Growing up, it wasn’t until she was 12 or 13 years old that Hollywood star Minnie Driver learned of her late father Ronnie’s “split life”. Through all the time he was with Minnie’s mother, he was married and had another family…
In part because of this, the actor knows little about Ronnie’s life and background, something she’s keen to put right for the sake of her own young son, Henry. “I think it’s powerful knowing where you come from,” she says.
She begins by visiting her mother, Gaynor, who says she had a sense from Ronnie of things kept hidden. Nevertheless, Minnie still catches some first glimpses of Ronnie’s past. A birth certificate reveals he was born in 1921 in Swansea. His parents weren’t married. In addition, she learns her father threw a medal that he won at the Battle of the Heligoland Bight into the Thames. But why?
Minnie sets out to research the battle, which took place on 18 December 1939. That day, 24 Wellington bombers took off on a mission to attack German warships. They had no fighter protection because, at this early point in the conflict, the authorities naïvely thought the bombers could protect themselves.
But as Minnie learns on a visit to Brooklands Museum, where she gets aboard a partially restored Wellington and meets a veteran who knew Ronnie, the raid was a disaster. The bombers, 12 of which were lost, came up against fast-moving Messerschmitt 109s, which carried guns that fired 20mm cannon shells. Ronnie, a teenage gunner, had to beat out a fire with his gloved hands. His best friend and crewmate, gunner Walter Lilley, was killed, the young airman’s body lost at the bottom of the North Sea when the damaged aeroplane was forced to ditch. It’s a revelation that gives a new significance to Ronnie’s decision to throw his medal into the water.
Ronnie was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his bravery that day, but it’s clear the battle exacted a terrible price as he battled with mental illness for much of the early part of the war. In November 1943, though, he was commissioned as a pilot officer. “He healed by going back and carrying on,” says Minnie.
Minnie then goes further back. Ronnie’s father, Charles Edmund Driver, was born circa 1880, one of five children. In Darlington, she’s able to meet a second cousin, Jean ‘Eileen’ Wiper, descended from one of Charles’s siblings, his sister Maud.
There are even closer relations to be found. Charles and Minnie’s grandmother, Mary Jessie Kelley, didn’t get married until 1936 because Charles was already married. Charles and his first wife, Ada Wood Stancliffe, had a son, Ronnie’s half-brother, Leslie Stancliffe. He was an actor who was making his way in repertory theatre. Sadly, Leslie died aged just 38, but Minnie was able to speak to Leslie’s daughter, her cousin Jean, on the phone.
“I’m glad I can fill in the blanks for Henry with some really rather wonderful stories,” she says. “It will be a great thing for him to have and for us to look back on over time.”
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