Letter writing is a primary source of history. Reading letters allows us to view the past from different points of view. If you’ve followed our website for some time, you may have read previous posts about letters we’ve received as donations: ARTHUR WILLIAM HAMMOND and PRIVATE ERNEST IVANY. In one case, the letters were written to family members to share a military experience; in the other, the letters were written to the serviceman by family members and friends to share life back home.
In our Library, we have a number of books that contain letters written by those who were serving; they represent different periods of time and are a window to those times. This communication allowed family and friends to stay close, to be reminded of their loved ones during times of turmoil. These are some of those glimpses ~
The first book, Letters from London 1944-45, was written by Edna Johnson Wilson (RCAF WD). In her introduction she writes, “I have been a tick in the pendulum of history, and by noting these slight events, this tick might join with others to make a pattern for the future… By 1942, I was, at twenty, old enough to enlist, and did so in the Air Force. I harboured no illusions that the men would allow women near airplanes, but the proximity was enough to tempt me… On looking back on my service years, especially as I read over the letters I wrote home from London, I remember many small incidents and great people. Life in wartime London was not a unique experiences, but it was interesting.” On May 3, 1945 she wrote to ‘Fat Stuff’, “The news has sure been breaking this week. I don’t see how much could happen all at once… Somebody here is always trying to stir up trouble with the Russians in the news… First it was about the Russians in P.O.W. camps here, then it was about some prominent Poles who were missing. Russia is going to be hard to appease and I’d hate to be fighting against her… Well, they say V-day won’t be this week – doubtless it would spoil our weekend, but early next week. Here’s to it.”
The second book I’d like to share with you is Imshi, a Fighter Pilot’s Letters to his Mother. Ernest Mitchelson Mason, D.F.C., applied for a short service commission in the R.A.F. and in March of 1938, was sent to Ansty, near Coventry, for elementary flying training. He was commissioned in May and sailed for Egypt. While he was away, he wrote home constantly and “talked freely to his mother…as the year went by the letters accumulated until they formed a complete history of a fighter pilot’s life in the Middle East, in peace and war…those years in the R.A.F. changed ‘Ernest’ into ‘Imshi’ were the happiest years of his life.” In February of 1941 he wrote home, “After I had force-landed I learnt that one of the C.R. 42 pilots had tried to bale out but his parachute had not opened. So I had a look at him. He was about 200 yards from his still blazing machine. I had got him in the right shoulder so he had not been able to open his chute. I went through his pockets and found a lot of interesting snapshots and a lot of letters. Before I left I covered him with his parachute and weighted it down with stones. After I got back I took the Magister to H.Q. to hand in these pictures.”
Dear Mum was written by Ken Stofer. This book is interesting in that the author of the letters, Canadian Victor E. Syrett, nicknamed ‘Candy’ was with the R.A.F. as part of the airforce ground crew. He was with 242 Squadron and in the Japanese Prison Camp Fukuoka #2. In addition to letters written by Syrett, the book includes a look at Syrett’s life through the eyes of others who knew him or who had similar life experiences. It also includes a letter written by an American soldier who was at the same prison camp. He wrote to Syrett’s mother, “… Many of the men developed pneumonia and Victor was one of these and on the 12th of February, 1943 he passed away. Prisoners who died were cremated and their ashes were turned over to the Allies upon cessation of hostilities. It is not my purpose here to open old wounds and cause grief anew, but rather hope that this letter will perhaps offer you the comfort of knowing that Victor died a normal death and did not have to suffer indignities and brutalities that caused the deaths of so many good men at later times. Upon arrival back to the U.S.A. my ship docked at Vancouver to let of some British P.O.W.s and I wanted so much at that time to notify you…but we did not stay long enough for me to leave the ship to inquire. Please forgive me for not being able to notify you many years ago.”
