When Chris Tarrant’s father Basil died aged 85 in 2005, the well-known TV presenter suddenly realised that there were gaps in the life story of his beloved dad that might forever remain a mystery.
Basil Avery Tarrant grew up in Reading in the 1920s where the smell of beer and biscuits from the local factories filled the air. He went on to become a successful and respected businessman but Basil was also part of a generation that rarely spoke of their experiences during the Second World War.
So while he shared a sense of humour, a love of sport and a very close relationship with his son Chris, he never shared his memories of the war years. Like many other veterans, he buried those memories deep inside and just enjoyed still being alive.
What Chris did know was that his father had won the Military Cross. But what happened to Basil during the war, and how he came to be awarded the medal, remained a mystery to Chris and his family for nearly sixty years.
It was only when Channel 5 approached Chris Tarrant in 2010 about a new documentary series, Hero in the Family, that he took the chance, albeit reluctantly at first, to explore his father’s war experiences.
What he uncovered, with the help of the programme, his own research, a long lost diary and the accounts of five surviving veterans, was a breathtaking tale of D-Day heroics and savage fighting through France, Holland, Belgium and Germany.
It became the inspiration and driving force for this moving and deeply personal memoir which pays tribute not just to the bravery of his father but to the bond between fathers and sons and the debt owed to all those who fought and died to halt an ‘evil that threatened to engulf the world.’
Basil’s war journey began when he crossed the Channel in January 1940 – leaving England for the first time in his life – as an infantry officer with the Royal Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiments to join the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force.
He survived the debacle at Dunkirk and came back battered but still standing, only to leave for France again in June 1944 for a landing on Juno Beach. From there, he fought the retreating Germans across Europe to the Rhineland.
On the way, Basil and his regiment took out two German strongholds in ‘a single mad night in Holland’ and at the German town of Kleve, near the Dutch border, he experienced the most terrible house-to-house, hand-to-hand, fixed-bayonet fighting.
The mortality rate was high amongst infantrymen in the post D-Day warfare and among officers it was a virtual wipe-out but somehow Basil survived it all, storing away the pain and memories as a new age dawned.
Imbued with the warmth and love that marked the bond between Chris Tarrant and his hero father, Dad’s War is an extraordinary tale of sacrifice, courage, brutal warfare and the strength and solace to be found in family ties.
(Virgin, paperback, £7.99)