Frank Orton
It is a scene Gillian Hinton has played out in her dreams a thousand times; the bright, sunny day when her dad opens the door; sweeps his daughter up in a big strong hug and makes everything alright again.
“I miss him so much, even now,” says the grandmother as the tears she promised herself she wouldn’t cry begin to come. “Sorry,” she whispers, “I’m so sorry,”
Sapper Frank Orton of 663 Artisan Works Company, Royal Engineers will never walk back into his little girl’s life. He was killed on June 17 1940, when a German bomber sunk his troopship the SS Lancastria off the coast of France.
Frank was just 23. Gillian was not even two.
Her father’s memory lives on in a handful of treasured keepsakes and a heart full of aching what-might-have-beens.
“Listen to this,” says Gillian, reading aloud from one of Frank’s letters home. ‘Its about time our youngster started talking.’ That’s me, that is,” she smiles, before continuing with the letter. ‘I bet she’s full of mischief. She will have forgotten me by now.’”
“I never did forget about him, did I?” she sniffles, beginning to brighten. “And I never will.”
“Huh,” says Gillian’s smiley husband Mick, gently squeezing his wife’s shoulder as he emerges from the kitchen of the couple’s Birstall bungalow with cups of tea. “About time our youngster started talking? She’s not stopped for 47 years.”
Frank always signed off his letters with a few words for Gillian. Her most treasured procession in the world is an embroidered postcard he signed to his “little baby daughter who is forever in my thoughts.”
“I was born premature,” she says. “They thought they might lose me. That’s perhaps why he thought a little bit more of me.”
Gillian’s mum, Elsie, made sure she knew about her father.
Frank grew up in 34 Westholm Street, Leicester; was a plasterer by trade. He was quiet, he didn’t smoke and he didn’t drink a lot. A very affectionate man, she says. “My mum didn’t find it easy to be all lovey-dovey,” she says. “My grandmother used to tell her to try to be more affectionate with him.”
Elsie did marry again ”to a lovely man”, a Crete veteran called Jack – but that was not till a long, long time later.
Frank was among more than 4000 men who went down with the Lancastria.
His body was never recovered. Gillian and Mick have been to France several times to lay wreaths over the ship’s wreck site.
Form B104-82A brought the news of Frank’s plight. His daughter still has it. The Army Council, who adjudicated on such matters, were “regretfully constrained” to conclude that he was dead. The dreams began soon after.
“As a child, I used to have a lot of dreams,” says the 67-year-old. “I used to dream of running to my dad and putting my arms around him in his uniform. I missed him so much.
Even now… I still get those feelings.”, Gillian (right) says.
Things carried on. They had to. There was a war on. “There was no help for war widows or their children. There were so many of us.” Elsie went to work in a munitions factory.
Gillian whiled away days playing with the shell of an empty dolls house made for her – but never finished – by her father.
King George VI sent every schoolboy and girl a certificate after the war. Gillian still has it. It told them how they had shared “in the hardships and dangers of total war” and shared “no less in the triumph of the Allied Nations.”
Elsie hung a big flag out of the window as celebrations started. “I remember feeling happy, but upset,” says Gillian, as the tears come again, “because dad was not coming home.”
Sixty years on and those same bittersweet feelings will come crowding in again on the anniversary of VJ Day. “I’ve missed out on the brothers and sisters,” she explains. “I’ve missed out on all that as an only child. Buts its nice to think that my dad and all those other men are being remembered. Its nice to know that youngsters today remember all that they did. “They were brave men. They did their bit. They deserve to be remembered. I wish my mum was still alive,” she smiles. “She would have loved to have had a word with you. She was so proud of him. So proud.”