We must keep smiling – four simple words that resonate today just as they were written in the heat of battle 80 years ago.
George Whayman was a young platoon sergeant major on Dunkirk Beach when he wrote a letter to his wife Ethel saying with characteristic optimism that, despite the circumstances, we are “getting through the wind the right way.”
Unfortunately, the letter was never delivered. As part of a bundle of 50 written by soldiers at the end of May 1940 by the 1st Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment, the mailbox she carried was abandoned in the confusion of battle.
Lucky Escape: British soldiers aboard the Glen Gower – a civil paddle steamer that rescued them from Dunkirk in 1940
They were found by a German officer who took them home as a souvenir and they collected dust in his attic for nearly 30 years.
It wasn’t until 1968 that he decided to hand them over to the British Embassy in Bonn – then they were sent back to the Suffolk Regiment Association. Nine were passed on to the soldiers’ families, but the 41 others remained in a municipal archive until investigators encountered them earlier this year.
The letters are a mixture of fascinating details of the French frontline 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 of a soldier writing to his wife with harrowing emotion about his hope that they will have a child together.
Another reveals himself as a secret poet and composes an ode – My Loved One – to his ‘sweet wife Mabel’.
Of course, there are more mundane observations: the inability to wash, looking for a ‘good drink’ in Britain, requests for chocolates, how French girls wear almost nothing – just enough to cover up the so-so’s’, and many calls to families at home to keep ‘your chin up’.
The soldiers are frankly revealing in their view of the Germans. One of them says, “We will give the Boche such a crack one day, he will wonder what happened to him.” Another confides, “I will do my best to catch Goering [commander of the Luftwaffe]. “In a letter, soldier Harry Cole from Hasketon, Suffolk, tells his mother,” I have an idea that the Jerries will be on the run soon. Hitler’s number is well booked. The day they catch it, they should be roasting it alive. ‘
The letters will be exhibited by the Suffolk County Council in a local history project, and extracts can be viewed online.
Meanwhile, The Mail on Sunday has the correspondence that never arrived to some of the intended recipients’ descendants.
For example, we contacted George Whayman’s family, whose letter to his wife began, “Honey, don’t worry, we should keep smiling. Assuming you’re all in pink, keep your cock up my dear … ‘
Then he asked her to kiss their children, Eric and Cynthia. Tragically, he was killed in Singapore 20 months later while fighting the Japanese.
Eric’s 65-year-old son, Terry, from Maidstone, Kent, said, “When 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 liked to see it. ‘
Private Syd Rose, C Company, 1st Battalion, Suffolk Regiment
Syd wrote to his ‘sweet wife’ Vera and daughters Sally and Beverly. The pair is pictured together above
Syd wrote to his ‘sweet wife’ Vera and daughters Sally and Beverly.
He sustained grenade damage in Dunkirk and took another five years to return to Colchester, Essex after being captured for the remainder of the war.
Returning home, he returned to his engineering job 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 great that this letter has reappeared after all these years.”
Syd, pictured below in 1928, died in 1985, aged 77, and never carried malice on those who held him captive.
“My own sweet wife. I am completely fine and longing for the end of this war in June, I hope I pray to God. Looks like I’m right … There isn’t much I can say, but I keep smiling and I know honey how you try too …
“You know, honey, if you don’t hear from me for weeks, I’m still in safe hands, so my dear, 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 dear, will always be in my arms.
You are always in my prayers and thoughts, the very first and last of every day, to make the future peaceful to continue our married life and love for the day of new awakening, if we are His chosen people that I hope darling is so we will go to a better country where love and peace remain …
“Bless you dear …”
Syd, pictured above in 1928, died in 1985, aged 77, never committing malice 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 told about their newborn daughter Joylyn. Now 81 and living in Swindon, Wiltshire, his daughter says he became a prisoner of war and was seven when he returned home.
“He was very quiet, so maybe that changed him. It’s sad that my mom never saw the poem he wrote for her because I don’t know if he ever showed that emotion again. ‘
The couple had a son, and Eddie died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 69.
“My own dear Mabe. Glad to hear that you and our sweet baby are keeping it well and happy … Fancy our little Joylyn has put on 12oz. Gosh, you don’t know how happy it made me and I bet she looks so healthy now that she’s brown as a berry, bless her heart.
She is the best Baba in the world and she certainly has the best mom … Wouldn’t it be great, my dear, to get peace again and to live and love again, just the three of us … I have you never told me a poet.
Well, I wrote a few verses and you will have to forgive me if you think they are terrible. To my dear Mabe and Babe, from your eternal and real husband Eddie xxxxxxxxx. ‘
Eddie’s poem – My Loved One
Oh Mabe my love, I love you
More than these words can say
And I always think about you
As every gloomy day wishes its way
But the day will come oh my angel
And this war will end
There is a sliver lining for every cloud
And the long way back has its turn
My love grows stronger every day
And I know yours is the same
Because I adore the ground you walk on
I knew your sweet name from day one
You and I have always shared problems together
And never looked back
So my dear keeps those brown eyes smiling, then we have to hack our grief like that
Joe Kempster, Signal Section, 1st Suffolk Regiment
“My own dear wife, I have a good idea that I will get through this well … I think too much about you and what we have planned for the future to not keep my ears open … I have enough for you Mary thought, and I realize more than ever what I miss today.
I only lived to make you happy and I think it worked more or less, but the years to come will be even happier, because for one thing you and I will be together forever, never be separated and second there was our baby. [He then writes about her miscarriage.]
Dear, your turn will come one day. Time will straighten things out. We both have plenty of time for us, Saucy. One day you will show me our baby and we will be the happiest couple in the world.
That will be a great day, dear and you will find that all I can do for the comfort of you and Baby will be done. Times will be difficult after all this is over, but we will continue because we trust each other and also one above all else.
I’m not ashamed to say that I prayed for you every night, baby and peace, and I know that someday those prayers will be answered … I’ve seen things here that are enough to break even the hardest of hearts … Darling we will win with something to spare and I am confident that Christmas will see us all back home and in peace …
“Keep smiling because your husband always wants you to be happy. God bless and always keep you for your always 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 the 338,000 British and Allied troops rescued from the Nazi attack by the fleet of “small ships”.
But then he went east to defend Britain against Japan and was mortally hit by a mortar bomb at Punggol Point, Singapore. George, on the right, was interred in Kranji War Cemetery.
‘DEAR Ethel xxx, honey, don’t worry, we have to keep smiling, there are hard times now, but with the wind the right way we can get through … Trust that you’re all in pink, keep your cock up my dear, must close, with all my precious love and kisses, yours ever george xxxx. ‘
George Whayman, A Company, 1st Battalion, Suffolk Regiment
George Whayman wrote to his girlfriend Eva Willingham, a doctor’s housekeeper in the village of Bures St Mary, Suffolk
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 Eve’s childhood home was hit by a German bomb, killing her parents, grandmother and nephew. She never married and died in 1993.
“My own darling, I slept continuously for eight hours last night, most since this fork started.
I took off my clothes once, and only for a bath, otherwise only my boots will come off when I sleep …
While on the one hand is the sound of war, on the other hand, the more peaceful sounds of church bells that remind me so much of England, and you dear, and all that could be …
You will never appreciate the country roads, which should look beautiful and green and full of flowers, just like when you take them off and cannot return! ‘
He died, aged 29, four months later, while Eve’s childhood home was hit by a German bomb, killing her parents, grandmother and nephew. She never married and died in 1993