Last year was an extraordinary year in the Taxi Charity's history. The wide range of events, trips and historic anniversaries made 2019, in my opinion, a year without parallel.
As the year ended, I held the firm belief it could never be equalled.
Then, as January unfolded and our plans for 2020 fell into place, I became increasingly confident the next twelve months would not only match those of 2019, but possibly even surpass them.
I had good reason to be confident. Alongside our normal calendar of events – such as our golf day fundraiser, seaside trip to Worthing and flying day at Damyn’s Hall Aerodrome – as with last year, we would again be participating in several major national and international anniversaries, the first being the 75th anniversary of Dutch Liberation.
This trip was to have taken place 2 - 6 May, and we planned to take as many WWII veterans to the Netherlands as we possibly could to celebrate the day and participate in the Liberation parade.
The Dutch organisers were going the extra mile for this anniversary. Our veterans would lead the parade in a convoy of London black cabs with a special “Dutch Orange” liveried cab at the front, decorated with logos and both national flags.
On our return home, the Taxi Charity – and London cabbies – were to have played a vital role during three days of celebrations and commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day, transporting hundreds of veterans around the capital to an array of events.
We had also planned two visits to Normandy; one in June for D-Day 76, and then again in September – in all likelihood for the final time – to attend the inauguration of the Normandy Memorial in Ver sur Mer.
Meanwhile over the Summer Solstice weekend, the Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity had invited every WWII veteran connected to the Taxi Charity to a 1940s-themed street party at Whale Island, Portsmouth.
Traditionally, August is a quiet month for the charity, but this year we were going to Biggin Hill for their annual air show and on 15 August, were to travel to Staffordshire, to attend the VJ 75 commemorations at the National Memorial Arboretum, as the country marked the day 75 years ago when World War II officially ended.
2020 was to have been a year like no other... and sadly so it has proved to be, but for all the wrong reasons.
The Coronavirus pandemic changed everything...
COLLECTORS & SUPPORTERS LUNCH
Before the virus impacted, we began our year, as always, with our Collectors & Supporters Lunch at the RAF Club in Piccadilly. This is our opportunity to extend a special thank you to our veteran collectors for their hard work and also our supporters for their generous donations and other fundraising initiatives. Over 80 guests attended and a good day was enjoyed by all.
HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH
On 28 February, we embarked on a very special trip, as we drove six WWII Royal Navy veterans to Portsmouth Dock for a VIP tour of the RN’s flagship Aircraft Carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. We were escorted to the aircraft hangar where our private tour began.
Our party enjoyed morning tea and refreshments in the Captain's cabin with the ship's commander, Captain Angus Essenhigh, and Commander Charles Guy. This was followed by a visit to the bridge which everyone found fascinating.
We were delighted our patron, Vice Admiral Sir Adrian Johns, was able to join us for this very special invitation.
VETERANS LUNCH - CHEAM
On 5 March, Taxi Charity supporter Tony Millard once again invited veterans to North Cheam Sports & Social Club for his annual veterans lunch. Sadly, this was to be the final such occasion as the building is to be redeveloped to become a school.
AIRBORNE MUSEUM - OOSTERBEEK
One week later, we escorted six Battle of Arnhem veterans to the Netherlands, to attend the re-opening of the Hartenstein Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek. We arrived on 12 March, and following lunch at the Schoonoord – the Airborne veterans' favourite pub and restaurant – our five-cab convoy headed to Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery.
For the veterans, the opportunity to pay their respects at this immaculately maintained cemetery, containing the graves of those killed during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, is always the most important moment of their trip.
On arrival, 100-year-old Ray Whitwell slowly made his way to the final resting place of his young comrades, where he stood for several moments in quiet reflection. Afterwards, he shared his thoughts with a reporter from de Gelderlander newspaper.
Defying Corona to remember
War veteran Ray Whitwell (aged 101) walking with his frame step-by-step along the graves of his fallen comrades from the Battle of Arnhem on 18 and 19 September 1944. The confusion surrounding the Coronavirus is secondary to his mind here. He had heard about the possible problems that could arise but was determined to go. The reason the veterans came over was for the opening of the Airborne Museum. Sadly, the opening had to be cancelled. Looking at the graves of his 23 and 25-year-old friends he stated: "it is quieter and more peaceful than during the busy time in September and I appreciate this."
The Covid-19 virus had been at the forefront of our minds for several weeks. We and our Dutch friends had been monitoring the situation very carefully in the days running up to the trip.
