Monday, January 31, 2011

Thursday 25 January 1945, Earl's Colne

My Margaret
                     No Keatsian hare ever limped more tremblingly over more frozen grass than did I coming on duty this evening. As for the limping, I am glad to say my rheumatism is considerably improved; hours spent massaging my leg in front of a red-hot stove are at last having their effect. But I can truthfully say I never saw grass more frozen or trees more heavily coated with hoar frost than what we have here. As a winter landscape it is all rather fine but we live too near the margin of discomfort here to be able to appreciate fully he beauties of the frost. I hope you are not having the same kind of weather in Glasgow: if you are, you had better leave several fires burning at 66*, day and night.

                      Your letter of 22 Jan arrived yesterday. Like you I am not yet entirely accustomed to the surprise and delight of getting letters so quickly and frequently. Please get rid of that sore throat at once and don't hesitate to stay off school if necessary. You know perfectly well that you get little thanks for struggling out to school when you are not really fit. Sorry to hear about your aunt's death. I knew she was not well but did not realise just how serious her illness was. I hope it has not upset your mother too much. How is her cold? She can't be anticipating a very lengthy convalescence when she has chosen such a small book as Pride and Prejudice for sick reading.

                     I've been talking to some people who have spent the whole war dodging around home stations and am astonished at their querulous attitude. One complains because he has been posted 50 miles away from home after being billeted on his wife for over a year. Another moans because his leave is two months overdue. For myself, I am so glad to be relatively near you, to get letters every other day, and to hear you once a week, that I keep my fingers crossed to preserve this happy state of affairs. People at home haven't got the same philosophy as those poor wretches overseas who simply had to make the best of service life or go completely round the bend.

                    That sounds a perfectly bloody tea-party that you are going to on Sunday.  It's hard to imagine a more deadly combination unless perhaps M_______  could be added to the brew. I'm glad you can use my phone call as an excuse for getting away.

                    Your description of your own soul as being a vacant lot ready for possession by several hundred devils is extremely alarming - that is if I am meant to take it seriously. Also, it is disturbing to be told that I am responsible for this dangerous state. I can't help you with my own "convictions" because convictions are emotional things and I feel it rather presumptuous for anyone to be convinced about religious truths. All one can do is to suggest modestly that certain things seem reasonable while others are an affront to reason.

                    Someone has been inconsiderate enough to bring in some work so I'll have to stop. I keep hoping I may see you again in the not too distant future, so keep me au fait with the painters. Look after yourself, darling.


*66 Novar Drive, where their flat was. The letters are all addressed c/o Stewart, 155 Hyndland Road, where his wife stayed with her parents for much of the time when DF was away.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tuesday 23rd January 1945, Earl's Colne

My dear,
               Again I have allowed a longer time than usual to come between my letters. The reason as I said on Sunday night is a recurrence of my rheumatism ... I went to the M.O. yesterday and he gave me lots of Veganin tablets and a good embrocation but he says if it remains stubborn I must go into sick bay for rest and radiant heat treatment. Evidently the notion that one should exercise rheumaticky muscles has been displaced by the idea of complete rest. ....

              I heard you perfectly on Sunday night thought the line didn't seem to be so good from my end. I enjoy these brief spells of contact very much but my thrift revolted at the idea of having a double spell. You see I have given up the attempt to phone you during the cheap period which I believe ends at 9.30p.m. During that time there is always a long delay which means hanging about in a cold hall near the telephone. So I wait till everyone else has finished phoning and then I get through without difficulty. I hope you don't consider this horribly extravagant.

              Your letter posted Friday reached here yesterday. I'm sorry to hear that the cold weather has reached Glasgow and brought to you all the usual worries about freezing pipes. If it gets really bad you can leave the lamp box* on the bathroom switched on all the time: I don't think it will set fire to anything. Also, one bar left on in the dining room day and night would help to heat the loft. [of their top floor flat] However I don't believe that the cold at present is anything like as severe as it was in these dreadful winters early in the war.

