Growing up in Wallasey on the Wirral, Paul Hollywood was close to his maternal granddad, Norman Harman.
He was “a great man”, the Great British Bake Off judge remembers, laughing at memories of how Norman would sometimes “do a slight Les Dawson” and “drop a bum note in” when he was playing piano in church. When Paul’s own parents divorced, Norman became a “father figure”.
As he begins his research, Paul is “nervous” about tracing Norman’s life, which was shaped by his experiences during the Second World War. Norman had a slight facial tic. “I always thought that was because of shell shock,” says Paul, who thinks his grandfather may have gone through some “really hard stuff”.
Just how hard becomes clear after Paul traces Norman’s military service, aided by seeing his granddad’s medals and military service records. Norman, Paul learns, headed for Tunisia in February 1943 and didn’t return home until December 1945.
Professor Lloyd Clark took Paul to ‘Banana Ridge’, where Norman survived a terrifying German counter-attack
By April 1943, the North African campaign was almost at end, but the Allies still had to take the Tunisian capital, Tunis, where the Germans were boxed in. Serving with an anti-aircraft division, Norman was sent to the front, where he was part of a team manning a Bofors gun, used to help protect the infantry from aerial attack – no matter what was happening.
“Taking cover was not an option,” says military historian Professor Lloyd Clark, whom Paul meets in Tunisia.
One battle in particular stands out. On the night of 20/21 April, Norman was stationed at ‘Banana Ridge’, named because of its shape. It was a spot the Germans targeted as part of a counter-attack. Two members of Norman’s battery died as the men faced German tanks and troops.
Norman’s experiences in Italy were even harsher. In January 1944, he was among the troops who landed behind enemy lines on the beaches at Anzio. The aim was to push towards Rome, but the Allies became bogged down, and Norman saw attritional combat comparable to the Western Front in the First World War.
“He broke down here,” says a visibly upset Paul, “I wish I’d known.” But nobody should doubt Norman’s bravery: his service record says he was an “exemplary” solider.
Paul discovered what life as a post runner would have been like in the Scottish Highlands
Back in Britain, Norman continues to trace his maternal family tree, beginning by learning about the life of his 3x great grandfather, Kenneth McKenzie, who was a policeman in 19th-century Glasgow and patrolled the docks.
It seems Kenneth, who liked a drink, may not have been much cop as a constable. After a string of incidents, including the assault of a prisoner, he was dismissed from the police service. Kenneth ended his days in the poorhouse, and the records here enable Paul to go back another generation.
Kenneth’s father, Donald, was a crofter in the Highlands. Donald was also was a ‘post runner’. Every week, on foot, he took the mail from Poolewe on the west coast to Dingwall in the east of Scotland, a round trip of approximately 120 miles across rugged country. “He must have been fit as a flea!” says Paul, and indeed Donald lived into his 80s.
Amidst the grandeur of the Highlands, Paul is delighted by what he’s discovered. “Before this I knew nothing about my ancestors and very little about my granddad,” he says. “But now, I’ve got something to hang my hat on.”