Back in November 2011, I wrote about my grandpa, Geoff Skinner, who had died the previous year. A few days after I did, a short comment appeared on the post, from an IP address in Slovenia.
The writer of the comment was called Breda. She said:
your grandfather (or Uncle Geoff, as I call him) was a prisoner of war imprisoned in the Work Camp 10029 GW in Weidmannsdorf (Klagenfurt). Here’s a link to a site about the camp.
I was astonished, and immediately recognised the name Klagenfurt – the city in Austria where my grandpa was held captive from 1941 to 1945.
This blog post is my attempt, with Breda’s permission, to tell you what happened next. It’s a story of love on the one hand, and a friendship that outlasted two wars on the other. Mixed in with it is the tragic story of someone my grandfather would have known in Austria, who survived the war but not its aftermath.
It’s the kind of thing that they make into schmaltzy films, and to be honest, I would usually reject it as far-fetched. But that’s impossible, because I’m part of it.
That afternoon two Novembers ago, I was already in front of my computer filling in a job application – the kind of tedious task from which you long to be distracted. I clicked on the link, and found a treasure-trove of carefully-researched information; a clear labour of love. The site was put together by an Ian Brown, who (I was not surprised to discover) was the son of a former POW, imprisoned in the same camp, Stalag XVIII, as my grandpa.
I have been interested by my grandpa’s experiences in ‘the bag’, as he called it, ever since I realised how much the experience changed his life. But it was sometimes hard to get him to talk about it, not least because he was an unfailingly modest man, and didn’t seem to think that his story was anything remarkable. Perhaps, by the standards of the day, it wasn’t. Though my mum and I tape-recorded some conversations with him before he died, I didn’t know a lot about the bigger picture. I found the pictures and details on Ian’s site utterly absorbing.
But what of Breda? I racked my brains and realised that I did associated the name with a few dim childhood memories. When I was a very small boy, my grandparents used to bring me low-denomination banknotes from places they visited, which I then collected. One of my favourites among these souvenirs was a small bundle of Yugoslav dinars. My memory tells me they had a picture of Tito on them, and that they were denominated in thousands, which meant they seemed to be worth so much more than the others. I knew Yugoslavia was a Communist country. I had even vaguer memories of having met someone from there who had been visiting my grandparents at their house in New Malden. As I later found out, that was Breda.
But though I had placed the person, I had no idea how my grandparents had come to meet anything as exciting or mysterious as a Yugoslavian, or how this related to the war, the camp, or Austria.
Breda and I swapped a few emails, then talked on Skype, a long, wide-ranging conversation, which delighted me. I was very close to my grandfather, a gentle, kind man who listened and cared and looked after those he loved. I got to hear stories about him that I hadn’t heard before, but in which I recognised so much. It was also clear that he had been a very important person to Breda, as well. And it turns out that complete strangers with a much-loved person in common will always have something to talk about.
Breda and I also talked about how she came to call my grandfather Uncle Geoff. Here, interspersed with some commentary, is the written account she sent me in an email.
This is my story.
During the Second World War, my mother, a Slovenian (Slovenia = a republic of the former Yugoslavia), was sent by her company to work in the company’s office in Klagenfurt, Austria. There she met my father Gilbert L. Conyard, born on 7 October 1910, an Australian POW from the British work detachment in Klagenfurt (Stalag 18A, base camp in Wolfsburg).
According to my mother, my father was on a vessel torpedoed by Germans off the island of Crete in 1941. The prisoners were taken to the camps in southern Austria. My father and Dr. Geoffrey Skinner (with whom we have been in contact ever since his return to GB) were taken to the working camp in Klagenfurt (Kanaltalersiedlung). As there was a lack of local labour force, the prisoners were sent to work in various places (offices, farms …). My father and my mother met in the office where she worked. I was born on 18 February 1945 in Slovenia.
Geoff worked with them both in the same office for some of this time. Here they both are:
Breda’s mother was called Ida. Back in the mid-1940s I think she would have been in her mid-20s. Geoff returned to England at the end of the war in 1945.
This is an extract from Breda’s account that she was sending to various archivists in Australia while trying to research her story.
Upon his release in 1945 my father was sent back to Australia. He was writing to us until 1950. My mother’s letters sent in 1950 were returned (Australian postal stamp dated 20 July 1950 and 22 September 1950) with the stamp UNCLAIMED. An acquaintance of both my mother and my father told my mother that my father had been missed in [the] Korean War. Since then we have had no information whatsoever about him.
