The lost love letters of Dunkirk: Written by British soldiers facing oblivion, a bundle of post – including a private’s poem and another’s hopes of becoming a father – never arrived and gathered dust for 80 years… until now
We must keep smiling – four simple words that resonate as much today as when they were written in the heat of battle 80 years ago.
George Whayman was a young platoon sergeant major on the beach of Dunkirk when he composed a letter home to his wife Ethel saying with characteristic optimism that, despite the circumstances, ‘with the wind the right way, we shall get through’.
Sadly, the letter was never delivered. As part of a bundle of 50 written by soldiers at the end of May 1940 from the 1st Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment, the postal van carrying them was abandoned in the confusion of battle.
Lucky escape: British soldiers aboard the Glen Gower – a civilian paddle steamer which helped rescue them from Dunkirk in 1940
They were found by a German officer who took them home as a souvenir, and they gathered dust in his attic for almost 30 years.
It was not until 1968 that he decided to hand them to the British Embassy in Bonn – and they were then returned to the Suffolk Regiment Association. Nine were passed to the soldiers’ families but the 41 others remained in a council archive until researchers stumbled upon them earlier this year.
The letters are a mixture of fascinating detail from the French front line in the weeks leading up to Dunkirk and heartbreaking descriptions of love lives and family ties broken by war.
One of the most poignant is by a soldier who writes with searing emotion to his wife about his hopes they’ll have a child together.
Another reveals himself as a secret poet and composes an ode – My Loved One – to his ‘darling wife Mabel’.
Of course, there are more mundane observations: the inability to wash, looking forward to a ‘good booze-up’ back in Britain, requests for chocolates, how French girls ‘wear hardly anything at all – just enough to cover up the so so’s’, and many calls to families back home to keep ‘your chin up’.
Revealingly, the soldiers are forthright in their view of the Germans. One says: ‘We’ll give the Boche such a crack one day, he’ll wonder what has hit him.’ Another confides: ‘I’ll do my best to get hold of Goering [commander of the Luftwaffe].’ In one letter, Private Harry Cole, from Hasketon, Suffolk, tells his mother: ‘I have an idea the Jerries will soon be on the run. Hitler’s number is booked all right. The day they catch him, they ought to roast him alive.’
The letters are to be exhibited by Suffolk County Council in a local history project and excerpts can be viewed online.
Meanwhile, The Mail on Sunday has given the correspondence that never arrived to some of the intended recipients’ descendants.
For example, we contacted the family of George Whayman, whose letter to his wife started: ‘Darling, don’t worry yourself, we must keep smiling. Trusting you are all in the pink, keep your pecker up my love…’
He then asked her to kiss their children, Eric and Cynthia. Tragically, he was killed 20 months later in Singapore while fighting the Japanese.
Eric’s 65-year- old son, Terry, from Maidstone, Kent, said: ‘At the time he wrote that letter, Ethel was heavily pregnant with their third child, my uncle Michael.
‘Reading this letter now is very emotional. Eric would have loved to have seen it.’
Private Syd Rose, C Company, 1st Battalion, Suffolk Regiment
Syd wrote to his ‘darling wife’ Vera and daughters Sally and Beverly. The couple are pictured above together
Syd wrote to his ‘darling wife’ Vera and daughters Sally and Beverly.
He suffered a shrapnel wound at Dunkirk and it was another five years before he made it back to Colchester, Essex, having been taken prisoner for the remainder of the war.
Back home, he returned to his job at an engineering firm and the couple, pictured left on their wedding day, had three more children – twins Bruce and Bridget and daughter Stephanie.
Bridget, 73, said it was the thought of his family that kept her father going.
‘It’s wonderful this letter has turned up again after all these years.’
Syd, pictured below in 1928, died in 1985, aged 77, and never bore ill-will to those who held him captive.
‘My own darling wife. I am quite alright and longing for this war to finish by June I hope pray God. It seems that I shall be right… There is not much I can say but I keep smiling and I know darling how you are also trying too…
‘You know, sweetheart, if you don’t hear from me for perhaps weeks, I shall still be in safe hands so, my dearest, you can look for that glorious day. I pray every night and sometimes every five minutes of the day that this war will soon end… You, my darling, shall always be in my arms.
