From dodging Hitler to reading the news - a Shipston man's life
IN 1941, aged six, David Gunn was subjected to Adolf Hitler’s Blitz of Plymouth. Unlike some 1,200 who were killed, he and his mother escaped to live on a farm in the peaceful Cotswold hills where he learned to milk cows and ride horses.
These early recollections are the jumping off point for David’s memoir, the cheekily titled Mr Hitler Missed Me.
During a visit to his Shipston home, David spoke with the Herald about his fascinating life, including being the fourth generation of his family to join the Royal Navy – which he did aged 13 – his subsequent career as a newsreader and then business entrepreneur. This is actually his third book. One of his previous books is Sailor in the Desert, about his father’s experience in the ill-fated Mesopotamia Campaign during the First World War. The other book is Alphonse – the Story of a Seafaring Skunk and was published way back in 1961.
Explaining its quirky subject matter, David said: “I was always very fond of animals. We were going to sea in this destroyer. I asked the first lieutenant if I could keep a skunk and I think he was only half thinking when he said ‘yes’. The next thing you know he saw pictures of me leading Alphonse along the Mall to Buckingham Palace.
“Alphonse was a stripy American skunk – he’d had his scent gland removed. He’d escaped and was the only wild skunk in Britain. He came to live on HMS Sainte…
“I would advise anyone against keeping a nocturnal animal. It wants to be awake and active when you are asleep, and asleep when you are awake. This didn’t matter on HMS Sainte when we were at sea when there were night watches to keep him company.”
A short time in David’s company proved him to be full of funny and fascinating stories – and it’s that entertaining style that led him to write Hitler Missed Me.
“I hope readers will get a lot of laughs from the book. I wrote it for humour rather than a boring autobiography of an unknown person. The first sentence is ‘I was born the same year as Donald Duck and Sophia Loren’.”
David met his wife Caroline through mutual friends. Between them they have five grown-up children. Daughter Aurora encouraged her dad to write this new book and helped him with the title.
“There’s a picture on the front of two little boys in the ruins in Plymouth,” David said. “I wasn’t one of the two boys but I was in a similar situation. I had escaped from the blitz of Plymouth and the title Hitler Missed Me struck me. Then my daughter said why not put a ‘Mr’ in front of it – because of Dad’s Army.”
The book is not all laugh-out-loud, there’s some poignant memories of losing friends in an air crash while trying to land on an aircraft carrier. And even though his account of life at Dartmouth Naval College as a young teen is told with mirth, there’s no denying its harshness.
David recalled: “It was tough. You had a cold bath at 7am every morning. Compulsory boxing in the gym. I got beaten twice, I think. Once for being two minutes late and once for being two minutes early.”
He continued: “After four years there I came out and went to a training cruiser which went to the Caribbean and then up to the Arctic. And then on a ship called the Empire Windrush – well known now, but it was a troop ship in those days – I went to Sri Lanka as a midshipman [training to be an officer]. Sri Lanka is one of my favourite places in the world.”
When he eventually took up life in civvy street, David, who speaks charmingly, landed a job as a newsreader on Southern. More adventures followed, including chance encounters with Vera Lynn, Clement Freud, Rupert Murdoch and Barbara Cartland.
Copies of Mr Hitler Missed Me can be bought at www.helion.co.uk.