‘He had his thing about metal cups, you remember?’
I told my cousin that I did not remember, as I was only five years old at the time.
‘He would never drink out of metal cups. I think it was a frostbite thing, some old hang-up from the war. But we were never allowed to ask him about it, and he never spoke about it. So that’s all I know.’
On a day early in 2001, I remember sitting at my grandpa’s bedside in a hospital in Kent. He was a very old man by then, with a shock of bright white hair and a slow, laboured way of talking. In fact, he could barely be heard over the loud, monotonous beeping of the machines sustaining him, and every time he moved his arms a mess of tubes and wires trailed behind them.
But despite all of this, I don’t remember my grandpa seeming weak or feeble, or even particularly unwell. Even though he could barely sit up, even though he hardly spoke, John Wiggins had a quality about him: an air of authority, something tough and resilient, something that – even on his deathbed – refused to be defeated.
Years later, my dad brought him up in a moment of parental guidance.
‘Don’t ever get a tattoo,’ he told me one night after school.
I was about twelve at the time, and more interested in becoming the next Catherine Tate than in body modifications, but still I asked why.
‘Your grandpa had tattoos,’ my dad said, ‘From his days in the navy.’
I wish now I could remember how this conversation ended; what exactly my dad was warning me against. Were my grandpa’s tattoos badly drawn? Did they get infected? Did he regret them? Or did my dad simply not like them?
In any case, I didn’t listen – I now have many tattoos – but it was the first time I remember learning that my grandpa had once been in the navy; and that my dad wasn’t entirely pleased about it.
Now, when I spoke to my cousin about this book, I learned about grandpa’s strange aversion to metal cups. When my cousin mentioned his frostbite theory, I asked if our grandpa had ever mentioned frostbite before.
‘He didn’t like talking about those days,’ my cousin said. ‘You see it a lot with old servicemen. They don’t talk about the war.’
I’m left trying to work backwards, putting all these curious puzzle pieces together to try and form some picture of the man. What gave my grandpa that fierce aura of authority? Why did my dad dislike his father’s military tattoos? And why on earth would John Wiggins refuse to touch metal cups?
I traced these puzzle pieces back through John Wiggins’ life – from grandpa in the 1990’s, to teacher in the 1950’s, to Royal Navy recruit in the 1940’s – to try and find answers to these questions.
And I think, for once, I actually found those answers.
Mr Wiggins: Headmaster (1950’s)
Before John Wiggins was ‘grandpa’ to us kids, he was Mr Wiggins to hundreds of children across East London & Essex. Mr Wiggins was a teacher in the late 1940’s and a headteacher throughout the 1950’s – great news for a family history researcher, because teachers always appear in at least one photograph every year. I’ve managed to find several old school photos taken throughout his time as a headmaster, and even some comments from former pupils.
The image below and all of the comments from former pupils were taken from the Laindon local history website: an open resource for locals to share fond memories of the Laindon area, including their time in school.
Most pupils remember Mr Wiggins as a kind and fair headmaster, even humorous at times – with one pupil referring to him as ‘Wiggie‘. Another pupil remembers the ‘poignant’ assemblies at Langdon Hills County Primary School, given by Mr Wiggins; and one other simply describes him as the ‘best headmaster ever’.
One thing I can’t quite work out is what exactly Mr Wiggins taught. One pupil recounts Mr Wiggins assisting with a drama performance, when this pupil and his friends were playing bloodthirsty knights a bit too convincingly. Could this mean Mr Wiggins was a drama teacher? Or perhaps an English teacher? Or was this simply a duty that the Deputy Head had to undertake? One thing’s for sure, I’m not at all surprised that yet another Wiggins has theatre connections.
Apparently working backstage is a hereditary condition.
Only one of those pupils mentioned Mr Wiggins’ background in military: the pupil who called him ‘Wiggie’ remembered that he was a ‘retired Naval Officer’, so Mr Wiggins must have talked about his wartime experiences a little, at least in passing. Reading these comments back now, it seems that all former pupils remember Mr Wiggins as a firm but fair Headmaster – not former military man.
That palpable air of authority that I felt during our bedside conversation could certainly have come from Mr Wiggins’ days as a Headmaster. Even in that brief conversation, he was stern but not mean, serious but not dour. I only wish that I’d had more time to get to know ‘Wiggie’, as those former pupils did.
John Wiggins: Royal Navy (1940’s)
In a post discussing my completely unfounded theory that my grandma Marjorie was a Bletchley Park codebreaker, I mentioned that Marjorie married John Wiggins in 1940.
I learned this through Ancestry, which I use for all of my basic family history queries: birth dates, death dates, and marriage certificates. Through Ancestry, I also found a military record placing John Wiggins in the navy in 1941, with similar records appearing in 1942, 1944 and 1945. At first glance, it looks like John & Marjorie married the year before John joined the navy.
However, using the Forces War database, I was able to find an earlier record. There was an entry for a ‘John Russell Wiggins’ dated 1940, where John was listed as a Royal Navy Signalman on HMS Arab. Unfortunately, that’s as much I could find out before I hit a paywall; I was blocked from viewing any more details about John’s military history.
But luckily, I’m very well-practiced in finding information for free.
With a dead end in John-based investigations, I instead looked up the ship, HMS Arab, and I found a website called U-Boat.net. HMS Arab was actually a converted trawler which the Royal Navy took control over in September 1939. This page also included a very short history of HMS Arab – and I’m so glad it did.
I’ve tried rewriting that history paragraph over and over again, but I just can’t beat the original:
During the Norwegian Campaign HMS Arab survived 31 bombing attacks in five days while serving in the Namsos area. On one occasion during this period her CO Lt. Stannard and two of his crew tackled for two hours a fire on the jetty caused by a bomb igniting ammunition. Part of the jetty was saved, which proved invaluable at the subsequent evacuation. Later feats included the destruction of a Nazi bomber whose pilot, thinking that he had HMS Arab at his mercy, ordered that she be steered into captivityuboat.net
I’ve mentioned before that my military knowledge isn’t great, but even I know there’s something special about a trawler shooting a Nazi plane out of the air.
With the Forces War record and the information about HMS Arab, I now know that John and Marjorie’s marriage fell just a month after the incredible feats listed in that paragraph: when John returned home after surviving 31 bombings, a jetty fire, and a near capture by enemy bombers.
I wanted to learn more about John’s time on HMS Arab, and that history paragraph gave me the perfect starting point: I had to know more about the Norwegian Campaign. I had to learn why all these catastrophic events occurred in Namsos over just five days.
The events of the Norwegian Campaign, specifically those five days which I have seen referred to as the Namsos Campaign, are so turbulent and so compelling that it’s just impossible to summarise them.
Next week, I’ll be uploading Part 2 of my John Wiggins research: a dedicated breakdown of the Namsos Campaign. I’ll briefly cover the background to this operation to explain why the broader Norwegian Campaign went so badly wrong, but this article will mainly focus on HMS Arab’s role in withdrawing troops from Norway – those chaotic five days in Spring 1940.
I want to do this incredible trawler and its crew justice, so do come back next week to hear all about John Wiggins, HMS Arab, and the Namsos Campaign.