From Dunkirk with love - letter finally delivered, 80 years late

Published

Suffolk Archives has produced a new online display showcasing extracts from undelivered letters written by soldiers from the Suffolk Regiment.

Published on 22 May 2020.

From Dunkirk with love letters

80 years ago next week, as the British army retreated towards Dunkirk, a group of young soldiers wrote letters to their loved ones sharing tales of their experiences and memories of home.

One soldier, Harry Cole, who sadly never returned from Dunkirk, wrote a loving letter to his mother at their family home in Hasketon. Now, 80 years on, that letter has finally been delivered.

What we now know is that the postal van carrying the letters was abandoned and they were all but lost. However, what follows next is an almost unbelievable tale, as a passing German officer found the bundle and decided to carry it with him on his return home.

The letters then spent almost thirty years tucked away in his attic, before he took them to his local British Embassy in Bonn, Germany, in 1968. From there they were returned to the Suffolk Regiment Museum but, following an attempt to resend, many remained undelivered. Today these 41 letters form part of the Suffolk Regiment archive, which is cared for by Suffolk Archives at their Bury St Edmunds branch.

Now, thanks to some good detective work, it has become possible to identify the family of Harry Cole and so reunite his letter with his two surviving younger brothers, Derek and Clement Cole.

To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, staff at Suffolk Archives have put together a new online display showcasing extracts from the letters. The display also includes a list of the 41 authors and the names of their intended recipients: suffolkarchives.co.uk

This fascinating bundle of letters also forms the focus for one part of ‘Special Delivery’, an intergenerational project bringing together care home residents, local primary school children and artists to explore themes of communication. Led by Suffolk Archives and Suffolk Artlink, it forms part of the National Heritage Lottery Fund raft of Sharing Suffolk Stories projects.

Councillor Paul West, Portfolio Holder for Heritage, said:

"This is an astonishing story and really demonstrates the importance and personal nature of our archives. These letters are so very poignant; one can only imagine the hardship and anguish these soldiers and their families must have endured. It is heart-warming 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.”

Claire Wallace, Curator of the Suffolk Regiment Museum, 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 humour shine through these letters. I am delighted that Suffolk Archives have been able to reunite one of the letters with the soldier’s family.”

Suffolk Artlink Project Officer, Candida Wingate said:

"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. Obviously, now is not the right moment to be doing that, but we are looking at other ways of working with Suffolk Archives, schools and care homes and look forward to restarting the project as soon as we can."