Almost 80 years after his death, Derek and Clemmie Cole still remember their big brother Harry. Much time has passed since they saw him for the last time, but he’s nonetheless remained in their hearts. Now, though, the pair are in for a shock. A letter dated May 26, 1940, has come into their possession – and the handwriting is unmistakable.
Harry Cole had been a private in the British Army, a member of a unit known as the Suffolk Regiment. In 1940 he and his comrades were in the coastal town of Dunkirk in the north of France. Nowadays, of course, Dunkirk is a place known far and wide because of an infamous chapter of World War II.
During the summer of 1940, British soldiers and their allies were trapped in Dunkirk, with doom appearing to be imminent. However, thanks to the efforts of both the Royal Navy and many civilians, thousands of lives were spared. The event has gone down as the stuff of legend – but not every life was spared.
In spite of the efforts of those evacuating the soldiers from Dunkirk, many fighters died before they could even get to the seaside town. Harry Cole was just one such individual, a man who was fatally wounded somewhere in Belgium. Just a few days beforehand, though, Harry had penned a letter to his family. Yet it took eight decades before it ever reached the right hands.
Harry had been one of seven boys in the Cole family. According to his younger brother Clemmie, Harry had supposedly been the family matriarch’s favorite child. As Clemmie himself explained to the website of British newspaper the Daily Mail in May 2020, “My mother had seven sons and no girls. Harry was the oldest and he was her favorite. She thought the world of him.”
Clemmie went on to describe the life that his big brother Harry had lived back before World War II got under way. “He had gone into service in a big house after he left school, but ended up joining the army,” he said. “He was posted to India before the war and was in uniform for seven years.”
After Harry had become a soldier, however, his contact with his family continued. In fact, Clemmie himself has a memory of seeing his older sibling during that period. “I can remember him coming back on leave and bringing his rifle with him,” Clemmie told the Daily Mail. “I picked it up when he put it on his bed and thought how heavy it was.”
Clemmie had learned that Harry hadn’t felt entirely comfortable in the British Army. You see, his mother explained to Clemmie that her eldest child had been a quiet young man. She believed that he despised being in the military, as it was not a lifestyle that suited a person of his nature. However, as 1939 rolled around, he wasn’t permitted to quit his position.
After all, Harry’s period of military service came during a critical and bellicose stretch of modern history. It’s true that the period between September 1939 and April the following year was later referred to as the so-called “Phony War”: it was an oasis of relative calm in the early stages of World War II. However, by May 1940, major hostilities had actively begun. Across that month, Germany managed to take control of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Soon, the Germans moved towards France through the Ardennes, a forest which straddles parts of Belgium, Luxembourg and France. As they edged closer to France, German troops started hampering lines of communication between the Allies. And they ultimately squeezed their enemies towards the northern French coastline.
By the middle of May, the British were starting to consider the notion of fleeing the continent to return home. It had become clear that the Germans were headed their way and that disaster awaited. Large numbers of Allied soldiers needed to get across the English Channel to safety.
By May 26, 1940, the Allied soldiers which had been driven back to Dunkirk were being repatriated to Britain. This mission – which was led by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay – was codenamed Operation Dynamo. It picked up this name from the room in which Ramsay gave his orders, a place within a cliff which once housed a type of generator called a dynamo.
The evacuation efforts of the Allies, however, were impeded by attacks from the German air force. Indeed, the Luftwaffe were merciless in their assaults from the sky, dropping explosives upon the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) attempted to help, but struggled to offer much relief to those on the ground.
By the end of the opening day of Operation Dynamo, only roughly 7,500 men had been retrieved from Dunkirk. The next day, this number increased by a further 10,000. However, the shallow waters of the coastline made things extremely difficult. In fact, a call was put out for smaller boats to retrieve soldiers from the shore and bring them to larger vessels at sea.
Somewhere between 800 and 1,200 smaller vessels reportedly answered the call to help out in the rescue operation of Dunkirk. A number of these boats were taken over by the Navy and crewed by its sailors. However, some boats were controlled by non-military crews. This group of vessels came to be referred to as the “Little Ships.”
Before the operation began, British leaders were under the impression that the rescue efforts would save no more than 45,000 soldiers. The actual figure, however, was far greater than that. In fact, over 47,000 personnel were picked up on May 29 alone. The following day, an additional 53,000 made it back.
By the end of the operation, about 198,000 British soldiers and 140,000 French soldiers were saved. All in all, the efforts amounted to the rescue of roughly 338,000 military personnel. However, this shouldn’t gloss over the reality that 90,000 more men remained stranded in Dunkirk – and that’s not to mention the weaponry and equipment that the Allies lost.
In driving the British away from Dunkirk, the Germans sought to break their enemies’ spirit and force their surrender. However, even though it was a military disaster for the Allies, the events at Dunkirk actually served to inspire the Brits to keep going. To this day, the so-called Miracle of Dunkirk remains an enduring symbol of British resolve.
