Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of VE Day and even in this crisis the nation could take the positive message that in 1945 it had overcome an enormous threat. The Queen gave another rousing speech and Dame Vera Lynn brought a tear to millions of eyes by leading the national sing along of her 1939 classic “We’ll Meet Again”. My wife and I did crack open a bottle of bubbly to mark the occasion. We did the same last week when Captain Tom had his 100th birthday and again the following day as it was May Day. We need to find things to celebrate.
But in 1945 my mother did not join in the celebrations, indeed I think she found them irritating. Why? Because her husband was still in Burma in deadly combat with the Japanese. They had married in February 1942 and after a brief and modest honeymoon he left England with his Royal Artillery regiment, first for Madagascar to sort out the mess left by the French, then to India to prepare for the task of retaking Burma, and then to Burma for that dreadful campaign. Even after the Japanese surrendered following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki he did not return until late October, over two months after the formal end of World War II. First, the injured, sick and prisoners of war had to be repatriated.
Then, after a joyous but brief reunion, on Boxing Day he was called up again, this time to go to Germany and help with the resettlement there. He was away a further six months. During these periods of long separation they wrote many letters to each other. My mother wrote about 600 and my father about 300. These have been shared with my sister, my brother and myself and I have transcribed many of my share. Well, actually my daughter has transcribed most of them. She is now married with a three year old son, so I will have to finish the job myself. My daughter made a presentation for a job interview based on this collection. Here is part of that presentation.
“They are of course love letters between a young couple who had their first years of marriage ruined by this awful war. They had no mobile phones, or Skype or internet to keep in touch; just handwritten letters that would take several weeks by sea to reach their destination. They were censored as well and sometimes there are holes where the censor has cut something out, perhaps an innocent reference to a location.
But they are also a fascinating record of the lives of ordinary people caught up in the war. Joan may have faced as much danger as Eric as she worked for His Majesty’s Stationery Office in Oxford St in the centre of London and sometimes stood fire watch duty on the roof during the night as the Luftwaffe bombed London. She tells of the difficulties of getting food, clothing and other necessities while Eric by comparison would be well fed and have plenty of beer and spirits for parties. But of course once he went to the front it was a different thing altogether. On one occasion a senior officer requisitioned his jeep and drove it into the jungle where it was blown up. On another occasion a Japanese shot at him but hit a tree and Eric just received a slight cut from a splinter of wood from the tree.
Here are a few extracts:
This extract shows how rationing made people appreciate food that previously they would have taken for granted.
Joan to Eric-1942-19 May 20th 1942
Last night there was a District Guide affair at Stoneleigh – a country dancing party which was very jolly – we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves tripping & jigging about. And what do you think darling? There was a Raffle for 6 oranges and I won!!! We were frightfully thrilled because I haven’t eaten an orange for about 18 months & they’re lovely big juicy ones. Whoopee!
‘Fire watching’- example of the job people were expected to do to help the war effort on the home front:
Joan to Eric 1942-98 Sunday, Oct 4th 1942 (St Francis)
It was a glorious October morning – Phyl & Dick went round to Betty’s, so Vera & I went into Malden to register for fire watching – as all women between the ages of 20 & 45 have to register, goodness knows why – well, we saw a huge, long queue so we decided to have a drink in “The Fountain” instead- I don’t know if it will be any better on my way down this afternoon or not. Anyway as I do fire watching at the office and at home, I can’t see what else I need do!
‘Toy-making’- how people learnt to be thrifty and made do with very little resources and materials. Plus an example of the community spirit that people got through hard times.
Joan to Eric 1943- Saturday Dec 4th 1943
About a dozen of us from club last night helped Mr. Rowe get his toy fair ready in the hut & honestly, darling, he’s done wonders this year- I wished I had lots of money & lots of children to justify buying them. Mr. Rowe & a friend of his have made between them about 200 worthy toys & the rest of the Parish have accounted for another £30 or £40 worth. The majority of his stuff is made of wood; goodness knows where they obtained all the wood & paint! They’ve done lovely red engines on wheels & boxes & brightly coloured bricks that all fit into patterns, making …, toy swings & clocks, carts & models of aeroplanes & ships, even a model farm. Then lots of very beautifully made doll’s furniture, books & hundreds of soft knitted & cuddly dolls & animals. Mother made about 9 lovely dolls, all of which are selling for about 10/- each.