                Thanks for your graceful little exposition on the Brueghel family. If you prefer the Winter Scene for the dining room we'll have it by all means. At any rate a Brueghel on the wall will enable you to dispense as a careless trifle all you know about that artistic family to our open-mouthed guests.

               I am now embarked on Kristin Lavransdatter and wallowing in its high-souled melancholy.  It seems to be well done though it is not exactly my type of poison. I don't greatly care for such thundering long books.

               You don't need to worry about my laundry. There is a weekly collection of stuff for a laundry in Colchester and I've sent my things there. Anyway, I wouldn't dream of sending stuff home to you as you have quite enough to do as it is.

               Once again the evening news bulletin is very exciting. If the Germans are going to stop the Russians and gain a few months' respite they'll have to do it in the next few days. Otherwise I think all organised German resistance will collapse and the Russians will be all over the Reich. Opinion seems to be evenly divided between those who think that the Germans will halt the Russians in time to make another spring or summer offensive necessary, and those who believe that the end is now in sight. Personally I don't know what to think but the truth should be clear in a day or two.

               I'm sorry to hear about your mother's cold. Tell her I was asking for her and make her drink a third of a tumbler of neat whisky. I hope you are not being overworked at present. Please keep well and look after yourself...

*Lamp box: to the best of my recollection this was a square biscuit tin with four holes drilled into it, into which fitted the fixings of four light bulbs, thereby producing a primitive low-wattage heater. It was still in use in my childhood.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Friday 19 January, 1945, Earl's Colne

My darling
                 I intended to write yesterday but was out all day on duty. As a result of this delay, I have three letters to acknowledge, yours of 15th Jan and 17th Jan and your father's of 16th Jan. The enclosure that came with the first of these was from Stapley. When he left me in Naples he was on his way to Cairo but when he got there he found a telegram announcing his mother's death. As he was the only relative, he was posted home to settle her affairs. He doesn't seem to be doing much work where he is now, and finds service life at home very dull. His chief hope is that of wangling a posting near his home: it is in Uxbridge, so he should have quite a good prospect of success.

                  I've just read the whole of Churchill's speech and the comments on it by various newspapers. It seems to me to be one of his best speeches. No doubt the truth about Greece lies in some medial position between his attitude and that of Bevan but, even if it does offend your liberal sympathies, I think Churchill is the nearer to it. I've seen and conversed with Communists and Leftists in Corsica and France and I feel it is sheer folly for writers like Kingsley Martin  to attribute to such passionate illiterates and thugs their own refined sentiments. Many of the E.L.A.S. warriors are I'm sure only a few generations removed from bandits and can't have much notion of democracy or toleration.

                   The Russian news is overwhelming now and anything might happen. We'll know soon whether or not the Germans can put up a defence of their own frontiers. If they cannot, the war in Europe will soon be over. A rational German government would surely surrender now but I'm afraid the maniac element has got such control that much of Germany will have to be laid waste before it collapses. And I don't think the Russians will be slow to take their revenges.


                  Your father in his note says that Margaret had a nice letter from Andrew[Gerrard, D.F's cousin] today and adds that he'll leave you to tell me all about it. I'm afraid he has no comprehension of his eldest daughter's duplicity. By the way, have you any really attractive female cousins that I could start corresponding with?

                 Yesterday I was driven for hours round the northern suburbs of London. What a ghastly district it is. The townlets and suburbs are attractive enough in themselves but the pattern is always the same and is repeated endlessly. I should hate to live in any of them.

                 You have not mentioned yet if my ration card arrived. I hope it did since the grocer was so decent about advancing my rations.

                  The food here is really excellent. It has been a revelation to me to see what R.A.F. cooks can do when they have the advantage of decent kitchens to work in. They are a different race from the poor drudges overseas whose fires were always being blown away or put out by rain and whose raw material consisted of only dehydrated products. We get plenty of fresh meat here with occasional fish and eggs and some very nice lines in steamed puddings. I'll probably get really fat here ...

