A side profile of the well-worn Coronet camera, with its bellows extended, a cheap but robust companion.

My Grandad’s WWII journey from behind his lens

In Life, Memories by JanisLeave a Comment

Is this where my love of travel stems from?

I feel that this personal story of my Grandad’s World War II journey, through the lens of his old Coronet camera, may be more for my benefit, than yours.

A side profile of the well-worn Coronet camera, with its bellows extended, a cheap but robust companion.

A well-travelled companion

However, for anyone that shares my love of history (particularly family or military history), photography and travel. As well as the closeness that only comradery in battle can bring will hopefully enjoy this read.

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From a young lad to a Grandad

Most of us nowadays have a smartphone with a camera, that within the blink of an eye you’ve captured that ideal shot. It’s there stored to memory for as long as we wish, the image is crisp, perfectly aligned and nobody’s head is chopped out of the picture.
Job done! Yep, “Bob’s your uncle”, well he’s my Grandad actually but let’s not be picky.

To the Army, my Grandad was Robert, to his mates he was Bob, although, to my brother and me, he was ‘Pop’.
Pop would always be winding us up one way or another, so, the antics he and his mates must have got up to during army downtime, I shudder to think.

A classic black and white portrait shot of Pop in his uniform.

Robert 'Pop' Bailey

A shot of Pop with two of his comrades in their uniforms.

Pop and Buddies

A black and white picture of Pop posing in his uniform in the street somewhere

Pop in uniform

The Coronet Camera

Well, the reason this post has come about is that my parents are moving to a new house and are having a bit of a de-clutter. They came across the very travel-weary Coronet camera which my Grandad must have purchased in 1940 when he enlisted.

The Coronet camera, folded into its slimline case.

A compact travel camera - from the 2nd World War

This particular model of the Coronet camera folded flat, the bellow lens popped back in, and it was only about two inches in depth. The Birmingham based company produced them to be pretty hardy and reasonably cheap, 48 shillings was about the going rate.

Great Sphinx of Giza, Eygpt

The camera turned out to be very sturdy as Pop ended up heading to El Alamein, Monte Cassino and Greece (where he became a Prisoner of War, more on that later).
My Grandad was in the 23rd Armoured Brigade, which like so many other divisions, brigades and units, they were often part of a larger hierarchy. In the case of the 23rd Armoured Brigade, it was part of the 8th Army.

The 8th Army had a few different Commanders during the Second World War, the most well-known, was probably Bernard Montgomery ‘Monty’.

From Amazon

A brass statue to 'Monty', or Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, in full desert battle dress in front of the Ministry of Defence building

A statue to ‘Monty’ 

Our copy of the Eighth Army by Robin Neillands

Our copy of the Eighth Army by Robin Neillands

The nostalgic photo album

I have spent time carefully pondering over Pop’s photo album. Gazing at each black and white photo, from his time around the Mediterranean and North Africa. It felt like I was flicking through a personal journal all with meaningful notes written next to them.

A page from the photo album, featuring four small photos, with a Nazi Panzer badge mounted in the centre.

A page from the photo album

Every photo has a tale, and as the saying goes “A picture is worth a thousand words”.
What must have been going through his mind when he was told where he was being dispatched to?
They were so young, venturing into the unknown. For me Pop was always my Grandad; so, looking at the photos knowing he was in his very early 20’s, is strange.

A page from the photo album with four shots of tanks from both sides

Tanks from both sides

Looking at the photos, you can just sense the friendship and comradery that built up between him and the other guys in his regiment.

It’s all in the words

What I do love about Pop’s photo album is that my Grandad wrote a remark next to each shot, which he meticulously fixed in the album.

A page from the photo album with shots, carefully annotated, from North Africa.

Photos from North Africa

In one picture he’s standing next to a camel in the middle of nowhere. He apologises for the way he was dressed, in his dirty uniform. My Nan obviously wanted a photo of him next to a camel as he explains how he rushed over to be next to it, and nearly got bitten.

