Sweetheart, where ARE you Prepare to shed a tear as you read these heartbreaking letters from a Second World War wife to the husband she knew was almost certainly dead
00:09 GMT, 20 September 2012
As Doreen Wright waved her 34-year-old husband Gilbert off to war, she made a solemn pledge: she would write to him every day.
The pair had married five years earlier following a whirlwind romance and when Gilbert, an engineer and amateur pilot, was called up to join the Auxiliary Air Force in 1939, Doreen was left alone with three children under the age of five.
After Gilbert was mobilised, Doreen, then 31, moved from the couple’s house in Buckinghamshire to his family’s rambling home, Wootton Court, in Leek Wootton, Warwickshire. There, she busied herself in the local Women’s Volunteer Service.
But at the end of every day, before retiring to bed, she picked up her pen and wrote to Gilbert, pouring out stories of her day, telling him how much she missed him and how she longed for his return. And every one she posted off to his unit at various bases around Britain.
Undying love: Doreen and Gilbert Wright on their wedding day in 1934
She continued to write the letters even after Gilbert and his Hawker Hurricane were reported missing in action in northern France in the early summer of 1940. From that time on, instead of posting them, she simply wrote up her accounts of the day in an A4 diary, certain that her ‘darling one’ would return to read them when the war was over.
But that was not to be. Three years after his disappearance, it was confirmed that Gilbert had been killed by German soldiers after a forced landing near Arras.
Left alone in anguish with her children, Doreen refused to throw away the correspondence in the diaries she had accumulated. It was a cherished reminder of her beloved husband, and so she chose to squirrel her letters away in a box at her home.
Doreen and Gilbert's children Bill, Nick and Mary: It was twins Mary and Bill who discovered the cache of letters squirreled away in Doreen's attic
And it was only after she died eight years ago, at the age of 95, that her two surviving children, twins Mary and Bill, discovered the letters in a dusty corner of the house’s attic.
‘We had no idea about them,’ says Mary Simmons, a retired PE teacher. ‘She’d mentioned a diary in passing when we were small, but we had no idea that we had this extensive memory of my father.
‘Mother said nothing about him to me — the memories were too painful — but this opened a window onto his life. That’s why the diaries are so precious to us.’
The dog-eared book of letters begins with a note dated May 29, 1940. It was written on the day that Doreen learned Gilbert, then serving as a Flying Officer, had gone missing from his squadron.
‘My darling,’ the heartbroken Doreen begins. ‘Perhaps some time, somewhere, you’ll read this letter.
‘I’m going to try to write as I would my usual daily one, so that when you come back or I get this to you, you’ll be able to read what we’ve been doing — and thinking — and how the family is living, and perhaps it will help to fill any gap there may have been.
‘I’ll try not to let too much of the heartache into it, but that will be terribly difficult as I’m one big heartache all over.’
For Doreen’s daughter, Mary, the discovery of these letters so many years later was almost too much to bear.
‘My brother found the letters and kept them from me at first,’ she recalls. ‘He said: “You won’t be able to cope with them. They’re so personal.” And he was right. When I first started reading them, well, that first line choked me.
‘I picked them up and put them down and picked them up and put them down again before I actually sat down and read them.’
But as she gradually went through the collection, Mary, now 74, discovered a heart-rending tale of unwavering love and devotion.
‘Darling one,’ wrote Doreen four months into her wait for news of her husband. ‘I’ve felt you round me all today — have you been thinking hard about me or something Sweetheart, stay near me, it’s been so lonely.’
Doreen left no detail out of her missives. The spirited accounts tell of everything from the children’s misbehaviour (‘Tears! What a family! I do need your help with them so much, darling — Come back soon’), to her arguments with the chair of the Leek Wootton Women’s Volunteer Service (‘What a schamozzle — had a final bust and flair-up with Mrs Ryland and have resigned’).
They also provide a vivid insight into life on the Home Front. In November, six months after Gilbert’s disappearance, the nearby city of Coventry was flattened by German bombs.
That night, on November 14, 1940, she wrote to Gilbert of her terror. ‘Sounds and looks as if these beasts are trying to annihilate Coventry. There’s been the most terrific attack going on since seven o’clock and now it’s past midnight.’