                  It is now half past ten dear, and shortly I'll be going off duty to trudge across the snow (yes, snow again) to my little tin hut. There will be a red-hot stove making it comfortable if not home-like. After putting this letter in its envelope I'll get under my seven blankets ...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tuesday 16 January, 1945, Earls Colne:evening

             Your letter of last Friday came on Monday just after I had posted a letter to you. I was delighted to get it and hear of all the interesting things you are doing. My life here is very dull and uneventful. At its best it produces a kind of boring calm, but that is poor matter for letter writing. I eat, sleep, work and read and absolutely nothing else. I have not been out of the camp with the exception of that one visit to Coggeshall. But I am quite contented to contemplate the passing of time and hope that it won't be too long before I see you.

              One of the officers in my hut is turning out quite an interesting character. He is just home from Canada and has brought home many interesting things including an edition of the 'Moon and Sixpence' illustrated, or rather adorned, with thirty of Gaugin's pictures. He also brought back many fine prints of old masters including a gigantic one over six feet hight of Peter Brughel's* famous winter scene. The latter he carried all over Canada in a huge cardboard container but now that he has got it safely home, he wonders where he can find a wall to sustain it. Incidentally, how would you like a print of Brueghel's* harvest scene in our dining room? The jolly little man (in the bottom right corner if I remember correctly) lying sound asleep with his mouth open would be a grand inspiration for me after one of your excellent meals. We must inquire with Mr Annan next time I'm home.

              * How do you spell the bastard's name?  

              And talking of home, I want you to keep me accurately informed of the goings and comings of the  painters. If I should get the chance in the future of a brief spell at home I want to have up-to-date information about the decorators so that my visit does not clash with theirs. So let me have the information for my tablets please.

              From the news tonight, it really looks as if the Russians are putting on another major offensive. It is possible that the war might finish sooner that we thought at one time. It can't be too soon for me.

              A very senior officer here who was in the Western Desert at one time came up to me in the bar and wanted to know where he had met me before. As I had very little contact with him in the old days this is an awful tribute to my pan's unforgettable qualities.

              Dearest, when I began this letter I hoped to be free from interruption for a time but people have kept bobbing in every few lines with the result, I fear, that the whole thing is completely disjointed. So I am going to give it up, as I feel it will never make a decent letter anyway. However I'll post it tomorrow morning and hope you will read it with a charitable eye.  ...

              Goodnight, darling.


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday 14 January 1945, Earls Colne

My darling Margaret,
                                  I have just left the telephone on which I heard your sweet voice, have walked a few hundred yards across the park to the Hall (there really is a Hall) and am now writing this in our comfortable office. The wireless has just uttered the good news of the latest Russian successes and has now relapsed into chamber music. Probably you are listening to the same programme - that is if the family are sufficiently quiescent to permit it. Though I'd much prefer to be regarding you by our own fireside ... I feel the present circumstances are a great deal better than those of recent years when I was cut off by space and time. It is very comforting indeed to talk to you for a few minutes.

                      The weather has been much kindlier for the last two days. Our muscles are beginning to unwrap them selves and it is possible to sit either in our hut or in the mess without being conscious of the meanest wind that blows. I am doing regular spells of duty now. There is very little to do: in fact we of the Africa Korps are convinced that these home keeping youths have little idea what work means. One advantage here is that there are no women in our department. The boss is a F/Lt who was rather reserved till he found out what attitude was going to be taken up by three ex-acting Fl/Lts of wide experience. However, when he found us philosophical and in no way inclined to resent his acting rank, he opened out and has proved quite a pleasant and friendly cove. It is perfectly clear to me that my acting rank can only be recovered by going overseas and I'm certainly not going to seek it in that way. All the F/Lt post at home are quite properly filled by those who are medically unfit for overseas service.