You’re always in my prayers and thoughts, the very first and last of each day, to make the future a peaceful one to continue our married life and love to the day of new awakening when if we are His chosen people which I hope darling so, we shall go to a better land where love and peace abode…
‘Bless you sweetheart…’
Syd, pictured above in 1928, died in 1985, aged 77, and never bore ill-will to those who held him captive
Private Eddie Garnham, Signal Section, 1st Suffolk Company, 1st Battalion, Suffolk Regiment
Eddie wrote to his wife Mabel and spoke of their newborn daughter Joylyn. Now 81 and living in Swindon, Wiltshire, his daughter says he became a prisoner of war and she was seven when he returned home.
‘He was very quiet, so maybe that changed him. It’s sad my mother never got to see the poem he wrote for her as I don’t know if he ever showed that emotion again.’
The couple went on to have a son and Eddie died in 1980 from cancer at the age of 69.
‘My own darling Mabe. Glad to hear that you and our darling baby are keeping well and happy… Fancy our little Joylyn has put on 12oz. Gosh, you don’t know how happy it has made me and I bet she looks the picture of health now that she is as brown as a berrie, bless her little heart.
She is the best Baba in the world and she certainly has the best mummy… Won’t it be wonderful, my Darling, to get peace again and to live and love together again just us three… I never told you I was a poet.
Well, I wrote a few verses and you will have to forgive me if you think they are terrible. To my darling Mabe and Babe, from your everlasting and true husband Eddie xxxxxxxxx.’
Eddie’s poem- My Loved One
Oh Mabe my darling I love you
More than these words can say
And I’m always thinking of you
As each dreary day wens its way
But the day will come oh my angel
And this war will come to an end
For each cloud has a sliver lining
And the long road back has its bend
Each day my love it grows stronger
And I know that yours is the same
For I worship the ground that you walk on
From the first day I knew your sweet name
You and I have always shared troubles together
And never once have looked back
So my sweet keep those brown eyes smiling, Then our sorrows we’ll so have to hack
Joe Kempster, Signal Section, 1st Suffolk Regiment
‘My own darling wife, I have a good idea that I shall come through this alright… I think too much of you and what we have planned for the future not to keep my ears open… I have done plenty of thinking about you Mary, and I realise more than ever what I am missing today.
I have lived only to make you happy and I think I have more or less succeeded, but the future years are going to be even happier because for one thing you and I will be together for always, never again to be parted and secondly there will be our baby. [He then writes about her miscarriage.]
Dear, your turn will come one day. Time will put matters right. We both have plenty of time in front of us, Saucy. One day you will show me our baby, and we will be the happiest couple in the world.
That will be a grand day dearest and you will find that everything I can do for the comfort of you and Baby will be done. Times will be hard after this is all over, but we will pull through because we have faith in each other and also in one above all.
I am not ashamed to say I have prayed each night for you, Baby and peace, and I know one day those prayers will be answered… I have seen things out here which is enough to break even the hardest heart… Darling we shall win with something to spare and I feel confident that Christmas will see us all home and at peace again…
‘Keep smiling because your husband always wants you to be happy. God bless and keep you always for your ever loving husband and sweetheart Joe xxxxx, I love you.’
Private Frederick Louis Minns, Suffolk Regiment
He wrote to his wife Ethel. Days later he was among 338,000 British and Allied troops rescued from the Nazi onslaught by the fleet of ‘little ships’.
But then he went East to defend Britain against Japan and was fatally hit by a mortar bomb at Punggol Point, Singapore. George, right, was buried at Kranji War Cemetery.
‘DEAREST Ethel xxx, Darling don’t worry yourself, we must keep smiling, there are hard times just now, but with the wind the right way we shall get through… Trusting you are all in the pink, keep your pecker up my love, must close, with all my fondest love and kisses, yours ever George xxxx.’
He wrote to his girlfriend Eva Willingham, a doctor’s housekeeper in the village of Bures St Mary, Suffolk.
He died, aged 29, four months later, while Eva’s family home was hit by a German bomb, killing her parents, grandmother and cousin. She never married and died in 1993.
‘My own dear, I had eight hours continuous sleep last night which is the most since this gaff started.
I have had my clothes off once, and that only for a bath, otherwise all that comes off when I sleep is my boots…
Although on one side are the sounds of war, on the other are the more peaceful sounds of church bells which remind me so much of England, and you darling, and all that might have been…
One never appreciates the country lanes, which must look lovely and green and full of flowers, so much as when one is torn from them and unable to return yet!’
He died, aged 29, four months later, while Eva’s family home was hit by a German bomb, killing her parents, grandmother and cousin. She never married and died in 1993
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