Tragic Suffolk soldier’s last letter home finally delivered after 80 years
PUBLISHED: 12:29 24 May 2020 | UPDATED: 13:27 24 May 2020
The family of a British soldier who was killed during the retreat to Dunkirk have finally received a letter he wrote just before his death nearly 80 years ago.
Private Harry Cole, 30, penned the letter to his mother Rosa on May 26, 1940, predicting with hopeless optimism that German troops would soon be “on the run” and “back in Germany in double quick time”.
He also reported the death of a friend and added poignantly: “Well mother, please don’t worry about me, I shall get through it OK.”
But he was shot dead by a sniper just three days later in Belgium while serving with the British Expeditionary Force in the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.
His letter was lost as British troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in the face of the lightning Blitzkrieg advance by German forces early in World War Two.
It has now finally been delivered to his old family home in Hasketon, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, after being kept in an attic by a German Army officer and stored in a council archive for eight decades.
Private Cole’s younger brothers Clemmie, 87, who still lives in the family’s old council house in the village and Derek, 89, who lives nearby were shocked to finally read his last written words.
The letter was among 50 written on the front line by soldiers from the 1st Battalion, which were sent to a local headquarters for checking by censors to ensure they contained no military secrets.
They were found in an abandoned truck by a German Army officer who kept them in his attic until 1968 when he was having a clear out.
He took them to the British embassy in Bonn and they were forwarded to the Suffolk Regiment Association in Bury St Edmunds, where staff set about trying to trace the recipients in 1969.
Nine were successfully forwarded to the families who were supposed to receive them, but the other 41 remained languishing in archives which were taken over by Suffolk County Council.
The surviving letters including the one written in pencil by Pte Cole were uncovered again this year by council researchers planning to exhibit them as part of a local history project.
Incredibly the council’s assistant archivist Heidi Hughes, who lives in Hasketon, saw that Pte Cole’s letter was addressed to a house in her home village.
She realised that she knew fellow villager Clemmie Cole and made inquiries to find out if he was related to Harry. He confirmed that the soldier was his older brother who had been killed in the war.
Retired prison service carpenter Clemmie, who lives with his wife Joy, recalled how he came home from the village school as a boy in 1940 to find his mother weeping over a telegram, confirming that his big brother was missing in action.
He said: “It was such a shock to receive Harry’s letter after so long. I was quite moved to read his words, knowing that he was killed just a couple of days after he wrote them.
“My mother had seven sons and no girls. Harry was the oldest and he was her favourite. She thought the world of him and she always looked forward to his letters.
“He had gone into service in a big house after he left school, but ended up joining the Army. He was posted to India before the war and was in uniform for seven years.
“I can remember him coming back on leave and bringing his rifle with him. I picked it up when he put it on his bed and thought how heavy it was.
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“My mother used to say that he hated the Army. He was apparently a very quiet chap and it was not the life for him, but he was unable to leave.
“When he was away fighting, my mother said she suddenly saw his face appear at her bedroom window one night. She told my father to look, but it had gone.
“She always thought that it was his spirit visiting the house on the day he was killed.
“Another soldier who was with Harry when he was shot, later told my parents what had happened to him.”
Mr Cole said he had another brother Wilfred who served in the Suffolk Regiment and spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore.
A third brother Alfred served in the Royal Navy on Russian convoys before being posted to Australia in 1945 where he deserted and gave himself a new identity only writing to his family a decade later to say that he was alive and married with two sons.
A fourth brother Stan also served in the Royal Navy and went to live in London after the war, but never contacted his family again.
Rosa Cole died aged 69 in 1958 while her husband Harry, a former railway signalman who fought in World War One, died in 1989 aged 98.
Extracts from Pte Cole’s letter and six others sent by troops and lost at the same time are in an online exhibition, called With Love From Dunkirk, put on by Suffolk Archives and Suffolk Artlink in a project funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund.
Hannah Salisbury, a community and learning officer for Suffolk Archives, said: “When we looked at these 41 letters, we thought we might be able to find some great nieces or nephews of the soldiers who wrote them. It was incredible to find a brother.”
Councillor Paul West, Suffolk County Council’s portfolio holder for heritage, said: “This is an astonishing story and really demonstrates the importance and personal nature of our archives.
“These letters are so very poignant; one can only imagine the hardship and anguish these soldiers and their families must have endured. It is heart-warming to think that we may now be able to help some of their families to fill in the gaps and see letters that up to now they didn’t know existed.”
The online exhibition can be found here.
Private Cole’s letter reads:
“My Dear Mother, At last I can manage to write you a few lines after all the hustle and bustle of this life. I was very pleased to get your letter and to hear you are all OK, got it yesterday, and you sent it on the 12 so you can tell it has taken some time to get here, the reason is we are not in one place long at a time, I have just received papers which I was glad to get as we don’t get much news nowadays, funny isn’t it being at war and don’t know what’s happening.
“Well mother, please don’t worry about me, I shall get through it OK
“So Stan thinks of joining up does he, I shouldn’t trouble if were him, I should wait until I got called up, anyway tell him it’s join anything but the infantry.
“What did you think of the Jerries getting through to France (?) I have an idea that they will soon be on the run and when that happens, nothing will stop them getting back to Germany in double quick time. Hitler’s number is booked alright, and the day they catch him they ought to roast him alive.
“I am sorry to say that Bob Bishop has been killed.
“Well mother, dad and boys, I guess I must close once again, hoping you all keep well, roll on when this do is over so we can get back to rest, peace and quietness once again.
“Don’t worry if you have to wait a long while for a letter or card sometimes mother, as we can’t always write for days at a time, also there is delay getting it away, so until next time, Cheerio, Love to all, Harry xxxxxx.”
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