As I have learned from my mother, my father had a daughter from his first marriage.
The address to which the letters were sent in the beginning was: Gilbert L. Conyard, 11 Lenton Road, Waterloo, Sydney, N.S.W. Australia. Then he changed address to: Gilbert L. Conyard, 21/64 Sir Thomas Mitchel Road, Bondi, Sydney, Australia.
Gilbert must have known about Breda before his liberation, but went back to Sydney all the same. I suppose that is understandable. He had a home and a life to return to on the other side of the world, and he too would have been away from them for a very long time. Wars sweep up people in their wake, depositing them again as jetsam when the tide recedes.
I suppose this must have seemed natural, in unnatural times. Still, life for Ida cannot have been easy, coping by herself with a baby as Yugoslavia rebuilt itself after a devastating civil war, in a Europe increasingly divided by geopolitics, and, as Breda puts it, with a strong hatred of anything German.
Geoff also knew about Ida, Gilbert and Breda. Whether because he felt sorry for her, or wanted to help, or because he thought that the war had treated her badly, he stayed in touch with Ida once he was back in England, and continued to do so after the Iron Curtain divided Europe. My mum says that when he and my grandmother first met, my grandmother was initially suspicious of his contact with Ida, wondering whether perhaps Breda might be his daughter. But as she realised later, that wasn’t him; his concern for Ida was an expression of who he was: compassionate and a gentleman. Geoff’s friendship continued after Ida married in 1952; her husband, Franz, adopted Breda.
Jumping forward a decade or so to 1964 or 1965 (by which time my mother would have been starting secondary school, and Breda would have been about 20), Geoff and his family holidayed for a week or ten days in Slovenia. Here are some photos from that trip. You can click on them to enlarge them – and yes, the sharp-eyed among you will note an uncanny resemblance between my mum and me.
Building on this contact, in 1966, Breda, who by now was keen to improve her English, came to London for a year. Geoff had wangled her a job as a cleaner at St Helier hospital in Carshalton, where he was, by now, a consultant pathologist. (I was born there fifteen years later). From an email she wrote to me exactly a year ago today, in February 2012, it was clear there were big differences between life in Yugoslavia and life in London:
I admired the life of the family Skinner and wanted a similar one for my family.
In the communist Yugoslavia there were no classes. We were equal (some more, some less). The ratio between the lowest and the highest salary was 1:5. But if you wanted to be ‘privileged’, you had to become a member of the communist party. We were not. But compared to the Eastern bloc countries, Yugoslavia’s borders were open and we could travel. We had to buy hard currency on the black market (by overpaying), but then we could go shopping abroad, especially in the times when there were no washing powder, coffee, toilet paper, etc. on the shelves. And there were times when our inflation amounted to 1,000% p.a.
When Uncle Geoff and Auntie Bill were in Slovenia, Auntie Bill wanted to come with me to the shop. There were only two different kinds of yoghurt and one product of corn flakes to choose from. I was ashamed that we were so poor. And I can still see Auntie Bill standing in front of the shelf saying: ‘At least you do not have the agony of choice. We have to choose among hundreds.’ [This rings very true as the kind of thing my granny used to say.] And she loved our simple hand-made wooden spoons that I later kept sending her. We, on the contrary, admired the nice industrial wooden spoons that I saw in a Scandinavian shop in London.
Breda and Ida stayed in touch with my grandparents and my mum. Breda visited London in 1974 on a round-the-world trip, and came to London again with her daughter, Tina, in the early 1980s. This was when I met her.
Much later, after the end of the Cold War, she attended an English course at Stratford-upon-Avon, and phoned Geoff in the hope that he and Bill might be able to come and visit. But by then my granny was in the grip of dementia, feeling too depressed and confused to travel, and so Geoff could do no better than meeting Breda at the airport as she was leaving. That was their last meeting. But, as Breda wrote to me:
We called him every year for his birthday and Christmas. Presents were sent to us, and later from us to New Malden, for many years. And Uncle Geoff subscribed me to the Guardian and Good Housekeeping. And I am still sorry that I could not come to New Malden for his 90th birthday. I had no one to look after my mum. But I could see the photos on the internet.
One of those photos, taken by my ex Maria, has become a family favourite.