‘Bananas’- another example showing the hardship of food shortages:
Joan to Eric 1946-66 Train from Waterloo. 9/47 p.m. Thurs March 14th 1946
In the office this afternoon all our mouths were watering as our part-time girl had got a pound of beautiful bananas for her little girl. They looked so yellow & delicious – the first I’d seen for over six years - I hope grown-ups get them soon. I used to like them for breakfast, did you darling? Sorry this letter is such a lot about food; it’s really awful how people can’t refrain from discussing it in almost any conversation. Elsie (Gascoigne) & I made a Lent resolution that we’d endeavour to stop grumbling about the numerous shortages. It’s much harder than you might at first suppose!
‘Land girl- digging potatoes’
Joan to Eric 1943-314 The Swan Inn, Sherburne St John, Hampshire Tues Oct 12th 1943
I really must tell you how very hard we have been working today, a complete contrast from the joys of exploring Hampshire yesterday. We all went off on lorries at 9 o’clock this morning- about 10 miles away to quite a large farm. It was quite a novel & enjoyable experience jolting along in a lorry through misty Hampshire lanes, instead of toddling along to the office at 9 am.
We were dumped in a gigantic potato field – a really huge one, & it was so misty that you couldn’t see anything but potato plants on either side.
The farmer was quite a nice old fellow, with a very broad Hampshire accent, & he detailed us off in pairs – we had a “pitch” each – marked off with sticks stuck in the ground, & two land girls drove tractors round & round the field, & we seized sacks & followed them, picking up potatoes & potatoes & still more POTATOES all day long – i.e. from 9.15 -12 & from 1 o’clock-4.30. It was amusing at first, but in all honesty darling- I won’t mind admitting that it got a bit “achy” as time went on. My back didn’t ache, although I expected it would but oh, my poor knees! Still, it wasn’t too bad - & we had an hour off for sandwiches & a rest in the hay & at 4.30 were paid the sum of 5/6 & came back in the lorries for a most welcome wash & a very good dinner of roast beef, Brussels sprouts & naturally – POTATOES! It’s quite a satisfying feeling to see an expanse of field – all cleared – that you are responsible for. I expect we shall go back to the same farm tomorrow- as there seemed to be still a good stretch of land still to relieve of its crop of excellent spuds.
‘Dysentery’ – the illnesses soldiers had to frequently endure:
Eric to Joan 1943-127 Lieut E.C.Pearson R.A. 9th Fld Regt R.A. India Command Aug 3rd 1943
I’m in hospital with a mild sort of dysentery. I came in last Friday. I don’t feel ill so I am at liberty to roam about & do as I please. There is one snag & that is that I am on a fluid diet at the moment but that won’t last much longer. I must admit that I do spend most of the day lying on my bed reading but that is laziness – I’m going to make the most of the rest. The staff are very good – the sisters are very pleasant & jovial & the doctors are thorough. They won’t let anybody out until he is quite fit so I expect to be here for at least three weeks & I can’t honestly say I’m sorry to be away from camp. The flies – nasty big blue bottles, probably the cause of my dysentery – were terrible & food recently hasn’t been as good. The rain didn’t help either so I’m far better off in a “home” – hospital – sorry, darling. Fred is in here too – we came in together. He’s in the next ward with malaria.
