A Thank You to the Grandfather I Never Knew
George Knox Cunningham was born on April 5th, 1921 in Glasgow to Jessie Gilchrist and James Cunningham. Knox was George’s paternal grandmother’s maiden name. In 1935, at the age of 14 George started working at the famous Scottish brewery, Tennent’s, at Wellpark. Brits had been reading about Hitler’s activities throughout Europe in the newspapers, following their invasion of Poland, the following sounded over the airwaves at 11:15am:
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin, handed the German Government a final Note, stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany … Now, may God bless you all. And may He defend the right. For it is evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them, I am certain, that the right will prevail. – Neville Chamberlain
It was September 3rd, 1939 and Brits had suddenly found themselves at war. Emotions were mixed, some cheered and some feared for the future. That same day the government passed the National Service (Armed Forces) Act which enforced full conscription of all UK males aged 18 – 41.
A year later at the age of 19, George would be called up for service. As many of us know, with most of the men leaving for the war, their jobs had to be filled to keep things going. Those jobs would be filled by women who had previously been expected to be housewives or do work “suited” for women. The war changed all that, and just like other men, George’s Tennets position would need to be filled. The company decided to hire Mabel Miller as one of the new hires in the department, who George briefly met.
George was assigned to The West Yorkshire Regiment’s Heavy Anti Aircraft Battalion. He couldn’t help but feel a little upset about fighting with an English regiment instead of a Scottish one. Nonetheless, he would help protect North East England from German bombers during the Battle of Britain and The Blitz using the massive QF 3.7-inch AA gun. The Battle of Britain began after Winston Churchill refused the peace agreement that Hitler offered. It promised to leave Europe alone if the rest of the world would stand by as he invaded Russia. Winston refused and the bombing started in July 1940 until the end of October.
The Luftwaffe began with bombing shipping convoys and ports moving on to bombing aircraft factories, political buildings and civilians as time went on. The German bombings resulted in 40,000 civilian deaths in the UK. George’s hometown of Glasgow was also a victim during this bombardment due to its industrial strengths.
Sometime later he would be shipped off with his regiment to Burma to help with the Burma Campaign. These soldiers were called “The Forgotten Army” because this part of the war was rarely garnered with any media attention. Most people don’t know much about the battles that were going on in the Pacific at the same time as the battles in Europe. Yet, the Burma Campaign was the longest and bloodiest of World War 2. With Hitler seemingly winning, Japan decided to join in the invading. The Japanese were formidable and ruthless.
Continue in the task till all your ammunition is expended. If your hands are broken, fight with your feet. If your hands and feet are broken, fight with your teeth. If there is no breath left in your body, fight with your spirit. Lack of weapons is no excuse for defeat. – General Renya Mutaguchi
Because of Burma’s climate, terrain, and lack of roads warfare was very difficult. To fix this dilemma the Japan’s Imperial Army forced prisoners of war to work to the death building a railway. 13,000 P.O.Ws died during its creation. In the hot and humid months, like many others, George would contract malaria. 86,600 British would die in the Burma Campaign 12,700 were due to disease. The Burma Campaign lasted until the very end of the war in August 1945, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed. After that, the 30,000 Japanese soldiers still in Burma were told to surrender and obey the British forces.
Back in Scotland, Mabel Miller like many other women at home was doing all they could to help in the war effort. She was part of a group of ladies that would knit balaclavas and send them to soldiers. Unlike the others, however, Mabel liked to leave thoughtful notes tucked into her creations. One day one of Mabel’s note stuffed balaclavas made it to Burma and into the hands of George Knox Cunningham. He thought it funny that he received a winter item in a place that was so brutally hot. He read the note and something struck him as familiar. It was the handwriting, he knew whos it was. He wrote back to Mabel and they continued their correspondence throughout the war.
The war ended in 1945 and George returned to the Wellpark Brewery where he would work for the rest of his life. Mabel and George got married in 1949 in Glasgow. They went on to have 3 sons, Alan, Colin and Brian who they raised in Bothwell. Mabel ended up in real estate and the couple traveled as often as they could to exotic destinations.
George Knox Cunningham died of a stroke in 1983 at the age of 62. Mabel still lives in Bothwell in their family home. She is 97 years old.
In 1987, Colin Cunningham and Janice Tonner were married in Glasgow. A couple years before they had decided to pack up their lives and start anew in Canada. In 1992, they had their first child. Her name was Chelsey Cunningham. She was born in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada the first in hundreds of years of Scottish family history to be born elsewhere.
Every Remembrance Day I used to proudly show and tell my grandfather’s medals in elementary school. I knew only the stories that my parents told me and probably embellished a little. Despite the fact that I was deathly afraid of public speaking, there was a pride and excitement that jolted through me given the chance to tell everyone about my family history. I had the medals to prove how awesome my grandfather was. While the show and tells may have come to an end my curiosity to know the past of the people whose DNA makes me who I am will never end. I may have never known George Knox Cunningham and still wish large gaps in his story were known to me, I have everything to thank him for.
I wish I could thank him for risking his life so bravely at such a young age. He carried the weight of his memories on his shoulders alone probably trying to keep anyone from having to share in the burden. He was involved in creating the Lanarkshire of the Burma Star Association to help veterans through support groups and financial assistance. His bravery was passed down to my dad, who was unafraid to leave the only country and people he had ever known. He and my mom came to Canada with the hope of an even brighter future. They would become very happy and successful people who rose up from the nothing they had when they arrived.
I sit here today, living an absolutely fantastic life of happiness, health, and love in a beautiful country because of the sacrifices of my parents, grandparents and all the brave men that fought against hatred and evil. It’s so easy to think of peace or freedom as if they are a right. However, they are privileges that were earned with spilled blood and bullets that shouldn’t have needed to exist in the first place. I look at all the black and white images of the time and it makes it all feel surreal. Like it’s a story of a faraway fairytale land that we all assume we will never know. I can’t imagine what it could have been like to one day be living a normal life and the next having to fire massive guns at planes containing people. To walk through jungle villages and see victims of brutal rape and murder. To want so desperately for it all to be over so you could just go home and try to get back to normal.
I ask you this Remembrance Day, to truly remember. To never forget where we once were as allied nations and as a global community. Find out about your family members who may have been in the war and try to understand what it might have been like to be in their shoes during that time. Let’s acknowledge the past and make sure that it is never repeated. There’s no room for racism, violence, hate or oppression here.
I write this to keep the memory of the grandfather I never got to thank alive.
I would like to thank Brian, Mabel, Colin and Janice for all their help in the collection of info for this piece. Extra thanks to Brian for sending me these awesome shots.