I enjoy the celebrity ancestry TV series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ My mum loved it so much she has spent several years tracing our family tree. I rather caught the bug for doing research and I’ve now begun to delve deeper into the unexplored years of my late grandfather Arnold R. Mountford.
I quite like the idea of him being a battle-scarred WWII hero with a valiant and exciting service record – a rugged wartime espionage kind of chap. I’m not entirely sure that is the story I will discover. Sure, I inherited his charm and dashing good-looks but frankly he was both clumsier and more absent-minded than myself. I’m pretty sure the British Army would have been reticent to have unleashed him with any sort of firearm. I’m told that he once knocked himself out when he pulled the garage door closed having forgotten to take a step backward as it surged towards his forehead. He also had a similar accident at a mechanics where he walked into a car on a raised inspection platform. I too have accrued several scars from similar absurd accidents – clearly the men in my family don’t have the prerequisite coordination skills to handle semi-automatic weapons.
One of my avenues of enquiry led me to an epic tale of the last remaining men of a battalion fighting at Cassino in Italy; all out of ammunition and resorting to hand-to-hand combat with Germans under the cover of darkness. I conjured up filmic images of my grandfather scrambling around in the dark trading punches with an enemy soldier, perhaps even gripping a bayonet between his teeth. But then a different piece of the jigsaw fell into place. It was unlikely he was defending the realm with nothing but his fists because he was 1,253 miles further South in Cairo at the time.
So, with armed combat on the back-burner I returned to his potential work in military communications or logistics of some form. He always remained very tight-lipped about what he did during the war. From a photo album I’ve been given I know that he spent much of his time in uniform moving around the Middle East. He had a permanent office in Cairo, or at least took a photo from someone’s office window and wrote ‘View from my office’ on the back of it. He seemed to have freedom to venture all around Egypt and Israel, with trips on USAF planes to various places in Europe. I recall my grandmother mentioning “He could speak excellent French, from his time there.”
It was most likely all that cloak-and-dagger vagueness which gave rise to family belief that he was involved in something rather secretive. It seems that he had an ‘access all areas’ pass authorised by General Alexander (the head honcho of military operations in the Middle East during WWII). He sometimes mentioned in anecdotes that he’d spent a voyage at sea keeping Churchill entertained, and that he had delivered communiques to the Prime Minister by hand. He was supposedly “one of the youngest Captains in the army” although I have no idea of the origin or accuracy of that modest claim.
By far one of the most recited tales (although I never heard it firsthand) was of the time he was visiting the British Army HQ at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in July 1946. He and a colleague decided to pop out for some lunch and whilst they were absent the hotel was blown up by a terrorist group, killing 91. It’s a story that would naturally lend itself to a little dramatic embellishment, so I’d really love to know just how close a scrape with death it really was.
I have tracked down his service number and asscertained that he was called-up to The Royal Artillery in 1943 and was demobbed in 1947. He died far too young of a heart attack in 1990 and unfortunately I was yet to develop a desire to ask any questions of his past. All I have is an envelope of a few dozen photos with dates and locations on the back. There’s also a receipt from his last train out of Cairo when his service ended – he bought a pint of Stella Artois, back in the days when it actually was reassuringly expensive.
The guy had class; maybe he really was an international man of mystery. It’s time to fill in the gaps…