When the Past Refuses to Let Go
War Neurosis, War Trauma, Shell Shock, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – the names may have changed from war to war yet the crushing, brain-addling effects are the same.
In recognition of Worldwide PTSD Awareness Day on 27 June we share the story of Tim Ridgway, WWII Navigator on Wellington Bombers in the North African Campaign. Tom is no longer with us but those of us who cared for him will never forget him. Here is his story:
Tom Ridgway: Navigator, WWII 1941 – 1945. North Africa
“After enlisting in 1940 I was called up into the Air Force in 1941. My mathematical knowledge and qualifications made me well suited for navigating and I was posted to Cranwell in England where we continued our training. We were crewed up and seconded into the RAF. With no experience, a first crew was notoriously dangerous. We had two pilots, both Irishmen, and the skipper Max, said to me “would you like to come up with me so you can practice navigating?” and I said yes. I told Paddy, our very superstitious second pilot, and he said “no Tom you can’t do that.” He had a bad feeling about it. So I declined the offer and went into Lincoln for a drink with the boys. Upon returning at 10pm we were shocked to see a huge fire in the middle of the aerodrome. Trembling, Paddy said “I know who that is, that’ll be Max”. And it was. He’d overshot the mark and as soon as he pulled it up, because it was ex-operational and worn-out, it stalled and went straight down. There wasn’t a thing left except a tiny little bit of the rear turret. Eventually, after 12 months of training, we were given a new Wellington Bomber and sent to Africa on operations.
Navigating was very stressful – you’ve got the responsibility of getting everyone there and back. The only navigation tool we had was primitive radar and if it wasn’t working very well you were, literally, in the dark (as we flew at night). I flew many very dangerous operations, including the mining of Candia Harbour in Crete in 1943. The mines had to be dropped at a height of 600 ft (otherwise they would go off) and they wanted them 1000 yards apart in the harbour. There were, of course, gun emplacements all around the harbour. We were told not to worry because 12 Halifax’s would bomb Candia as a distraction. We were to rendezvous 14 miles off the harbour and wait for a signal. We arrived on time… but there was no signal. We circled and by the time we got back 2 minutes later, we could see the bombs going up on Candia, there were bombs everywhere. But we went in anyway. The enemy started firing right up the tail of the plane. We dropped one of the mines and had to stay up at 600 feet until we dropped the second.
The enemy was closing in… we dropped the second one and then we dropped our altitude as fast as possible. I was in the astrodome watching them come after us. Our rear gunner said “you’d better get down a bit” and Les, our pilot, said, “if I get down any further you’ll get your feet wet!” We must have been flying at 50 feet at night (by this time) trying to get away from it.
We were all waiting for a posting back to Australia and in 1944 mine came. I arrived home in November and immediately made plans to marry my fiancé Isabel, who I hadn’t seen for two and a half years. We were married in January 1945 and enjoyed a week’s honeymoon in Newcastle before my next posting. I stayed in Australia for the remainder of my service.
After the war I resumed my teaching career, slowly working my way up the ladder one rung at a time until I reached the role of Principle. I loved teaching, but the effects of the war continued in my mind and my body throughout my career. I found that I was exceptionally anxious. The fear of children having accidents is what worried me and that lived with me all through my teaching career. At some points, I seriously considered throwing it all in but I didn’t, a part of me enjoyed the challenge. I found great comfort in gardening and my Christian faith and in the end, retired six months early as the strain was too much.
When I was retired I had a tremendous urge inside me to put something in writing. I couldn’t help the feeling, so I wrote a book about my life. I dedicated it to my wife, without whose care and consideration I would not have survived. It’s just a private thing; my son and his wife helped me enormously in putting it together, but it helped because it got it out of my system, it was no longer inside me. It’s good to take the opportunity to let things out that are bottling up.”
RSL LifeCare has an acute awareness of and focus on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in its mission to support and care for veterans within our homes, villages and the community at large. Since 1911 the organisation has been providing care and services for returned service men and women (originally from the Crimean and Boer Wars). The wave of returned service personnel from both World Wars (and subsequent wars) saw the need grow and today RSL LifeCare has provided care to returned service personnel from every campaign Australia has unfortunately been involved in.
Happily, RSL LifeCare is also home to thousands of Australians who are not veterans and who have enjoyed life in this amazing country thanks in part to the service of their fellow countrymen and women.
By Helen Johnston
27 June is PTSD Awareness Day – a worldwide initiative supported in Australia by the Department of Health and numerous organisations and businesses. If you, or anyone you know, needs immediate help please contact one of the following:
Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636
Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800
Australian Resource Centre for PTSD Ltd
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