We are acutely aware, by its very nature, transporting veterans of such great age inevitably involves an element of risk. But after careful consideration, we concluded our visit to the Gelderland province posed no additional risk of catching the virus. Indeed, the figures indicated travelling to Oosterbeek and Arnhem meant we were effectively heading away from the problem.
But shortly after we arrived at our hotel, events began to overtake us. The Dutch government announced all museums in the Netherlands must close with immediate effect. In an instant, the reason for our trip had evaporated. With rumours abound and everything descending into a confused state of flux, we decided to cut short our trip, and the following day we headed home.
With all our plans either cancelled or indefinitely postponed, we needed to focus our attention on what help and support we could provide to our veterans.
"KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON"
The first thing we did – and I believe the most important – was post our "Keep Calm and Carry On" card to every veteran we knew. The card contained a message of reassurance along with the names and telephone numbers of nine committee members living across the Greater London area – North, South, East and West. Our message was clear: "Should you need any help or want a chat please get in touch."
With no indication of how long restrictions would need to remain in force, keeping in telephone contact proved to be a vital lifeline, especially for veterans living alone and unable to leave their homes. In some cases, committee members helped out with other tasks, such as shopping, collecting prescriptions and gardening.
OTHER CARDS & GIFTS
Such was the positive feedback of our "Keep Calm and Carry On" card, we continued to find different ways of keeping in touch, and during the weeks that followed, all manner of items began dropping through the letterboxes of veterans' homes, including an Easter card, with a chocolate bar complete with a message from the Taxi Charity on the wrapper.
We designed other items too including a St. George's Day card, and in May a special six-page VE Day 75 commemorative booklet (with a mini Union Jack flag enclosed). Then a month later, we posted a bi-fold booklet marking the 76th anniversary of D-Day. We wanted the veterans to know that the Taxi Charity hadn't forgotten them.
RNRMC GOODIE BAGS
Judging by the letters and calls of thanks we received after Easter, we knew our efforts were appreciated, though it didn’t change the fact many veterans often went days – and sometimes weeks – without seeing anyone. So, we decided the next item to be sent out would, wherever possible, be delivered in person – by London cabbies.
Meanwhile, I was aware the Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity were also concerned about the detrimental effect life under lockdown was having on their Naval veterans. After speaking with them, we came up with the idea of filling RMRMC-branded carrier bags with a selection of treats and then delivering them to the veterans' homes by taxi, or more to the point, by taxi driver.
The goodie bags included chutneys and cheeses, coffee, tea, biscuits and chocolate (and, naturally, a bottle of rum!), but lovely though the contents were, what was most appreciated was the chance for a (socially distanced) chat and catch-up with a familiar face.
Over the years, many Taxi Charity drivers have formed close bonds with the veterans and each was delighted to see the other.
News of these deliveries, across London, Essex, Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, was shared on the RNRMC website and social media platforms.
Our initiative received wide praise, so we decided to repeat the venture for VE Day 75, but this time on an even bigger scale.
75TH ANNIVERSARY OF DUTCH LIBERATION
Our visit to the Netherlands for the 75th anniversary of Dutch Liberation became our first major overseas trip to be cancelled. Instead of parading through the streets of Wageningen in a convoy of cabs with thousands cheering them along the route, our veterans remained stuck inside their homes.
In a symbolic gesture of thanks to the British veterans who helped liberate his country, the Netherlands Ambassador to UK, Simon Smits, visited the home of WWII hero Kenneth Mayhew and presented a bowl of "Liberation Tulips."
In his nationally televised statement, the ambassador said: "Unfortunately, due to the Corona crisis, it wasn't possible for either Ken or many of his comrades to travel to the Netherlands. They would be supported by the amazing Taxi Charity. All impossible now, so that is why if Ken and his comrades can't come to the Netherlands, we'll come to Ken to say thank you for your role in the liberation of my country. Thank you all."
Hundreds of messages of thanks and appreciation followed, courtesy of Taxi Charity supporters, Frans Ammerlaan and Roger Beets, who collected over 500 cards containing personal greetings from Burgomasters (Mayors) in five municipalities and hundreds of residents. The cards were then posted to us for onward distribution.
Below is an example from a young Dutch woman.
Her card arrived at the home of a veteran who has lived alone for many years – a soldier who fought in France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands during 1944 - 45.
An angel on the front, because that is you. 75 years ago, you fought for our freedom and although I am young, and born almost 50 years after the war, I am grateful to you for that. Unfortunately, we cannot celebrate, but know that it is being thought of and also about you. Thanks! And I hope we can all celebrate it yet.