Detailed: Extracts from Doreen's diary from June 1940, shortly after Gilbert was reported missing
Heartache: Extracts from November and December 1940. Doreen continued writing the missives to her missing husband even after Army official told her he must now be presumed dead as he had been missing six months
As the waiting and hoping continued, says Mary, her mother became only more determined to maintain the correspondence.
When, in November 1940, Army officials told Doreen her husband must now be presumed dead, since he had been gone six months, she reacted with fierce defiance. ‘They tell me that after this lapse of time, they’re going to “presume” your death. They can’t when you’re not dead . . . Goodnight, Darling one — Keep alive.’
But Gilbert was confirmed dead in February 1943. A letter from the Air Ministry pin-pointed his death to May 22, 1940 — seven days before Doreen had begun to write her diary.
It was eventually established he had landed in the French farming village of Berneville. When he was challenged by German soldiers, he drew his service pistol and shot at them, but was grievously wounded when they returned fire.
He was able to flee and villagers helped him to find sanctuary in a barn. But he died two days later.
Gilbert was buried in Berneville cemetery in Plot 5, along with just a handful of other Allied troops, and in the chaos of war it would be years before an investigation was able to identify him.
Home front: After Gilbert was mobilised, Doreen, then 31,
moved from the couple's house in Buckinghamshire to his family's
rambling home, Wootton Court, in Leek Wootton, Warwickshire
When her worst fears were finally
realised, Doreen abandoned her letters to Gilbert, though she wrote to
her father insisting that there was ‘always hope’ that a mistake had
Her grief was
dreadfully compounded when her eldest son, Nick, died the following
year, at the age of eight.
Dashing: Gilbert in RAF uniform. It was
established that he was shot by German soldiers as he tried to resist
capture after crash landing in France
He was recovering from scarlet fever when a
tubercular gland in his neck ulcerated and caused a major artery to
‘He had TB, and the
scarlet fever caused it,’ explains Mary. ‘He was in hospital in London
and had been due home any day. It was so sad.’
Gradually, though, with the quiet courage that marked out her wartime generation, Doreen picked herself up again.
Mary recalls: ‘She didn’t show us her grief, and she was determined to do so much with her life.’
the war, Doreen returned to the Buckinghamshire home she had shared
with Gilbert, Charlecote in Chalfont St Giles. She busied herself with
local politics and was elected a councillor.
But while she raised her surviving children alone, she also nursed her desolation at the loss of Gilbert.
It wasn’t until the Fifties that Mary
and Bill saw their mother shed a tear for her long-lost husband. ‘When
we were ten or 11, she took us to France,’ Mary says.
‘We went to Paris,
and took in all the museums, and then we went to see Dad’s grave at
Berneville. She broke down. She’d had to be so strong for us. Bill and I
tried to comfort her, but we were only children then.’
it was only when they stumbled across her old letters that Doreen’s
children fully grasped what their mother had gone through. They
discovered her innermost thoughts set down on loose leaves in two
bundles covering 1940.
The diaries for the two years that followed were
each contained in a single Boots scribbling diary, while the entries for
1943 have not been found.
course she spoke to us about the war,’ says Mary. ‘She’d tell us
stories of the Coventry bombing. But we never knew that much about Dad.
We had no idea what a passionate romance they had shared. Never once did
we realise what she was keeping in the attic.’
Gilbert driving a car of his own creation: An engineer and amateur pilot, was called up to join the Auxiliary Air Force in 1939, leaving Doreen alone with three children under five
Gilbert with eldest son Nick and Sam the dog, c1937: Doreen faced a double tragedy when Nick of died tuberculosis caused by Scarlet Fever a year after her husband's death was confirmed
The twins handed over the letters to Leek Wootton History Group, and they have just been published in a book.
Perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that Doreen stayed true to her love for the rest of her life. She refused to remarry, and visited Gilbert’s parents at Wootton Court every year.
In 1948, the family erected a memorial to their lost son in their family plot in the churchyard of All Saints, Leek Wootton. When Doreen died in 2003, her ashes were buried alongside it.
‘We had a combined funeral for them both,’ says Mary, ‘because Dad had never had a proper burial by his family. It was our decision to put her ashes there. They were together again at last — it’s what they both would have wanted.
‘For all those years until she died, she never ever stopped loving my father.’
