One of the delights of Airborne Forces is the characters it has nurtured. Not only the well-known Commanders or the brave, but those of lesser rank who have soldiering at heart, who enjoy the disciplines and comradeship and who never seek any reward, save that of knowing that they do their job. One such person was the late Maj Charles Strafford. Not a warrior but an enigma in his lifetime, a man who in Normandy, in 1944 and during later years, enhanced the standing of British Airborne Forces almost more than any other individual.
What struck people most forcibly about Charles after his natural bonhomie was his insistence upon accuracy of all kinds and, after that, his unmilitary character. He seemed terrified of senior officers, disinclined to parades, offhand about orders, much happier among soldiers and doing his own thing – which he did remarkably well. First as a schoolmaster, then as a member of that august body, Her Majesty's Inspectors, he found himself able to indulge in practical music-making, his greatest hobby and interest. During some forays to the Channel Isles he took over and conducted the Youth Orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music and achieved a long-term ambition to play Mozart's 'Jupiter' Symphony. His house in Stone. Staffs, where he lived for only six months of the year, had a music-room with a piano and cupboards of scores surrounding it, an old-fashioned tape recorder, but no television, CD, computer or telephone, until Airborne Forces insisted that he was hooked up. Of course, there was an admirable cellar and he did all his own cooking. He never married.
In 1944, as the Education Officer of 6 AB Div, he was the creator and first Editor of Pegasus. First a news-sheet hammered out on a battered typewriter. Later to become the Journal of Airborne Forces when he was again the Editor for a short while.
He was also totally devoted to General Sir Richard Gale and, because of his home in Ranville. Charles became the Secretary in France for the Normandy Pilgrimage…. . more I suspect because of his love for, and generosity with, French wine and champagne. For many years he was in fact the mainstay of the arrangements. Booking hotels, restaurants, buses and the like in Cabourg and Caen for the many who returned each year. He later did the same as a Trustee of the Airborne Assault Normandy Trust.
For six months of the year, Charles entertained royally in his charming little house at Ranville. Despite the primitive plumbing he was never alone there during the June weeks, when old friends popped in for drinks and talk and laughter. For the rest of the time local tradesmen, craftsmen and residents were in and out all day and Charles developed a long and warm friendship with them. He also had a deep interest in the local schools and the children and spent many hours helping with their education.
He was, to the stranger, something of an enigma His cultured accent and behaviour (except when he was aroused) did not accord with a 'Major Thompson' character in France, because since 1947 he had become accepted as an equal by the locals, making him a wonderful ally to Airborne Forces. It was for this very real and practical assistance that he was made an MBE. He got things done, translations made. His French was of the local patois and so nobody else could have persuaded the electricity company to switch of for half an hour, without the statutory two weeks' notice, immediately before the 2 PARA drop on DZ !N' in 1992.
Charles was a prolific correspondent, either on a battered old 'stearn' typewriter with his signature and odd marks in green ink; or all in that colour of writing fluid, generally snappy, even waspish and more times than not, unprintable elsewhere, which is a pity, because they were so entertaining.
Charles Strafford was an original, and his sad and sudden going before the 50th was all the more tragic. He would have LOVED it. He left his body to Medical Science and therefore has no grave but the people of the Municipalité of Ranville have unveiled a plaque to his memory and dedicated a bench-seat to his life. He was a character whose memory will never fade with those who knew him and surely he had a red beret wrapped around his heart.
By Lt Gen Sir Mike GrayRead More