Posted: 9th September 2020
These two images from a newspaper show when King George VI visited Hull in 1941. The first image shows Paragon Square filled with the 4th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment and the bottom image shows King George inspecting the Guard of Honour.
A year earlier in 1940, Hull-born Daniel Billany had voluntarily joined the East Yorkshire Regiment – a decision that would bring him both love and loss.
Dan was born in Hull in 1913 and lived in the Hessle Road area with his family. His father served as a tram conductor for Hull Corporation whist Dan attended Selby Street School. He left school with no qualifications and soon took a job as an apprentice electrician. He went on to gain a place at the University College of Hull, where he received a degree in English. He became a teacher but joined the army and the East Yorkshire Regiment following the outbreak of World War II.
In 1942 Dan was captured by Rommel’s forces whilst in North Africa and spent the next 15 months as a prisoner of war in Italy.
Dan had always dreamed of becoming a writer and would write at any given opportunity. He would have two books published during his lifetime, a thriller titled The Opera House Murders, and The Magic Door, a book for boys.
During his time in Italy Dan and a fellow prisoner, David Dowie, worked together to write a novel called The Cage. Dan also wrote The Trap, a fictionalised account of his early years, which has since been described as “the finest novel to come out of the war”.
Dan Billany had written other novels, including one named A Season of Calm Weather. The book tells the story of a schoolteacher named Philip who falls in love with a younger boy. Despite submitting this work to several publishers in 1937 this book remained unpublished. In 1939 Dan sent another novel to publishers which was once again rejected. Living Amongst Boys includes a similar plot, with a schoolboy developing a romantic interest in his male teacher.
Dan’s sexuality was mirrored in his writing, but it is possible that he did not acknowledge this, even to himself, until after he had fallen in love.
Whilst he was a prisoner of war, his friendship with David Dowie, with whom he wrote The Cage, blossomed. It is perhaps no surprise, due to social values at the time, that Dan at first tried to deny his attraction to David – even trying to set him up with his sister.
However, Dan eventually did tell David that he was in love with him. David was alarmed by this and shunned Dan, ending their friendship. Homosexuality was illegal and considered a perversion, so this was a brave step for Dan to take and he was clearly heartbroken to have seemingly lost David completely. He wrote in his diary that when he returned to England he would “have to get married”, that he had no desire to be a “spinster” nor upset his family.
Dan wrote David a poem to explain his feelings towards him and their friendship was soon back on track.
In September 1943, Italy surrendered from the war and Dan fled through the Italian countryside. He took with him the manuscripts for The Trap and The Cage, fleeing alongside David.
Whilst on the run, the men left the manuscripts with an Italian farmer named Dino Meletti. Dino posted them to Dan’s family when the war ended, allowing them to finally get published. But Dan would not live to see this.
Dan and David were last seen heading towards the Apennines mountains in search of allied forces. However, nobody is completely sure what happened to them after this. It is assumed that they died on the mountains a few days later, together. And Dan Billany was officially presumed dead in January 1944, aged only 30 years old.
Written by Community Curator: Social History Lauren Field.
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