Breda still remembers Geoff fondly, and understands just how much he did for her Ida. She is a keen internet user nowadays, and unbeknownst to me, had been following my blog for some time. When she saw me post about my grandfather, she decided to get in touch. (As it happened, I’d noticed from the website’s analytics that I had a regular reader in Slovenia, but had never put two and two together).
During our Skype conversations in November 2011, Breda told me that Ida had died earlier that year, aged 94. Breda said that she had always had doubts about what she’d been told about what happened to Gilbert, her father. But while Ida was alive, she didn’t want to delve too far:
I did not want to open old sores, therefore I never tried to find out what had happened to my father. And I did not know anyone to do any research for me in Australia. Now in the era of Internet, it is easier to get information required. I have tried several links, including the Rolls of Honour, but could not get any information on his death. Then I sent an e-mail to Australian War Memorial and Ms Mary Pollard from Manager Information Services was very kind and did some research for me.
This is her information:
“There is no contact person in New South Wales. I have looked on the Honour Roll, those who died in the Korean War and Gilbert Conyard is not listed. You can look at this roll on our website under Biographical Databases.”
And her second e-mail:
“I have consulted Prisoners of War : Armies and other land forces of the British Empire 1939-1945, HMSO 1945 ISBN 0 903754-63-0. There is a listing for Acting Sergeant GL Conyard, POW number 3510, Army number NX11413 from the 2/3 Battalion.”
I would be thankful for any information on my father or his relatives.
This was as far as Breda had got when I spoke to her in November 2011. And if that were where the whole story ended, it would be remarkable enough. But it didn’t end there.
I felt really grateful to have found out so much more about my grandfather. And so I wondered whether I could do anything in return to help Breda investigate what had actually happened to Gilbert.
There were a number of puzzling things about what Breda had been told. Letters to Gilbert had started to be returned undelivered in 1950, when Breda would have been five. She was told that he had gone missing in Korea. But in 2011, it had been fairly easy to find on the internet that Gilbert Conyard, while he had been in the Australian army during WW2, had not served in Korea. In fact, he was discharged from the army in 1945. Using the New South Wales register of births, marriages and deaths, Breda had found out Gilbert’s parents’ names, and found entries for his birth and, in 1929, his marriage to a Lillian Olive Tate.
The information Breda sent me with links establishing these details had all sorts of strange resonances for me; his locality and place of enlistment in the army, Paddington and Waterloo, New South Wales, both share their names with London rail termini, and his last known address was in Bondi, about 400 metres (says Google) from the hostel where I stayed in when I was in Sydney in 2000.
After Breda and I talked on Skype, I wrote to my friend Jo, who worked as a researcher on Who Do You Think You Are and does a bit of this stuff professionally, and who consequently knows everything that’s worth knowing about this kind of research. Jo pointed me to a couple of websites, including Trove, a digitised archive of Australian newspapers held by the National Library of Australia. And off I went for a look.
What I found made me dizzy. I was immediately privy to a tragedy, and I had no idea whether or not Breda knew. There, right at the top of the search results for Gilbert Conyard, was a short piece from the Sydney Morning Herald, dated 1st February 1950:
FORMER POW FOUND GASSED
Gilbert L. Conyard, 38, was found gassed in the kitchen of his flat in Sir Thomas Mitchell Road, Bondi, yesterday. The gas stove was turned on.
Conyard was a former prisoner of war.
My initial reaction was to grasp at straws, telling myself that this couldn’t be – mustn’t be – the same person. But Gilbert’s name is unusual, and when I checked, the address matched the one that Breda and Ida’s letters had been returned from. The 1950 story seemed to imply that Gilbert had taken his own life. I wondered how I could pass this bombshell on to someone I barely knew.
I wrote to Jo again, who said that sometimes research like this turned up this kind of thing. I was wondering whether I should tell Breda what I had found, but as Jo pointed out, the truth is the truth, and I had promised to help find it.
So I sent the information on, a mere two weeks and two days after Breda’s comment on my blog. We corresponded some more in the following weeks, and Breda forwarded on more and more information, building on the start Jo had helped us make. Before long, she had found an entry on Gilbert on a family history website, placed by an Australian woman called Joan Tate – the same surname as Gilbert’s first wife. Breda wrote to her, and barely a day went by in December 2011 without another piece of the puzzle landing in my inbox. It became clear that Breda had living relatives in Australia – possibly even half-siblings. And she also uncovered information that got us closer to Gilbert.
