By John McGregor
John ‘Curtis’ Collins is a typical genial Geordie, always ready with a big smile and a laugh or joke never far away. Today John is 76 and lives in La Marina, Spain with his lovely wife Elaine. He has two children, a daughter Maxine in Australia, a son Paul living in Sweden and four grandchildren.
For most of his life John had always felt that his life story had a missing chapter involving secrets that his mother Sylvia was unable to share with him. John was born in 1945 and was brought up by Sylvia and his step-father with a step-sister and step-brother. Behind this seemingly innocent post-war story of growing up in Garesfield, Newcastle, John’s missing chapter lay hidden and would only come to light many years later – thanks to some diligent research by Elaine and Maxine, both with a desire to provide John with the answers he always wanted to know.
Brought up in a tough mining community pre-war Sylvia was forced to look after her bullying father from an early age after her mother had walked out, taking their younger daughter with her. As the Second World War raged on the unhappy Sylvia somehow managed to get her drunken father’s signature on a document, enabling her to escape the drudgery of her existence and she began to enjoy life, successfully joining the Womens Royal Air Force in war-torn Britain.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world a twenty-year old young man of good stock was preparing to leave his Australian home – like a good ANZAC he joined up in 1942 to serve his country in the war. Although engaged from a young age Curtis Warren Wheelock wanted to travel and see the world before settling down. So much against his childhood sweetheart’s wishes the young man joined the Royal Australian Air Force as a Wireless/Gunner and from his native Melbourne was sent to Canada to carry out his basic training in Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg.
At a time when the world was being turned on its head by the war everyone’s immediate future in life was in great doubt: people lived for the day, not knowing what would befall themselves, their families and friends.
In Winnipeg Curtis met a divorced mother with a nine-year old daughter. Although older than himself she made him feel special and he soon found himself falling in love. Soon he married the lady and adopted her daughter.
Although very happy the young Australian did the right thing by writing home and calling off his engagement to his broken-hearted fiancée back in Melbourne. But in those war-torn turbulent times both service life – and true life – did not stand still: life was about living for the moment.
After eighteen months in Canada the Aussie airman was again posted overseas, this time to join an operational Squadron number 279, based at RAF stations in Northern England and Scotland. During this period Flight Lieutenant Curtis Wheelock was flying as crew in a twin-engined Warwick aircraft, a Coastal Command plane helping with reconnaissance and air-sea rescue searching for personnel in trouble in the cruel North Atlantic seas.
In yet another hugely emotional twist of life, thrown together to help defend the Allied Forces Sylvia and Curtis met and fell in love. At nights outside she would sit and listen for his aircraft returning home, knowing which engine noise belonged to which aircraft and to fervently pray for her man’s safe return.
But one night on 16th May 1945 fate and the war dealt both their lives a tragic blow. On returning from a training exercise Curtis’s aircraft suffered engine trouble and the stricken plane couldn’t get back to its home base. Attempting an emergency landing at a Scottish airfield the pilot couldn’t keep the Warwick on the shorter runway, overshot it and tragically hit a passing goods train.
A young railway porter quickly arrived on the scene and managed to pull four of the injured six-man crew clear, but was unable to save the pilot and Curtis. A truly terrible accidental death of a twenty-three year-old man – a man with dependants and responsibilities – and all the world to live for.
Sylvia was now five months pregnant with Curtis’s child. After his death she stayed on until forced to leave the services and afterwards had to return to Newcastle and her disapproving parents. Sylvia married a man, a widower fourteen years older with two children of his own. Some would say a marriage of convenience, but the circumstances dictated her subsequent life in slowly-recovering post-war Britain.
John Curtis Collins (Sylvia’s maiden name was Collins) was born in 1945, ironically just as the Second World War was finishing. John grew up knowing the man he knew as Dad was not his real father and developed a certain rebellious attitude emerging on occasions – but the truth of his parentage was never available to him. It was only when her husband died Sylvia began to open up to John and the real story began to come out – although much more research was needed for the whole truth to finally emerge.
Certainly the Canada side of the story was not known at this stage, but Curtis’s war record – and his four unclaimed Service medals – steadily came to light via Australia including his early life at home and school. Two childhood mates, brothers he went to school with and their families were contacted, providing many more colourful details of John’s father’s early life and were added to complete the picture of a popular young man who had died such a tragic early death.
Back in peacetime Scotland today there is much activity remembering historical places, things – and people. Elaine and John’s daughter Maxine kept looking and researching, and last month an incredible scenario took place. Loving surprises Elaine took John back to Scotland (John thought he was visiting his native Newcastle).
But in an incredible reception at Fraserburgh, near Aberdeen John soon found himself the centre of attention. An unveiling ceremony of a headstone for his father took place, together with John’s own name with a large crowd there to appreciate the occasion and enjoy the full presentation.
John’s own, real-life father had finally been recognised and honoured by everyone involved in his own life, a life tragically cut short by the savage times and events of a cruel World War.
Sadly John’s mother Sylvia died in 2006. But the real truth finally come out, giving her son John the full answers that he had always sought about his real identity: i.e who his father was and that man’s background and history.
He was a man whose big, generous, loving heart answered the call when his country needed him. Today his son John Curtis Collins is a happy man and knows who he is, where he comes from – and his family history is complete.
** John McGregor writes: strangely enough my own father came from New Zealand to the UK as a young single man in 1942 similarly to fight in the war like Curtis. Kiwi Dad joined the Royal Navy as a Fleet Air Arm pilot , and by 1944 he had met and married my English mother. They had my elder sister and he was immediately posted to West Africa where he saw out the war.
As soon as it finished Dad was shipped back to New Zealand where he sent for my Mum and sister who joined him there. Question: would Curtis have done the same, i.e. returned to his native Australia as part of the post-war reparations to be with his family? Or back to Canada to be re-united with his wife and step-daughter? Or would he have stayed on in England with Sylvia and her baby son?
Obviously we will never know the answers following the tragedy that befell Curtis – but we do now know the full truth of John’s father, and we can now at last fill in the amazing missing chapter **.