How I accidentally turned my wife’s granddad’s trouser fly buttons into an internet sensation.

READER, I’ve gone viral. Big deal, you might think – who hasn’t these days? But I’m not talking about that virus. I’m talking about the other sort. I’m talking about the day I BROKE THE INTERNET. Or dented it, at least. Actually, it was more of a surface scratch, really. But you get the idea.

It started when my mother-in-law came to visit a few weeks ago, and brought along a pair of buttons that had had been part of her father’s uniform during the Second World War.

“What do you notice about one of them that’s different?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Touch it,” she said. So I did, and ended up pricking my finger on a tiny – but still impressively sharp – spike.

“Ow,” I said.

“Not that hard,” she said, slightly too late.

She then demonstrated how, if you rested the other button on the top of the spiked button, they formed a rudimentary compass, rotating in line with the Earth’s magnetic field to indicate north, and thus help you out of a tight spot behind enemy lines. Which is exactly what her dad, Flight Lieutenant (Michael) Ian Crichton, had found himself in when he was shot down over Germany in 1943.

I thought this was incredible, so I made a short video and, late on Friday night, posted it on Twitter, stating it was “the most Q-Branch thing I’ve ever seen”.

Fairly quickly, the post started picking up some traction. Then some more traction. People were viewing it in their hundreds, then their thousands, then their hundreds of thousands. (Which is ironic, as my own children, having been given a live demonstration of the buttons, had shown precisely zero interest in the whole thing.)

By Sunday, the short clip had racked up a million views. (For comparison, that’s more than twice what HM The Queen got for a recent video on the Royal Family’s official YouTube channel. Not that I’m competitive about it, you understand.)

Before long, people were nicking it to put on YouTube, and my nephew informed me it was “the third most uprated Reddit post of the day” (whatever that means). Several people offered me money for the rights to the video, another person offered me money for the actual buttons, and Forces TV got in touch requesting an interview. (I put them onto my mother-in-law, who ended up filming a piece at the International Bomber Command Centre, as you do.)

The post also sparked hundreds of Twitter conversations – nearly all of them, against the usual grain of that website, positive and respectful, including numerous moving and inspirational family war stories.

Several military historians also pointed out that the items in question would actually have been fly buttons, which added an extra layer of intrigue: as if bailing out behind enemy lines wasn’t difficult enough, were our brave boys really expected to find their way home with gaping flies? From flying vital war missions to flying low without a licence in one fell swoop.

Ironically, as a distinguished entomologist, Ian had dedicated his later life to the study of flies. Specifically, caddis flies. Specifically, female caddis flies. Specifically, the mouth parts of the female caddis fly (look, everyone’s got to be an expert in something, okay?). So I’m not sure how he’d feel about the thought of his trouser flies being his most enduring legacy.

Another fact people drew to my attention was that the small directional marks on the buttons would have been made with radioluminescent paint, to glow in the dark. In other words, they were radioactive – and I’d just had one stuck in my finger. I know what you’re thinking: being pricked by a radioactive fly button doesn’t sound like the greatest superhero origin story. And you’d be right – I’m not sure what Button Man could really bring to the Avengers. But we are where we are.

The buttons aren’t the only thing Ian brought back from Stalag Luft III, incidentally. We also have a spoon he was issued with by the camp guards, complete with eagle and swastika engraving. Which is, er, nice. (Pro-tip: Don’t keep your Nazi cutlery with your regular cutlery – especially if your new German boss is coming round for dinner.)

Oh, and on the subject of that other virus… After two years of dodging it, Covid did finally enter the House of Kirkley on the same day that I uploaded the video. So it was very much a viral sort of weekend all round.

**************

THOUGH it’s not my family’s story, as such, my wife’s grandpa has had quite the impact on my life. He’s the reason the future Mrs K was living in the town where we met, for a start, and we shared our first home together with him. (Well, technically we lived in the attic flat above him, but he wasn’t one for respecting boundaries, and I didn’t really mind, as I was very fond of the old boy.)

More fundamentally, of course, my wife wouldn’t actually be here without him, and neither would my children. I know that’s not a particularly groundbreaking observation (other genealogists are available) but, in Ian’s case, he came so close to death so many times during the war, I can’t help but see the existence of my family as something of a minor miracle. 

These are just the edited highlights:

Ian was a navigator on a Stirling bomber crew, whose squadron motto was Ultor in Umbria – Avenging in the Shadows, which I think you’ll agree is rather thrilling.

On September 1st, 1943 – having recently survived a near-fatal bout of meningitis – Ian’s plane was hit by enemy fire close to Berlin. The crew all bailed out and were killed by ground fire, but Ian stayed behind on the flaming aircraft to help the pilot with his parachute – an act of kindness and bravery that almost certainly saved his own life.

Bailing just before the aircraft exploded, he managed to dodge the enemy fire from the ground but, as he descended, his parachute wouldn’t engage. He eventually managed to open it in the nick of time – far enough from the ground to survive, but close enough that he broke his leg on impact. Again, it was a margin of mere seconds.

He tried to walk to the Czech border – with a broken leg ­– and spent some time hiding in a hedge, but was eventually forced to give himself up.

He was a POW at Stalag Luft III during the Great Escape (March 1944) but, because of ongoing complications with his leg, was unable to take part. As we know, of the 76 escapees, 73 were recaptured and 50 were executed. So for Ian, that parachute fall was literally as lucky break.

Ian eventually returned from the war and had three children and 12 grandchildren. Though he died in 2006, he now has 19 great grandchildren – including my two – all of whom owe their lives to his many great escapes, and the tiniest twists of fate one dark night over Germany, nearly 80s years ago.

I only wish I could say such experiences were now the stuff of history. But it’s sobering to be remembering Ian’s bravery at a time when war has returned to Europe on such a horrific scale. In the decades to come, the children and grandchildren of Ukraine’s heroes will no doubt have their own stories to tell.

This is an extract from my Cambridge Independent column, published April 6, 2022.

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