I knew my mother, was about to embark on her memoirs, but as her first book, a history of The Arab Chest, took her twenty years, I had been somewhat cynical. But here was the evidence. She had always been proud of her war, and said they were the best years of her life. I determined then and there to finish the job.
Born in Norfolk to a social-climbing, bossy mother and a bullied, intellectual father, my mother joined up to the WRNS (Womens’ Royal Naval Service) as a means of escape when she was just 18. She was posted to Scotland for training and then to Egypt, via the Cape, with a commission at the tender age of 21. In 1945 she was sent to Germany as part of the forces overseeing the peace. For a country girl this was quite an eye opener and transformed her from a naïve and green teenager into a sophisticated and compassionate woman of the world.
The letters reveal extraordinary and fascinating encounters, assignments, events and personalities: working with Admiral Ramsay on the Invasion of Sicily, evacuating in the Flap, the sinking of the Medway, the surrender of the Italian fleet and the Belsen trials. These observations are peppered with humorous insights into the humdrum preoccupations of a typical Wren – boys, hair, weight and having fun, while worrying about home and family.It was the strangest thing editing the letters: I could hear my mother’s voice in all of them, from the brittle reaction to her mother’s criticisms, to her delight in getting her own back on her goody-two-shoes older sister (whose behaviour she thought suspect) and the great affection she shows her father in the handful of letters to him that survive.
More than that, I can chart the rise of her interest in all things Islamic, her future love of archaeology and culture from her early travel writings and journeys around Palestine, where she hitched on one of her first leaves. I sense her growing compassion for those less fortunate and whose suffering she had witnessed, like the German people in 1945/6, whose lives were completely destroyed by Bomber Harris’s blanket bombing policies (read Kate Atkinson’s book A God in Ruins if you have any doubts). I share her trying to make sense of it all against the growing realisation of the horrors of what some of those ‘normal’ people did in the concentration camps.
And then in the middle of my painstaking work of sorting, cataloguing and thinking about a narrative framework (after all a collection of letters isn’t that interesting per se, you have to find a thread that links them all together), our daughter Louise died, and for a year I was unable to do anything that required a brain. However, our Angelus Foundation campaign on legal highs and club drugs has just become law, so I suppose I did do something positive, but it was activity powered by something visceral and compelling, a driving force that got me through the days. But it also burned me out – there are only so many times you can recount the story of your daughter’s death to readers, listeners and viewers without dying a little yourself.
Moving to Singapore gave me the solitude to get back to work. But no sooner was I getting back into it than I was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma of the calf and I needed a few more months before I could return to Mum’s letters. Because she and Louise had been such firm friends, it gave me great comfort to spend time with them, and the whole process became a form of therapy, along with my other writing, yoga and journey back to well-being.
It led me to think about how young those women were – like my mother, who set sail for undreamed of challenges and experiences. Louise was 21 when she died, the same age as my mother when she was commissioned and went to Egypt. It is hard to imagine how our children’s generation would have coped with such privations and danger: we molly-coddle, pamper and spoil them so that the ‘gap year’ becomes the zenith of their exposure to danger - but they still have money machines, mobile phones and WiFi even in the most remote places.
Can you imagine being stuck on a troop ship for weeks on end, wondering if you were going to be torpedoed? Only two ports of call to send and receive letters? Uniform to be worn at all times except when doing PE – but there was a batman to do the washing and ironing! Or having to evacuate your station because the German Army is on the doorstep? Having the pick of so many young men, but wondering if you would ever see them again as they disappear from leave back to the Front?
It is easy to dismiss my mother’s letters on one level: yes, they are full of frivolity, frothy and fun, but every now and again – to stop her mother getting the wrong idea, I suspect – she slips in details of her work, the long hours, the dirt, the flies, bugs, sickness; the ups and downs of being a cog in a machine when things don’t go your way - promotions, postings and red tape. It was very tough, and I think the forces all lived in this parallel universe where having a good time masked the realities of the fear and danger.
Perhaps the most poignant take-away from letters like these is that there will never again be records of extraordinary times captured by ordinary people – women like my mother, Sheila, who give us a real sense of what it must have been like to serve your country in its hour of need. People just don’t write letters any more, and that is a real shame.
By Vicky Unwin