                      One of the men who came here with me has already been posted - the melancholy Welshman whom I spoke of in my last letter. He has gone to a station nearer his home. The remaining three of us new arrivals are still surplus to requirements but there is no word of our going yet. The boss here has already made it clear to his superiors that we can't go overseas for a long time, since we have just been repatriated. this representation may not do any good but it can't harm us in any way. One thing is certain - I got a temporary reprieve when I left Chigwell, because most people there were on their way.

                     I'm still wallowing in Bleak House. It's a colossal book and I think very badly written. I find the heavy irony very monotonous and am going to finish the tome only to find out what possible connection all these unpleasant people can have with each other. Esther is however rather a surprise and seemed to me to have a touch of Thackeray about her - a kind of female Esmond.

                     The sergeant who is on duty with me has just made a cup of tea so I'll need to stop. In another half hour I'll be in my prosaic bed ...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Friday 12 January 1945, Earls Colne

R.A.F. Officers' Mess
Marks Hall

             Note firstly the variation in the address. We have been told to use the simpler form omitting "Earls Colne".

             Your comforting letter arrived two days ago. The enclosed which must have tried your curiosity severely was simply a Christmas postal order from Albert. [Not a person - the name of the Glasgow school in which DF had taught English before joining up] This I am returning to you as it will complete the payment of the book which M. Meikle has promised to get for us.

             For several days past we have been floundering in deep snow but today a wild rainy wind is dissolving the whole landscape in glaur and glabber. I've been here a week now and the weather has been continuously grim but I'm beginning to see that in milder conditions the countryside could be attractive. It is undulating parkland with some fine old trees and astonishingly rural to be so near London (in a direct line, though not by railway time). After what you said last Sunday I had a look at the map and found that Ipswich would be accessible from this place. The snag is that we have a fairly long walk before we can contact a bus going either to Colchester (which is on the Ipswich line)  or to the London train. In the present weather the idea of walking anywhere is completely repugnant but if I'm here to enjoy finer weather and longer daylight I may attempt a little travelling. But at present we are almost completely isolated.


            I said I might phone every Sunday evening but I find now that it will not always be possible. For one thing I am sometimes on duty then and again, I believe there is sometimes a three hours' delay in calls to Scotland from here. However I'll try to make it Saturday or Sunday but if I don't phone at all you'll know it is because I can't get through. 

             I have not given Lloyd's Bank my new address so please forward any letters from them.

I have made several pleasant acquaintances here. One is a man who was at Torquay with me and went overseas on the same boat. He however has been home for over a year because of peritonitis. Two of the men in the hut live near London so they are always running up and down to see their families. The fourth occupant is a rather melancholy Welshman who pines daily for his release from the RAF and generally makes himself miserable. He only becomes human after three or four whiskies. On the whole, social life in a home station seems to be rather tame and stereotyped compared to our Roman nights abroad. No shots in the night: no boon companions tearing round the camp at three in the morning. Just a quiet evening in the mess and to bed at ten o'clock.

            I am glad school wasn't too unpleasant for you to go back to but I'm still looking forward to the time when you leave it for good and I take your place in the profession*. Thanks for the assurance that you will cook fine dinners for me then. I still remember fragrantly the steak and kidney pie which used to add additional blessedness to Friday evenings.

          And now I must shave before going to lunch. Give my regards to the family and thank your pa for re-addressing the church magazine. I hope he will not cease writing to me because I have left the overseas brigade. Take care of yourself, avoid colds, eat halibut oil capsules and generally prepare yourself for [the next leave] ...
 *Before the war, women in teaching had to give up their jobs when they married. This changed when the male teachers were called up.           

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tuesday 9 January, 1945, Earls Colne

My sweetheart,
                         Your letter has not yet arrived: I don't suppose that in this outlandish spot I can reasonably expect it before tomorrow evening. However I'll send off this letter without waiting for yours.

                         It is still most stringently cold here. Last night we had a heavy fall of snow; today the temperature is very low with alternating showers of snow and glimpses of anaemic sunlight. I seem to be getting used to the cold however and we have learned how to make the stove in our billet burn most of the night so that getting up in the morning is no longer completely petrifying as Jean [his youngest sister-in-law] would say. I am rejoicing in the hirsute warmth of the heavy underwear I have been carrying around for so long, and am using my new scarf constantly.

