FEATURE: The love letters of a couple torn apart by war

GLEMSFORD: World War Two love letters book
Egremont Street, Glemsford
Linda Whitehead who has produced a book of the wartime love letters sent between her parents. 
Picture Mark Westley ANL-161018-225639009
GLEMSFORD: World War Two love letters book Egremont Street, Glemsford Linda Whitehead who has produced a book of the wartime love letters sent between her parents. Picture Mark Westley ANL-161018-225639009
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Dolly and John were teenage sweethearts. The moment she set eyes on him across the factory floor she knew he was the one.

But like so many young couples who fell in love just before the Second World War, they were no sooner married than they were torn apart.

GLEMSFORD: World War Two love letters book
Egremont Street, Glemsford
Linda Whitehead who has produced a book of the wartime love letters sent between her parents. 
Picture Mark Westley ANL-161018-225717009

GLEMSFORD: World War Two love letters book Egremont Street, Glemsford Linda Whitehead who has produced a book of the wartime love letters sent between her parents. Picture Mark Westley ANL-161018-225717009

John was called up, joined the Army, and in 1942 was sent to serve abroad. They didn’t see each other for three years.

It was not until more than half a century later, after the devoted couple died just months apart, that their daughter Linda Whitehead discovered how their love was kept alive through the agony of separation.

Among their possessions she found a bundle of letters that for years had been the only contact between John Woollerson and his wife.

Page after page, ink fading and paper fragile with age, was filled with outpourings of love and longing.

GLEMSFORD: World War Two love letters book
Egremont Street, Glemsford
Linda Whitehead who has produced a book of the wartime love letters sent between her parents. 
Picture Mark Westley ANL-161018-225327009

GLEMSFORD: World War Two love letters book Egremont Street, Glemsford Linda Whitehead who has produced a book of the wartime love letters sent between her parents. Picture Mark Westley ANL-161018-225327009

Dolly’s letters, some more than 20 pages long, also showed how hard life could be for those struggling to cope on the home front.

As Linda read the words written more than 70 years ago, she realised they opened a window on the past that deserved a wider audience.

And today sees the publication of her book Dolly & John, which tells her parents’ wartime love story by reproducing their own words linked by historical facts.

Although the letters show how desperately they cared for each other, they are far from saccharin sweet.

There is even the occasional tiff, including one over the purchase of a suite which Dolly begins with a curt “John”, instead of her usual darling or dearest.

Retired teacher Linda, who lives in Glemsford, said: “Mum and Dad died 10 months apart in 1999 and 2000.

“We had to clear their home and found these letters. It was the first time I had seen them.

“It took me a while to open them because I’d been brought up to respect other people’s privacy, but eventually I decided I would just have a peek.

“It seems they wrote almost every day for six years although not all the letters were there. Dad had his kitbag stolen so some were lost, and Mum didn’t keep all hers.

“But they are just beautiful love letters. My dad was such a quiet reserved man, and these were just overflowing with love and full of emotion.

“Mum has kissed one of her letters and you can see the imprint of her lipstick. In another she says she is crying and you can see the tear stains.

“The other side of her letters is the history. They are a snapshot of what life was like on the home front.

“There are strange little things like when she needs to catch a train to work, and her alarm clock breaks, she has to obtain a permit to get a new one. It’s a little slice of social history.

“When my dad wrote to her he wasn’t allowed to say where he was, or what he was doing.

“And afterwards he never talked much about the war. He was a stretcher bearer so although he wasn’t fighting on the front line he would have seen some terrible sights.

“All he ever says is things were a bit tough, or nasty. But that’s what their generation were like ... they didn’t make a fuss.

“One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I thought the original letters might not survive for ever, and I wanted to save them for my grandchildren,” said Linda who used to teach at Sudbury’s Uplands Middle School.

Both her parents were born in the East End of London, although her father’s family later moved out to more affluent Ilford.

They met when Dolly started work at a factory making cigarette boxes.

“She had to leave school and get a job at 14,” said Linda. “At the factory she spotted my dad and thought he’s the one for me.

“They started courting when they were 17, in 1937. They had no money so they would just go walking, or occasionally to the cinema.

“When the war started in 1939 my mum’s brother Edward was called up, and she knew John would be too, so she was desperate for them to get married.”

John’s call-up came in 1940 and the couple set their wedding date for September 28. But with just three weeks to go, tragedy struck Dolly’s family.

Her mother Elizabeth, brother Edward, and youngest brother David, who was just eight years old, were caught in an air raid while out shopping.

They went into a shelter under Columbia Market, and all three died in a horrifying freak incident when a bomb fell down a ventilation shaft.

Despite their grief, Dolly and John went ahead with their wedding. But with John in the Army their time together was limited to brief periods of leave.

Dolly, still only 20, was now the eldest of her siblings.

Her father, unable to cope with his loss, temporarily disappeared and she had to care for her younger brother and sisters.

“She had a very hard time,” said Linda.

“In 1942 my Dad was posted abroad, and she didn’t see him again until the war ended.

“He was in Libya and Tunisia, then went to Italy which was a nightmare.

“Letters meant so much to the troops because they were their only contact with home.”

Linda, who has lived in Suffolk for 40 years, has two children. Julie, like her, is a teacher, and David edits wildlife films for the Discovery Channel.

David is named after his grandmother’s little brother whose life was cut so tragically short.

“He’s really interested in history and we are planning a visit to Italy, to see where my Dad served during the war,” said Linda.

She adds: “Mum always wanted to be a teacher, and a writer, and I feel that this book is hers rather than mine.

“In a way I fulfilled her ambitions. I am a teacher and I’ve enabled what she wrote to be published.”

l Dolly & John, Vanguard Press paperback published by Pegasus, is on sale from October 27, priced £9.99.