On the 6th of September 1945, the USAAF had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but in a week filled with Australian outrage as the extent of Japanese barbarism towards prisoners of war, I found no reference to the dawn of the atomic age until a week later, on the 14th. The front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on the 8th September 1945 was full of the triumphalism of victory, ghastly tales about the hardships of Pacific theatre POWs, as well as the encouraging news that an MP and a Test cricketer were among those liberated from the notorious Changi prison at Singapore, a notorious POW camp.
On the same day, on page 3, the Herald reported that thousands had thronged the streets the previous day for the arrival at Sydney Harbour – three hours late – of the Rangitiki. The POWs coming off the ship were welcomed by a band playing Waltzing Matilda. Gilbert Conyard, who would have been liberated at the same time as my grandfather, in May, was the only soldier mentioned by name. Four years in captivity, his arrival in Sydney had come just too late to see his mother, whose death on 23rd August had been announced in the same paper by Gilbert’s brothers and sisters: Edward, Leslie, Ernie, Marjorie and Muriel. According to the story, Breda’s grandmother had always announced to the family that she would live to see her son. She missed him by two weeks. In later years on 23rd August, the Herald carried a further series memorial announcements, placed by her children; she was clearly missed.
Gilbert’s arrival in Sydney came 16 years to the day after the Brisbane Courier reported his marriage, in 1929, to Lillian Olive Tate. The wedding had taken place on 21st August of that year. The report was so wrapped up in the details of clothing that it gave the bride and groom the wrong married name at the end:
The Cameron Memorial Church, Glen Innes, was the scene of a picturesque wedding on August 21, when Rev. A. P. Cameron officiated at the marriage of Mr. Gilbert Lawrance Conyard (youngest son of Mrs. A. Conyard, Sydney) and Miss Lilian Olive Tate (eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. F. G. Tate, Furracabad). The bride, who was given away by her father, wore a frock of powder blue crepe de Chine, showing an edging of guipure lace. She wore a veil in cap fashion, with a circlet of orange blossom.” Miss Doris Tate (sister of the bride) was bridesmaid, and she wore a frock of green repp, trimmed with putty, and a pink hat. Mr. B. Scherf was best man. A reception was subsequently held, and the bride’s mother received the guests in a bois de rose frock of crepe de Chine, and a hat to tone. Mr. and Mrs. Tate will make their home in Glen Innes.
Glen Innes, home of Lillian Olive Tate, was where the husband of Joan Tate, Breda’s correspondent, had his family roots.
Breda also found out that she had a half-sister in Australia. Gilbert and Lillian adopted a daughter, Margaret. But according to Joan, Margaret was Gilbert’s natural daughter. So it seems that, at some point after his wedding, Gilbert and Lillian had adopted his daughter by another woman. We don’t know whether he told anyone about Ida and Breda, and the facts that Breda and I found are pretty bald. Gilbert and Lillian were divorced in 1946. Gilbert remarried in 1947, this time to a Norma Kathleen Whylie. She was eleven years younger than him, but they too were divorced in January 1950, with the Sydney Morning Herald (again!) reporting nothing more than their names, on the 11th January 1950.
On the other side of the planet, Breda received a letter in which her father congratulated her on her fifth birthday, 18th February 1950. But as we found out sixty-one years later, Gilbert himself had been found dead in his flat on the 31st January. He was 39 when he died.
Whether he had continued in poor health; whether he felt the grief of his second divorce; whether he was employed, or not, or traumatised by the war, or not; what he thought of what he had made of his life, we just don’t know. Breda’s own records help to fill in some of the details, but the emotions and feelings behind them, at least as far as Gilbert was concerned, remain in the realms of guesswork:
My father and my mother exchanged letters all the time after her return to Slovenia: during her pregnancy, at my birth and after it. I still have all the letters. The plan [described in them] was that my mother should follow him to Australia when he would have enough money to finance our travel. Then he was ill and taken to the hospital.
Upon his return to Australia he divorced his first wife. He could not provide funds for our travel to Australia. The nurse who nursed him in the hospital became his second wife. After a year they divorced and his divorce was followed by his suicide – as I have learned from the link that you have sent me […] Two weeks before her death my mother told me that she had known of his suicide for quite some time. She did not want to burden me with the information. She learned it from our neighbour’s brother, who lived in Sydney and made some investigations.
All of this information, all of these secrets, came rushing forth in less than a month from when Breda read about Geoff on my blog and decided to send a comment.
