Mystery image revives wartime memories for Downham Market man

PUBLISHED: 11:30 26 October 2015

Mystery boy from Downham Market Heritage Society archives

Mystery boy from Downham Market Heritage Society archives


From a possible spark of recognition at an unknown photograph flows remarkable story of a rescue at sea for Peter Roberts.

Peter Roberts was one of the eldest men to serve in the first Gulf War. Picture: Ian BurtPeter Roberts was one of the eldest men to serve in the first Gulf War. Picture: Ian Burt

Dressed in his best outfit and clutching a toy aeroplane, this little boy seems a picture of happiness.

The sepia image made its way, some years ago, into the collection of the Downham Market and District Heritage Society – but nobody there knew anything about the picture, who it depicted, or where it was taken.

However, when it appeared in the last issue of Downham Market Life, a sister publication of the Eastern Daily Press, the cheeky smile and side parting looked very familiar to Pat Roberts.

She compared the photograph to those of her husband, Peter, when he was growing up, and is convinced he is the little boy.

Mr Roberts, 81, said: “My wife says it is the spitting image of me. I’m not so sure because I don’t remember it being taken.”

Mr Roberts’s father was in the RAF, so as a youngster he lived in a number of locations. A few years after the image was taken – if indeed it was the young Peter – the boy was involved in a remarkable chapter of the Second World War.

In April 1941, aged almost seven, he was travelling to South Africa with his mother, Kathleen, and younger sister, Jenny, to be with their father Leonard, an RAF Volunteer Reserve account officer serving in southern Africa.

Mr Roberts, who lives in Downham Market, said: “Our family could be together again, and my mother jumped at the opportunity. We set off from the Clyde on the City of Nagpur and our planned route kept to the north across the Atlantic.”

He added: “On our fourth day we were torpedoed in the middle of the night, south of Iceland.”

In the dark and chill of the mid Atlantic, the order to abandon ship was given. As his mother passed three-year-old Jenny into the lifeboat, the words ‘Full up!’ were called – and the boat was lowered without the rest of the family.

Mr Roberts, who was also an RAF officer for 39 years, said: “We were all later rescued and made it back to dry land. It didn’t stop my mother making the journey again. Our second attempt was much more successful and we were eventually reunited with my father in South Africa.”

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