But despite the positive connotations now associated with the Miracle of Dunkirk, the reality is that it was a traumatic event. Many soldiers lost their lives before they even made it to the coastline. Fear must have been a constant companion for the men, but they doubtless enjoyed brief moments of respite from the ceaseless anxieties of battle when they snatched precious moments to write letters to their loved ones.
Sadly, though, many of the letters penned by soldiers during this period never actually made it home. Somewhere along the way, they got lost in France. A number of them were eventually found inside a post vehicle by a German military official. They then spent some 30 years in this person’s possession. But in 1969 he gave them to the British Embassy situated in the then-capital of West Germany, Bonn.
The British Army’s Suffolk Regiment then attempted to deliver these letters to the families of those who’d written them. Yet this was by no means a simple task. After all, much time had passed since they were penned. In total, 41 of the messages remained undelivered and they were sent back to the Suffolk Regiment.
However, in May 2020 – almost eight decades to the day since the letters were written – it emerged that one had finally made it into the right hands. That is, a message written by Harry Cole had been delivered to his siblings Derek and Clemmie. And it was all thanks to the efforts of Heidi Hughes, an archivist from the same area as Harry Cole’s one-time family home.
Hughes spoke to the BBC about noticing that the letter was addressed to a home in her area. In her words, “I just wanted to cry with the emotions of it all as I realized it was somebody from my village.” She then tracked down Clemmie to ask him if he was a relation of Harry’s. With that, the letter had finally made it into the right hands.
Harry had been killed in action somewhere in Belgium, before he could even make it to Dunkirk. The news was obviously devastating to his family. In fact, his brother Clemmie can still remember that he returned from school that day in 1940 to find his mom crying. News had reached the family that Harry had gone missing.
Speaking in 2020, the now 87-year-old Clemmie explained to the Daily Mail what he felt upon seeing the letter for the first time. As he put it, “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.”
The Cole brothers’ mother has been dead for many decades now. But according to Clemmie, she had always thought of her son Harry. He said, “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.”
Of course, it would naturally have meant a lot for the Cole brothers’ mom if she’d received Harry’s letter during the course of her own lifetime. As Clemmie put it to TV station CTV News, “My mother, she’d have loved that letter. She really would. This one would have been so special.”
But what exactly did the letter say? Well, it opened, “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 okay. Got it yesterday… 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.”
The letter went on, “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.” Then, Harry tried to assuage any worries his mother might’ve had. He wrote, “Well mother, please don’t worry about me, I shall get through it okay.”
Harry seemed to express a certain degree of optimism in his letter. Referring to the German invasion of France, he wrote, “I have an idea that [the Germans] 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.”
As he reached the end of his message, Harry referred to the rest of his family as well. He said, “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.”
Harry’s letter to his family then concluded, “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.”
Clemmie, naturally, has been blown away to finally read a letter such as this from Harry. He hadn’t seen his big brother in some eight decades, and he’d reached far greater an age than Harry ever had. As Clemmie told the BBC, “It’s unbelievable that such a thing could happen.”
Harry’s message wasn’t the only letter that never made it home, of course. In fact, many other notes remain undelivered today. So, these have been compiled by people at the Suffolk Archives into an exhibit which can be assessed on the internet. The collection includes the names of the writers and the people to whom they intended to send their letters.
It should come as no surprise to learn that many people have been touched by these letters being put on display. One person who has spoken out about it is Paul West, a British councillor. As he put it in a statement, “This is an astonishing story and really demonstrates the importance and personal nature of our archives.”
Councillor West went on, “These letters are so very poignant. One can only imagine the hardship and anguish these soldiers and their families must have endured. It is heartwarming 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.”
Another person deeply affected by the letters was Claire Wallace, who curates the Suffolk Regiment Museum. She said, “The Dunkirk letters hold an important place within the Suffolk Regiment archive. These men had been through great hardships during the war and unfortunately, some never made it home from Dunkirk. It is striking, however, that their personalities and humor shine through these letters.”
And Candida Wingate – who holds the title of Suffolk Artlink Project Officer – has commented as well. In Wingate’s words, “The letters are so moving, both in what the soldiers chose to write about and what they chose to leave out. Our team of artists had already studied them and we were really looking forward to exploring them further.”
But it hasn’t just been experts and archivists that have been touched by the letters. The public, too, has taken note. Speaking of Harry Cole’s letter specifically, one commenter wrote on the Suffolk Archive website, “This made me cry. How emotional it must have been for Clemmie to receive that letter. My eyes well up just thinking about it.”
The story of Harry Cole’s life and death is undoubtedly tragic, and it’s one shared by countless other soldiers of World War II and their families. Nothing could take away the pain that Clemmie and Derek Cole must still feel from the loss of their big brother. But the fact that his words have finally reached them is perhaps an unexpected source of closure.