A page with four different aircraft, both enemy & allied, in Pop's photograph album.

Four different aircraft in the photo album

Wartime photos

A group of Egyptian police on camelback, taken in Cairo during World War II.

The Egyptian police force on camelback

During his time in El Alamein, the Army obviously let the troops visit the Ancient Pyramids in Egypt. As he took photos of the Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza.
His photos also include local families that they had met and built up a rapport with. He mentions chatting with children who wanted to go to England.

A group of Egyptian police on camelback, taken in Cairo during World War II.

Pop with the locals

There are black and white photos of streets through Alexandria and old Egyptian barges sailing along The Nile.
A sailing barge, known as a Felucca, making its way down the Nile.

A Felucca on the Nile

There is also a photo of Tripoli Cathedral in Libya, which in later years became a mosque. He also took shots of Halfaya Pass in Egypt, which he refers to as “Hellfire Pass”.
A goathearder, with his flock, walking along a Pyramid Road in Cairo with a pyramid in the background.

An Egyptian goatherder on pyramids road

It’s good to talk

Do you have any family tales that you’d love to share? Perhaps someone you knew was also in El Alamein in Egypt, drop us a comment below.

Prisoner of War

We knew my grandfather had been a POW (prisoner of war) and that luckily for him, it was only for about five or six weeks.
A shot of Al-Rifa'i Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, captured with Pop's Coronet Camera.

Al-Rifa'i Mosque, Cairo

However, on reading through his correspondence, we came across a letter that a fellow Army colleague had written to my Nan. It explains that the British Army had my Grandad’s kit and some personal items. However, the treasured Coronet camera was with him, along with a locket my Grandmother had given Pop prior to his departure.

I think it must have been a tough Christmas for my Nan in 1944. As she was informed on 20th December 1944, that my Grandfather was captured on 13th December in Athens.
She was later informed to some relief I can imagine, that he was repatriated on 24th January 1945. We have the War Office telegram that my Grandad was able to send back to her on 1st February 1945. It was short and to the point and read “Safe and well back with British”.

Never to be forgotten

Pop never really spoke of the war, just like so many returning soldiers. Which of course, you can undoubtedly understand and appreciate why they wouldn’t.
Just on the rare occasion that my Grandfather did reflect, it was very touching. I can remember him getting choked up (and I did too) about a group of Welsh lads he had become good friends with.
I believe they were part of the same Armoured Brigade as Pop but were in the tanks. Devastatingly they lost their lives when their vehicle took a direct hit. He said how he use to remember them singing “Land of my Fathers”.
It was over 20 years ago he told us about the Welsh boys, and I still remember where we were, when he explained it all.

Discovering our history

Perhaps it’s through these shared moments that fuelled my interest to discover more about the World Wars.
Our travels have taken us along the five Normandy Beaches, through the poignant WWI battlefields of the Somme and Ypres and to the memorials at Tyne Cot and Thiepval.

The Cross of Sacrifice in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in front of the Thiepval Memorial

The Cross of Sacrifice in front of the Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval

I also try and make a point when we are travelling to visit the cemeteries which have Commonwealth War Graves. We actually went to one in Reykjavik whilst in Iceland.

However, closer to home, we have spent time tracing the last resting places of the young men who lost their lives from our little village in Eccles, Kent.

Thinking back now, my Grandad would encourage me to travel and always see the positives in it. Whereas I remember my nan would always be so cautious. Nevertheless, she must have enjoyed flicking through his photo album and seeing these weird and wonderful places.

The Eccles War memorial, incorporating a clock in the simple stone column.

The Eccles War Memorial and Clock

Thanks Pop for capturing your memories to film.

Inspired to visit Ypres to remember the fallen?

Ypres is a beautiful town to base yourselves at while discovering our history. Stay for the evening and attend The Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate.

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