In All Thy Ways contains letters from a Canadian Flying Officer in training in Canada and England and in action in North Africa. “These are the intimate and soul-revealing letters of a son to his mother. They are human documents for they tell the story of the inner spiritual aspirations of a youth just out of college who was turned temporarily from his chosen calling as a minister to take up the difficult task to which duty beckoned him and to serve his country in the Air Force.” From North Africa in December of 1942, he wrote to his mother, “… It gets very cold here at night, but very warm in the daytime. All of us Canadians are ‘dreaming of a White Christmas!!’ I read the 91st psalm before every sweep and say, it’s a real tonic – I have never realized how much I needed God’s presence until I came here, and there are scores of opportunities for witness. How is —- I wonder – out in the trench again, but no bombs – I better hurry or I’ll never get this letter finished…”
Letters from a Bomber Pilot was authored by David Hodgson, brother of Bob, the subject of the book. In fact, the book was compiled from the letters of Pilot Officer J.R.A. Hodgson, pilot in the RAF Bomber Command, 1941 – 1943. At one point in time, Bob tries to explain an experience when he was learning to fly at night, “Night flying hasn’t gone as well as it should. I went out to Wheaton Aston, which is where we now do our night flying on Friday night. It was a lovely night, moonlight, but the wind was a little high and slightly across the runway… at the risk of boring you I will try and describe a dual circuit.
We taxied up towards the taxying post with an ‘erk’ guiding us past dispersed aircraft, with a torch in each hand. We stop just off the flare path and quickly do our cockpit drill. I flash our identity letter and there is a blinding green flash from the duty pilot’s Aldis. We can go.
Open up a little, and get into the flare path, a touch of left brake and round into the wind, uncage gyro on zero and gently open up. The flares gather speed and whip away behind us – seventy on the clock and she still sticks to the concrete. Ease back the stick and the wheels stop rumbling. As we get airborne the slight cross-wind drifts us to the right and we cross the boundary lights about fifty feet up, start initial climb at 85 and at a hundred feet retract undercart… climb to 700 feet with eyes glued on horizon and air speed, then begin a climbing turn onto 270 degrees… we get to a thousand feet on about 290 degrees, so throttle back and trim. Risk a quick look out to the left and there is the flare path… turn in towards flare path. Bloody fine, right in green from angle of flight indicator on flare path. Airspeed a bit high so trim back, a little rudder to take off drift. Shit! in red now, open up, green, throttle back or you’ll be too high… tail stalls… frantic stub of the left brake to stop the swing…”
Letters From a Flying Officer ~ Rothesay Stuart Wortley was born in 1892, the son of Major-General the Honourable James Edward Montagu Stuart Wortley of Highcliffe Castle. He took second-class honours in History while at Oxford but spent most of his time with hunting and playing polo; he was a member of the Bullingdon and a regular rider with the Drag. In New York, he learned business in the office of the Guarantee Trust Company, then returned home in 1914. He was in England when War broke out, and like all his friends, enlisted. It was in the spring of 1917 that he joined the Flying Corps. He joined No. 22 (Bristol Fighter) Squadron in France. At the end of the War he was awarded the Military Cross. In November 1914 he wrote of an incident, ” When half a mile from the sheds I put the machine into a dive, and came down to 700 ft. Observed men lined up to the right of the shed: number estimated 300 – 500. Dropped one bomb in enclosure to put gunners off their aim, and, when in correct position, dropped two into Works and shed. The fourth bomb failed to release. During this time very heavy fire, mitrailleuse and rifle, was being kept up: and shells were being rapidly fired. Dived and flew north until out of range of the guns; and then turned back to the waterside shed to try to release fourth bomb. Bomb would not release, was fired on by two machine guns. Dived down to the surface of the lake and made good my escape.”
Home, Sweet Home ~ The Wartime Letters of Sgt Pilot Bob Kimberley. This book is illustrated by his brother, Ken, and are ” … a very personal interpretation of events in his brother’s tragically short career with the RAF… ”
The first letter was written from Babbacombe, Devon on May 31st, 1941. He wrote, “Arrived safe but worn out… have got majority of ordinary RAF kit already. Pretty good fit I think mum. Got decent bed in decent hotel. Decent sergeant and decent blokes. Decent so far. I think food will be OK. Will be here one week then moved to initial training wing (ground drill, maths exams, etc.). About six weeks there and then I don’t know what comes next. Anyway, things will be OK. If I don’t pass all this training and tests, I can do something else. Hope you will be OK. Hope you felt alright after train scramble. Best love, Bob xxx”
The illustration Ken did to highlight this letter:
** Did you know that along with letters home, servicemen sent sweetheart jewelry? In my next post, I’ll share this aspect of communication with you.