Once again, the Dutch people went the extra mile to show the veterans they remain in their thoughts.
VE DAY 75 COMMEMORATIVE TIN
There had been huge disappointment across the country that it wasn't possible to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe. All the planned events for this historic anniversary had been cancelled, and the lockdown, now in its sixth week, was taking its toll.
We knew it was vital the day included some form of human interaction.
We designed a commemorative VE Day 75 Taxi Charity tin and filled all 130 of them with chocolates and sweets from the 1940s era; such as KitKat, Crunchie, Maltesers and other confectionary items which are familiar to this day. We also enclosed a Victory & Peace 75 lapel pin badge, kindly supplied by the Spirit of Normandy Trust.
We then delivered - rather than sending by post – as many of our commemorative tins as we possibly could, meaning over 75 veterans received a visit.
The Taxi Charity would like to thank all the cabbies involved, and also Keith Tordoff MBE, owner of the Oldest Sweet Shop in Harrogate, and Lynn, Community Champion at Tesco Brookfield Farm in Cheshunt, for their generous donations.
MAJOR TED HUNT & D-DAY 76
Everyone's lives, it seems, has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Major Edwin ‘Ted' Hunt MVO was one of those affected.
On 23 March, the former Waterman and Queen’s Bargemaster, planned to celebrate his 100th birthday by stepping back in time and, with the help of his grandchildren, row a barge on the River Thames. But, unfortunately, it wasn't to be.
Then in June, the Major, who landed on Gold Beach on 6 June 1944, was to have travelled with the Taxi Charity to Normandy to attend the D-Day 76 commemoration services. Sadly, that couldn't happen either.
So on 6 June, Mike Hughes, Ted's regular Taxi Charity driver stepped in and collected him from his West Sussex home. Flanked by 11 motorcycle outriders, Mike drove the Major to nearby Worthing where he laid a wreath at the town's war memorial.
Ted and I were interviewed by BBC Radio Sussex that same afternoon:
London taxis are unquestionably the safest mode of transportation during these difficult times. One of their many purpose-built design features is the fixed dividing screen separating driver from passenger, something that is absolutely essential during these times of social distancing.
I'd like to say a special thank you Mike for providing Ted the opportunity to honour the memories of all those who lost their lives in the fight for freedom. I also have this message for Ted. Congratulations on your centenary. We will organise a belated 100th birthday lunch for you at a future date and the Taxi Charity will return to Normandy.
Meanwhile, the pupils at College St. Louis in Cabourg have remained in contact with veterans by sharing their"Lockdown Chronicles" and sending over 200 post cards and letters to us to forward on to veterans.
The special bonds between the pupils and the veterans were first formed during our Back To The Beaches trip in June 2017. In 2018, we arranged for the students to meet the veterans at the Imperial War Museum in London to hear them recount their wartime experiences, and in 2019, three of the veterans travelled to Cabourg to participate in Q&A sessions with the students.
The story of the friendship between the veterans and Normandy schoolchildren was covered by Associated Press and appeared in a number of online media outlets and also the 8 May VE75 commemorative issue of the i newspaper.
For the last three years, the Cabourg students have joined the veterans for the 5 June commemorative service at Pegasus Bridge Museum. This year, with the help of their schoolteacher Mayeul Mace and interpreter Nathalie Varniere, they held an online ceremony instead. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, many of the veterans who travel with us each year to Normandy were able to watch the 30-minute event and afterwards say a few words to their delighted hosts.
The Taxi Charity hopes it will have sufficient funds to return as many of our remaining World War II veterans as possible to the Netherlands and Normandy for a final visit next year. We know our Dutch and French friends will give them a warm welcome, as they always do.
Most veterans do not have access to a computer or social media, so to keep in touch with them, we've designed a special Veterans Newsletter.
Veteranews – a four-page news-sheet, containing upbeat and light-hearted news from the Taxi Charity – was posted to our veterans at the end of June. The front page lead with this message: "Things are slowly returning to something approaching normal and although it might be a while before we can organise an event, as soon as it's safe to do so; ORGANISE SOMETHING - WE WILL!"
Once again, we included the telephone contact details of committee members and also encouraged veterans to keep in contact with one another. If they'd mislaid or wanted the phone number of a fellow veteran, they could contact us for the information.
Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, the long weeks under lockdown and months of uncertainty that followed, the Taxi Charity did – and continues to do – its utmost to maintain contact with the many veterans it supports as we all wait for normal life to return.