DARLING, PLEASE COME BACK. I'M SO LONELY: EXTRACTS FROM DOREEN'S HEARTBREAKING LETTERS WRITTEN TO HER HUSBAND AFTER HE WAS LOST
June 3, 1940
Wotcher, sweetheart Still trying ever so hard to keep my chin up. Got a Renewal Notice for your insurance today — Got Pa to deal with it — we’re keeping it up for you, darling.
June 4, 1940
Six years ago today, darling, we started our great adventure together — I thought then I knew what happiness was, but I didn’t know half of it.
Had a sort of feeling I might hear of you today, but there’s nothing in this morning’s post.
June 16, 1940
News is bad today — can’t think what is going to happen — daren’t think much.
Dearest where are you — where are you It’s getting harder and harder to keep the corners of my mouth up.
Why isn’t there any news of you
June 29, 1940
This seems to be getting into such an ordinary chronicle of ordinary things with endless repetition — will probably be much too dull to read when you do come back, but I must keep it up. As I’ve said before — it’s my only link, sweetheart — the only place I can have our evening fireside gossip.
Heartbreak: Doreen's letters to her missing husband continued long after military chiefs told her he must be considered killed in action
July 4, 1940
Just another day. Had an argument with Mrs Longland about church railings — am afraid I was rather rude or nearly so. Went for a walk with Mrs Pierce to the Gaveston Memorial this evening. And that’s all.
Have been thinking about you such a lot, darling — am wondering in whose hands you are and which are worst.
July 18, 1940
Rather depressed about you, sweetheart, so can’t write much — I love you — I love you — I love you — come back soon to me my darling — Goodnight xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.
July 21, 1940
Have been trying gradually to prepare Nick for bad news — told him the other day about prisoners of war, in case — and he said tonight: ‘I don’t know what I’ll do if Daddy’s a prisoner.’
Nor do I, darling, but it will be better than the worst. Oh sweetheart, where are you
August 17, 1940
Such a hot day — glorious one, really — but they sort of hurt me to know you’re missing them all. The peaches, nectarines and apricots are all juicy and gorgeous too.
The babes are also a bit coldy so couldn’t let them loose in the paddle pool.
Must to bed — Goodnight, my precious.
September 4, 1940
Wednesday again — 15 weeks you’ve been gone, my darling. Hospital names coming in now [of the injured] and still no news of you.
I think you must be about in spirit as I dreamt of you last night — that I’d got news that your back was broken but the man that told me didn’t seem to know any more.
September 8, 1940
Poor London got it in the neck last night — 400 dead — 1,300-1,400 seriously injured — 99 Jerries, 22 of ours — Lot of serious damage including railways and roads.
But very quiet tonight so far and all today. All troops confined to barracks this morning.
No other news. Darling one, come back soon — I’m so lonely and tired.
September 18, 1940
Another wretched Wednesday — can’t remember how many weeks now — my darlingest I’m getting so discouraged. If you could only get a postcard through.
November 13, 1940
darling, I can’t go on — it’s awful without you — if I only knew you
were dead I’d come and join you, but I feel you’re not and that’s all
that’s keeping me going'
Twenty five weeks now, my precious one. I don’t quite know how I’ve existed all this time and I’m beginning to sleep badly again with worry.
With these dreadful battles going on all day and night, I sometimes feel like praying that you won’t get back till it’s over and then next minute I think of all the awful perils of living in an enemy country and this death penalty business for sheltering people like you and it all seems so awful and dreadful.
Oh darling, I can’t go on — it’s awful without you — if I only knew you were dead I’d come and join you, but I feel you’re not and that’s all that’s keeping me going.
December 31, 1940
The end of what a year — it just doesn’t bear thinking about except for the first few months when you used to get leave occasionally. How happy I was in those short spells.
Oh darling, how I wish I’d prayed harder during the first half of the war.
How I wish I’d not hurried away from the station at Wick that last time I saw you, precious.
Was that a prophetic feeling you had when you came dashing back to give me that rather special kiss
I often wonder what your doings were from then on — how many patrols you had and how many of those brutes you got and all your journeyings since. Your poor clothes must be in such rags.
I pray and pray that you’re being kept warm and well and fed — it’s all I can do now.
Doreen’s Diary: She Could Not Have Loved More (Leek Wootton History Group 9.99) www.doreensdiary.org.uk
Additional reporting: Sally Jones