I’m publishing my book FAR AWAY this year, a novel based on my father’s memoirs of being a POW in Italy and then escaping, so this post is about POW letter writing in general and his letters in particular. As far as I can tell from the numbers of letters and postcards I have, officers were allowed to write four letters and four postcards a month. There was a magazine called The Prisoner of War, produced by The Red Cross for the next-of-kin of POWs and in this suggestions were made as to what one should and shouldn’t write about. The concern was naturally for the men’s morale. The resulting lists are rather quaint to today’s eyes and the not list seems altogether more interesting than the first one:
WHAT TO TELL HIM
- film you saw
- book you read
- sermons you heard
- flowers you grow
- skirt you made
- money you saved
- words baby learnt
WHAT NOT TO TELL HIM
- dinner you ate
- cold you caught
- bomb you dodged
- fright you had
- pound you lost
- vase you broke
- ration book loss
Letters that were sent to POWs which contained thoughtless comments were known as ‘mail bag splitters.’ Here are a few examples quoted by Midge Gillies in her fascinating book The Barbed-Wire University (Aurum Press).
Darling I’m so glad you were shot down before flying became dangerous.
From a complaining wife: Here I am working myself to death and you are leading a life of luxury.
Do you get out to do much shooting?
From a wife:You have just bought me a silver fox fur – aren’t you glad?
Written in September 1940:Keep your chin up – it won’t be long now.
Can you buy beer over there or do they only sell wine?
I am having an affair with a Canadian airman and he is having cigarettes and parcels sent you from Canada
Letters were censored and if you ignored that then your relative was likely to receive a letter that looked something like this:
This was exactly what happened to Clive Dunn of Dad’s Army fame when his gran sent him a letter. He didn’t seem to mind, suggesting that the hilarity it produced was much better for morale than the crossed out contents could ever have been.
Some people used code words or expressions that might slip under the censor’s pen. Uncle Joe for example was code for Stalin and therefore a reference to what was going on in Russia. Bill Murray, who was captured in North Africa, used a coded message relying on a sequence of letters to his mother informing her that his boots had been taken and they had no suitable footwear for the bitterly cold Italian winter. She went to the Glaswegian branch of the Red Cross and they arranged for 2000 boots to be delivered to the Italian POW camp where her son was being held.
In a letter to his sister Jill on 6/7/43 my father wrote:
‘I shall be writing my next letter home in French as they say letters written in a foreign language get home quicker. It will be good practice for you to correct the grammar!’
In fact he wrote one letter in French and an almost identical one in Italian. Here’s the French one.
My dear Mother
Imagine how happy I felt to receive four letters from Brundall (the village in Norfolk where he was born). However I feel very sad at the news of Colin Pitman’s death. Many of my best friends have died since the beginning of the war – Bill Garnet, Christopher Cadogan and now Colin. It’s very sad. I can’t help but wonder what life will be like after the war and I can come to no real conclusion other than to think it will be very different to the life we have at the moment. I am quite well. The censor prevents me from giving you all the details you ask for or from speaking of the war. I pass the time reading and taking a bit of exercise. I recently read a biography of Catherine of Aragon which I found very interesting. It is written by an American and consequently the style is rather barbaric! I must finish now. Tell Jill as far as I’m concerned she shouldn’t worry too much about exams! My love to Jill and Daddy
It’s interesting that this is one of the few letters in which he expresses his feelings. Maybe writing in another language gave him permission to do that. I remember once when I was quite young saying to my mother wasn’t it lucky that neither she nor my father had anyone close to them killed in the war. She came out with some rather vague response. How naive I was. Of course they had losses but like many of their generation they simply chose never to talk about them.