Eric would share his experiences of countries that back then most people wouldn’t have had the opportunity to visit:
Eric to Joan 1944 Lieut E.C.Pearson R.A. 9th Fld Regt R.A. India Command- Feb 1st
You’ve probably wondered what the country is like. Well there are trees, trees & yet more trees, mostly teak. Some places there’s nothing but grass & small bushes between the trees & other places there is thick jungle with creepers. Every few minutes there is a paddy field, dry now but a swamp in the monsoon season & here & there a village, really near the river. The natives live in wooden houses raised about 6 or 7 feet above the ground & live mostly on rice so far as I can see. They have a novel way of grinding it which affords good leg exercise. They grow bananas & tobacco amongst other things & it’s not unusual to see a boy or girl about 8 years old smoking a cigar about an inch or inch & a half in diameter. I’ve had one myself & it wasn’t too bad. The rivers are usually very clean & pleasant to swim in. It’s possibly to supplement the rations with fish, wild pig & jungle fowl though I must admit our own catering corps has been a bit slow to present & the rice to be had from the villages is extremely good quality. There are hundreds of different kinds of birds & one often sees a pack (clutch or drove) of monkeys. Bamboo grows to terrific sizes out here & the uses to which it can be put are endless. We’re getting pretty well used to the jungle & are quite at home in it so if I’ve sprouted a tail by the time I come home think nothing of it.
A few extracts that show how hard it was to be apart, how much they missed each other but also the faith and positive spirit they had to keep them going…
Eric to Joan 1943-159 Lieut E.C.Pearson R.A. 9th Fld Regt R.A. India Command Dec 6th 1943
Thank you for the diary, my darling but you see it is forbidden in the army. My diary is the letters I send you. I try to tell you as much as possible of my daily activities & when I come home I’ll have to read through them & tell you about things I detail.
Eric to Joan 1943 Lt E.C.Pearson R.A. 9th … Regt. R.A.India Command Feb 24th 1943
We must both just be patient & pray that it will not be too long, before we are able to resume that wonderful life we started together.
Eric to Joan 1944 Capt. E.C.Pearson 9TH Fld Regt R.A. S.E.A.C.
My Sweet Darling
Here’s a line to wish you a very happy Christmas & a bright New Year with good hopes of our being together again before Christmas 1945. This will be the fifth Christmas we have spent apart but don’t let that worry you sweetheart, we can still be happy & I hope we shall. I shall do my part towards it, darling so do be happy yourself won’t you, my love. I’ll be thinking terribly hard of you all through the Christmas period in particular – I don’t know where I shall be or what I shall be doing but that won’t make any difference to my thoughts for you. We had a good time last year & we have a much better chance this so we ought to do well. I hope you have a nice peaceful Christmas, raid free, more rations & the blackout lifted etc. It should be better than the last few.
Joan to Eric 1942-287 72, Stoneleigh Avenue, Worcester Park, Surrey August 23rd 1942
I’ve learnt to endure being separated from the person who means most to me in the world- I’ve learnt that you can live & go on living; even without the thing you want most, that you can be happy working & using your leisure profitably, that you can still look well-dressed without stockings! And that you don’t need as much make up as you thought you did! Does all this peculiar philosophising sound rather silly, darling? I’m sorry if it is boring, but I think I must be in a meditative mood & I don’t often write to you of more abstract things, do I?
Joan to Eric 1942-91 72, Stoneleigh Avenue, Worcester Park, Surrey Sun 27.9.42
Do hope it won’t be too long before we are together again to do all the lovely things we want to do - & together – not separately. What’s the fun of being married and young and in love – if we can’t be together to share everything? Still – I must be patient, mustn’t I, my sweet? & I do love you – it is so worth waiting for.
Joan to Eric 1946-19 72, Stoneleigh Avenue, Worcester Park, Surrey Sunday Jan 20th 1946
I’m so very pleased you’re getting my letters quickly now & I’ll try to keep up a sufficiently large flow to make the others jealous! I’ll really be writing ‘because I simply love writing to you, darling- even if I have no news. It brings you closer to me.”
My daughter finished her presentation with these conclusions:
“WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THEIR EXPERIENCES?
Obviously these letters mean a lot to me as they are my grandparents but I think anyone can learn from them. They show the extraordinary strength, hope and love that humans have to get through times of despair and sacrifice. They also show how far we’ve come in terms of technology and how modern ways of communication have shrunk the world. It’s hard to imagine in our world now what it must have been like to only have letters to keep in touch with your loved one and not know how long it would be until you heard from them again. “