. Having spent the 1930s fishing alongside Brixham folk, and with warm memories of Brixham and its harbour, it seemed a natural place to come and seek shelter when the Nazis marched into their home town. They arrived in the middle of the night and the town welcomed them, opening the shops and baking bread, and bringing water down to the quay to help the arrivals. The Belgians became a part of Brixham everyday life during the war, and when the war ended, they left in a fleet of double decker buses from Bolton Cross, the whole town coming out to wave them off.

Some of them stayed behind as wives, husbands, lovers.

Little Ostend

Send us your Belgians!
Not the usual rallying cry.
From Ostend they came,
Families and furniture piled
In a foreign fishing fleet
Welcomed by the town
In the middle of the night.

Shops were opened,
Bakeries into business,
Water taken to the quay
For these fisher refugees,
Whose home towns were
Quivering under the Nazi march,
And all was hopeless.

Over a thousand souls
A part of Brixham life,
In the shops and pubs and clubs,
Belgians whose knowledge
Of trawling methods was gladly accepted,
Belgians who became friends, and lovers,
And husbands and wives.

They served in cafes,
And schooled their children,
And plied their craft on trawlers,
Brixham, this Little Ostend,
This welcoming town
Proving that when humanity is at its worst,
It can also be at its best.

Take heed fellow humans,
That goodness will always prevail
And a heart will aim to share its warmth.
A town reaching out its fingers to another
Whose soul is in peril,
A trawler in a storm ,
The loving curve of the breakwater.

Noel Harley

Yesterday being Remembrance Sunday, I was thinking of my Great Uncle Noel, about whom I knew very little except that he died during the Second World War. Ever since I was a kid, I’d seen his name on the war memorial next to Virginia Water Station, without really knowing much about him.

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By chance I was scrolling through a Facebook group for the area in Surrey where I grew up, only to see someone had mentioned him in a posting about Remembrance Day services. I got in touch with the person who had made the post comment to discover that she is a relative on my mothers side. We chatted online about my Great Uncle, who was also her Uncle.

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Noel was 22 when he died, in 1943. He was stationed in North Africa, working on clearing mines in advance of an assault, an operation which took place in pitch black on a night in which there was no moon. Added to this there was fog and also significant dust thrown into the air by the movement of the tanks, and the lorry in which Noel was travelling collided with a stationary tank. He was buried at the Al Alamein Military Cemetery in Egypt.

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I’d never known any of the details. His death was just one of millions and there are now very few people alive who would have known him. My distant cousin was kind enough to email me some documents and photographs about Noel. And this is when something very strange occurred.

It’s long been a spooky fact that I share my birthday not only with my dad, but also my uncle and my grandfather, Noel’s brother Alfred. And while my uncle and my dad are twins and come from the other side of my family, it’s always been a little odd that three generations of us have the same birth date. I opened the email from my cousin to find a scan of Noels birth certificate, only to see, remarkably, that he was also born on January the second.

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This strange fact, this weird coincidence, had been hidden for all of these last few years, and only my late Grandfather would probably have known this. Every time he celebrated his birthday, he would have remembered his younger brother Noel, who died when he would have been about thirty years old.

It certainly makes me think about fate, if such a thing exists, but also about the life that he, and many others, did not have.