Love blossoms in war

By Patrick Tansey

It took almost five years of the bloodiest war in human history to create a love story which has reached across 74 years and around the world.

Irvin House residents Joan and George Armitage might never have met if it was not for the war.

They survived the threat of invasion, the blitz, the Battle of Britain, of being in a country almost sunk into submission by U-boats in the North Atlantic cutting off vital supplies.

Both were in the Royal Air Force when they met in 1944 when they were posted to Darlington in Yorkshire.

Mr Armitage explained how a chance meeting would go on to blossom into love, which still burns brightly.

‘‘It was just a casual acquaintance to start with, but then we got to know each other more and more and eventually we got married and had children and all the rest of it,’’ he said.

‘‘I lived near Liverpool and Joan was in the south of England and we never met until just before the end of the war.’’

Like tens of thousands of other post-war British, they looked across the old empire to escape the austerity which would last for years in a United Kingdom economically destroyed by the cost of war.

So, to escape the cycles of conflict, the couple moved to Australia in 1949.

Mr Armitage said two wars in barely 20 years was enough.

He said with the Germans reaching the French coast they were, at the closest point, just 33km from the UK, with the English Channel as the last line of defence.

‘‘Back then we were on the other side of the world and things were different to what they are now. Australians were quite a distance from the enemy, whereas in England we were virtually next door to them.’’

Mr Armitage said throughout the early years of the war, particularly straight after Dunkirk and through the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, talk of German invasion of England meant nobody could sleep easy.

He said the entire country was on edge, gripped by a sense of fear which shook them to the core.

‘‘Still to this very day, we don’t know if this is true or not, but there were rumours the Germans were sending over paratroopers to sabotage the place.’’

Mrs Armitage, who has advanced alzheimer’s, was unable to speak about the war years, but Mr Armitage said her role within the war was fraught with danger.

‘‘When Joan joined the RAF we were both only teenagers,’’ he said.

‘‘Her job was to ride a bicycle with no lights delivering messages just in case the phone system got bombed or went down and then once she was old enough, she became a barrage balloon operator.

‘‘She had the most dangerous job in the war at the start because there were so many efforts all trying to get the balloons down.

‘‘It was a very, very important part of the war because when you’re flying a plane and dropping bombs, unless they drop exactly where they need to they don’t do much damage and that’s what the balloons were for.’’

Mrs Armitage witnessed horrible, almost unspeakable things.

‘‘When the planes would return, Joan’s unit would have to re-arm it and re-fuel it and if there were any dead bodies, she had to get them out and clean the aircraft. That was going on all day long,’’ Mr Armitage said.

He said as the war progressed and technology advanced, the English no longer needed the balloons as desperately.

Mrs Armitage joined another department doing maintenance work on aircrafts, which meant she would often go on test runs and did a lot of flying.

When joining the RAF as an ambitious 17-year-old, Mr Armitage’s early dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were dashed.

‘‘I was going to be the world’s greatest fighter pilot in my mind, but out of an entry of 200 other chaps, I was the first to fail and did so miserably because I was badly colour blind.

‘‘I ended up joining another department of the RAF and we were mainly repairing aircrafts, usually engines.’’

Horrific working conditions during the bleakness of the cold English winters as a test of the human spirit, Mr Armitage said.

‘‘You worked out in all weathers, it was a really horrible sort of job in one way but we just got on with it I suppose.’’

While it felt the war would never end, Mr Armitage said the intervention by the United States after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941 was the turning point.

‘‘What really won the war was the American ability to mass produce materiel faster than the Germans could shoot it down or blow it up,’’ he said.

While the couple has spent 74 years by each other’s side, the love story was nearly brought to an abrupt and premature end when Mr Armitage fell ill.

‘‘Just after we were married I was posted overseas at the very end of the war and that means you have to have numerous medical exams and needles and I ended up where the pyramids are in Egypt with vaccine poisoning,’’ he said.

‘‘It was touch and go whether I’d make it or not.’’

Once Mr Armitage recovered, the couple returned to civilian life following the surrender of the Axis powers.

A door opened for the young couple to leave behind their home nation.

‘‘When we got home, things were very different and difficult in England and the government was trying to get as many English people as possible to Australia,’’ Mr Armitage said.

‘‘We got a £10 bonus to come out here and have lived here ever since.’’

In 1949, Mr and Mrs Armitage were two of 2000 people who came out by boat, a trip which lasted several weeks.

Knowing nobody, Mr Armitage said the early days were difficult to adjust to, but eventually they settled into their new lives.

‘‘When we came to Australia in 1949 there was exactly 11.5million people here. At the same time in London, there was exactly 11.5million people living there, but that’s why we came out here I suppose,’’ he said.

‘‘We went to a relation’s place at Woodend and went from there to Kyneton, then to Trentham, then to Murchison, then Tatura and then back to Murchison, before coming to Cobram a few months ago to live at Irvin House.’’

Although a lifetime has passed, there is one thing the pair is still yet to share.

‘‘We still haven’t been on our honeymoon yet because of my vaccine poisoning after we got married,’’ Mr Armitage said.

He said memories of loss reminded him of what he and so many other people of his generation were forced to live through.

‘‘I was in an advanced unit of about 200 people and I think we lost three people during the time we were together, which you never forget about.

‘‘I always felt the war was worse for the women though because they were so close to being home all the time.’’

Mr Armitage is hopeful future generations will never have to experience anything like World War II, believing like most people in free nations, that the purpose of war was senseless.

‘‘War is a sinful, wicked thing,’’ he said.

‘‘When you think about it, we were employed by the government to go over to Germany and kill their wives and children, while they were in England attempting to do the same. It’s a stupid thing when you really think about.’’

Mr and Mrs Armitage have two children — William and Steven.

Mrs Armitage has has returned to England several times, Mr Armitage has never been back.

He was happy to stay right here and far away from the earlier years of his life and the memories of war.