Klim and I first met when we were eight years old. We lived in different parts of town, went to different schools and were in different gangs, but our lives were always criss-crossing. In our twenties we grew closer as first we shared ‘digs’ at university and then a flat in London. A lifetime’s friendship was then sealed when we introduced each other to our respective wives. Now Klim is very ill and this has brought us closer once again.
This blog is not about Klim’s illness, nor about our past friendship, but tells how, in his early seventies, he ‘discovered’ his father, Tony (A.J.) Willcock, a fighter pilot lost in action during the Second World War.
Until the ‘discovery’, Klim knew little about his father’s death except that he was shot down over France on 6th August 1943 and that his body was buried in a military cemetery at Guidel in Southern Brittany. Then, in early 2012, everything changed. Out of the blue, Klim received a note from a cousin who had come across a series of entries on a Luftwaffe and Allied Forces Discussion Forum – ‘12 O’Clock High!’. On the site, Gilles Collaveri, a World War II plane fanatic, was asking about the type of aircraft that Tony would have been flying on his final mission. After the initial replies, the direction of Gilles’ search changed with a question that read: “A. Willcock had a 6-month old baby when he was killed: do you believe I could trace him if he is still alive, and where?”. After learning of his cousin’s extraordinary finding, Klim’s fairy tale began.
As part of his interest in WW2 aircraft, Gilles had tracked down Jean Denouel who, as a teenager, had witnessed Tony’s plane crashing near Morlaix. With Jean’s help, Gilles unearthed parts of an American Mustang aircraft which, according to Forum responders, Klim’s father would have been flying that day. As part of the discovery process, the ‘baby’ question arose and that too needed resolving.
According to Jean, the plane came down by a railway line and the pilot, still strapped into his ejected seat, then hit the ground in a nearby field. As Tony’s Mustang was being strafed by German soldiers, Jean and two friends ran to see if they could help the pilot. In fact, he was already dead, but in his pocket they found the photo of a toddler who they assumed was the pilot’s son. The picture haunted Jean for years.
When talking with Gilles, Jean’s wish to find this ‘lost child’ and tell him the story of his father, resurfaced and so began Gilles’ search culminating with his internet appeal. Initial attempts had been thwarted because of changes in Klim’s identity. After his father’s death his mother remarried, and Klim’s surname became that of his stepfather – McPherson. Moreover, while the entry on his birth certificate read “Christopher Klim”, he was only ever known as “Klim”.
Three months after his cousin’s discovery, so in April 2012, a tearful but proud Klim, plus two generations of his family, met Jean and Gilles in Plouigneau, the tiny village in northern Brittany where the plane had crashed. There, in the presence of the Mayor and local dignitaries, a commemorative plaque to his father was officially unveiled on the village war memorial. As well as the unveiling there were hours of reminiscing with Jean, who accompanied Klim, Gilles and the family to the very spots where Tony’s plane and the seat had come down.
While this is an extraordinary story and the outcome so perfect, in its unravelling I had remained a slightly distant observer. That is, until I heard about the cockpit clock – an Elgin Pioneer – which, like the aircraft was American, and which Gilles also found at the site of the crash. On the unearthed clock’s battered face the hour hand was at 4.00 o’clock; it had stopped on impact. By its very nature, the clock, which is around 4cm across and now separated from its mounting, was the most poignant of the twenty or so other dials on the dashboard.
Klim was very moved when he was handed his father’s clock as a keepsake. For me a recurring image is of Klim looking at the clock at 4 o’clock every 6 August. At that moment he would be sharing the same view of the same dial that his father would have been looking at when time stood still.
With this image in my mind, the whole re-discovery story gained a new dimension and one with which I immediately identified. It was inevitable that, after almost seventy years of friendship, Klim’s illness would bring us closer. The discovery of the clock, and the link with his father, has added something very special.
Illustration: the photo montage shows, on the left, the unearthed Elgin Pioneer clock; on the right, the clock as it woukd have looked in 1943.
For their help in producing this blog, I would like to thank: Klim, Beth, Rohan, Vivien and Monica