                           It was lovely to hear your voice on Sunday night even though the line was not too good. I suppose that in such bad weather I was lucky to get through at all. It is a week today since I left you and I am beginning to settle down again to the silly futile routine of the services. It's a good thing that a little work, a little drink and a little stereotyped Service conversation can help to distract me from the heartache of leaving home again. I've been getting to know a few folks, principally other Africa starred veterans. We stand round the stove at night bewailing our lost acting ranks and reviling everyone who has been lucky enough to stay at home.

                         Yesterday morning two of us walked to the nearest village - a place called Coggeshall, nearly 3 miles away. It is a nice little place with some beamed gable ends and old red roofs sagging with age. It has a plenitude of pubs with all the usual picturesque names and signs but yesterday our refreshment was a cup of tea and two buns at the local baker's. It would be quite pleasant to stroll down there on a summer evening for a pint of "old and bitter", but at present the landscape is so parched by icy winds that walking is not really pleasant.

                         I don't know yet if I am staying here. There certainly doesn't seem work for us all. I don't bother to speculate on the future. There's a fairly good library and really excellent food so I can satisfy mind and body without any trouble. Meanwhile the news from France is better and Monty seems to have done a good job recently as he has frankly confessed.

I'll write again as soon as I get your letter. If I get this little note away tonight, it may reach you on Thursday when you come home from school. Meanwhile cheerio ...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Early January, 1945, Earls Colne - leave over

F/O D.H.G.Findlay 105428
R.A.F. Officers Mess
Marks Hall
Earls Colne

My darling,
                   I am convinced that my address should really read "Starkadder Farm, Little Howling" but I'll deal with that aspect of my present surroundings later on.

                   As I told you in a postcard, I had quite a pleasant journey [from Glasgow]to London. After breakfast in Euston I meandered through suburban Essex and landed at Chigwell about 10am. I soon found to my surprise that it was full of people in my racket [ciphers] all being trained to go to Northern Europe, which of course is not "overseas" nowadays. I reported to dozens of people and then had a full medical examination including three inoculations in quick succession. ...

... I was just settling down to compose a very dismal letter to you when a phone message came in from the Adjutant saying that myself and another officer called Davies were to leave first thing in the morning for a unit near Colchester. This involved returning to London where we passed the time between trains in a News Theatre and in the Regent Palace Hotel. Then a very slow and tortuous journey brought us here.

                   And 'here' is almost off the map. We are right in the heart of rural Essex and I was certain that old Adam Lambsbreath would be awaiting us at the station. Actually there was nobody, since the unit did not know we were coming. However after an icy wait of half an hour a car arrived to take us to Marks Hall.

                 I should think this must be one of the most primitive of home stations. Four of us are billeted in a large Nissen hut containing one stove which scorches one side of those who huddle round it and leaves the other side to be fanned by the icy gales. The temperature when we got up this morning was something awful as there had been a fall of snow during the night. However the country is quite pretty and I think I could enjoy it here in milder weather.

               However, anything like permanence is not yet in sight. Nobody knows why we are here and I'm afraid we will be on our way soon. The vast majority of those who preceded us home from the Mediterranean have been sent to Northern Europe and I fear that I may make that journey soon too. I must say that from first impressions I'd be quite happy to stay here.   

                I felt very dismal after leaving you. Life is so flat .... and the contrast between [the time spent on leave] and this semi-convict life is heartbreaking. However I suppose I'll soon settle down to the dull routine of passing time and it won't be long before I can give myself the pleasure of anticipation again. ...

... The Mars Bar I intend to eat luxuriously in bed some afternoon. If I stay here, I can see me getting in lots of bed-pressing hours.

[This letter ends with the expression of hope that the future - ie after the war ends - is perhaps "a bit nearer and more distinct than it used to be in the past."]