Breda has been in touch with Joan. And Joan, who had never heard of Breda, suddenly had the impetus to go and track down more of her own family, based on the small amount of information she had posted about Gilbert on the Mundia website which had led us to her in the first place. She found that Margaret, Gilbert’s adopted/actual daughter, was still alive, and passed on her contact details to Breda. And although both of Gilbert’s wives died before any of this (Lillian in 2000, Norma in 2003), Breda now has a way of contacting her half-sister. Joan also got in contact with Owen Conyard and Dorothy Tate Conyard, who are Breda’s cousins – Owen’s father was Gilbert’s brother. She met them in January 2012.
Joan also tracked down Breda’s half sister, Margaret Eleanor Conyard, Gilbert’s other daughter. She was married in 1956, to Ludwig Wieske, and has a son and a daughter and three grandchildren. Breda wanted me to say in this post just how thankful she is for Joan Tate’s help in reassembling a puzzle whose pieces were scattered on opposite sides of the globe.
There are very great contrasts between what Gilbert and Geoff got out of the war. I wrote before that Geoff’s time in the bag was the making of him. He had the opportunity and the motivation to turn what could have been null years into an opportunity. He sent off for textbooks and studied. Later, when he returned to England, he contacted Tiffin Boys, the school he had left more than a decade before (Geoff was 25 or 26 by now) and asked if he could come in, sit in on the sixth form lessons and prepare for his First MB exams: the foundation of medical training.
The school said yes, and Geoff didn’t only get his qualifications. It was a teacher there, Vera Winsey, who ended up introducing him to my grandmother, Bill. Six decades later, he looked back with pride and a little bit of disbelief on how he made all this happen, chuckling at his own ‘cheek’ – as if somehow his ambition to become a doctor meant he was getting ideas above his station. I think that captivity gave him independence, time away from family and expectations, and the time to overcome his own inhibitions. Crucially, though he was malnourished by the end of the war and lost all his teeth on the poor diet he was given, he was safe, and that made all the difference, compared to what happened to his brother Raymond, an infantryman who was killed at Monte Cassino in Italy in 1943.
Here is Geoff talking about how his time in the bag was, in a very real sense, the making of him.
For Gilbert Conyard, whose war was outwardly so similar, the aftermath was very different. What we do know is that things weren’t going right almost from the day of his return. On some level, life did not fit when he got back to Australia, and for Breda, knowing what happened to him is bittersweet. It’s hard to sum things up when you don’t have the sources, but on some level Gilbert’s story reminds me of a million and one stories of soldiers who return from war to find that nothing is quite as promised for its heroes.
Which leaves Breda, her daughter Tina, and me and my family. She may visit Australia some time, and she feels a strong connection, through Geoff, with my family in England. But times are tough in Slovenia and the nation, which was unique in Yugoslavia for making the transition to democracy peacefully and successfully, is no longer the poster child of the Balkans. In addition, Breda’s daughter is in poor health, which means that Breda has to be there to care for her.
But I am more mobile. And so in May, I’m going to do something I’ve been wanting to do ever since all of this fell out of the internet and into my lap. I’m going to travel to Slovenia to meet Breda.
To give me the thinking and reading time required for a trip like this, I decided to travel by rail. London to Paris, Paris to Munich, Munich to Villach, and Villach to Ljubljana. Having booked the tickets, and while I was immersing myself in my grandpa’s old letters from captivity, I was delighted to find that Villach, a railway junction on the other side of the Austrian Alps, is also where he and Gilbert disembarked at the end of their journey from Greece (where they were captured), and where they would have embarked again in 1945, to travel to Naples and be shipped home.
Domžale, where Breda lives, is only about 50 miles from Klagenfurt. With help and contacts from Ian Brown, the man behind the Stalag XVIII website, I will hopefully have the chance to visit the site of Work Camp 10029 GW/Weidmansdorff, which Breda tells me is now occupied by the Dag Hammarskjöld Residential Area – a grand title for a block of flats.
Earlier this week, Breda and I were swapping information about an exhibition on the POW camp that will be held later this year at Wolfsberg (the site of the main camp of Stalag XVIII). Breda said:
Isn’t it a pity that all this did not happen some five to ten years ago? You could bring Uncle Geoff and I could bring my mum to Wolfsberg?
And it’s hard to argue with that. Why wait any longer?