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10th July 2000
In June 1940 The Times published an airman's letter to his mother that moved the nation.
Alan Hamilton reports
A son's stirring words
The battle of France was over and the Battle of Britain was about to begin, Churchill told the Commons on June 18, 1940. On that same morning The Times published an anonymous letter that struck a chord in a nation facing the prospect of invasion if it did not sue for peace with Hitler.
Redolent of the First World War sentiments of Rupert Brooke, it had been written by a young airman in a bomber squadron, to be posted to his mother in the event of his death. He was reported missing, believed killed, on May 31, at the height of the Dunkirk evacuation. Within days of the letter's appearance The Times received more than 10,000 requests from readers for reprints of the text.
It was immediately reproduced as a pamphlet, for which there was such demand that it had to be reprinted three times. Even King George VI wrote personally to the airman's mother. By the end of the year more than 500,000 copies had been sold in Britain, the US and Commonwealth countries. Such was the letter's effect that in 1941 MGM made a short film based on it, directed by Michael Powell, narrated by John Gielgud and titled, not surprisingly, An Airman's Letter To His Mother.
Was the letter genuine, or had it been composed by a particularly literate propagandist in the Ministry of Information?
Certainly the timing of its publication was crucial. That very afternoon Churchill was due to make his "finest hour" speech to the Commons. Allied armies had been routed in mainland Europe, and only the day before - although all news of it was suppressed for several weeks - Britain had suffered the single worst maritime disaster of the war when the overladen troopship Lancastria was sunk by German bombers off St Nazaire, causing far greater loss of life than the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined.
The letter seems real enough. The handwritten original in The Times archives discloses the author to be Flying Officer Vivian Rosewarne, the co-pilot of a Wellington bomber, stationed at RAF Marham, Norfolk, whose death notice was eventually published on December 23, 1940.
It was sent to The Times by his station commander, Group Captain Claude Keith, who found it among the missing airman's personal possessions and who wrote to the newspaper: "I sent the letter to the bereaved mother, and asked her whether I might publish it anonymously, as I feel its contents may bring comfort to other mothers, and that every one in our country may be proud to read of the sentiments which support 'an average airman' in the execution of his present arduous duties."
For all that can be said against it, I maintain that this war is a good thing
Group Captain Keith told The Times: "This letter was perhaps the most amazing one I have ever read; simple and direct in its wording but splendid and uplifting in its outlook. It was inevitable that I should read it - in fact, he must have intended this, for it was left open in order that I might be certain that no prohibited information was disclosed."
In a subsequent letter to a fellow officer, also in The Times archives, Group Captain Keith sketches in more detail about the missing airman: "Although it is especially sad that he should have gone, being the only child of a widowed mother who had stinted herself to give him a good upbringing, one knows that others as good as he have gone and others, also as good, remain."
And he adds: "Even His Majesty was at pains to interest himself in this letter, and a letter was sent to the mother."
The group captain concludes: "Try and find comfort in the thought - the knowledge - that Britain yet has many thousands of clean youngsters who will fight and die for the ideals of our Empire. As I write, our aircraft are off and doing, and now comes the anxious time, till dawn, waiting their return - waiting and praying that all may come back safely.
"I feel the Almighty is on our side, and if we can but stave off disaster - if not win before autumn comes - famine and disease will defeat our enemies. We may well thank God for our island home - now as in days gone by."
Ringing down the years, the sentiments now have a dated air, not least in The Times editorial printed in the column next to the letter: "He shows that in his secret heart he knows that vision of the British Empire to be the true one." But at that time, in those circumstances, such thoughts were a necessary inspiration.
An airman to his mother:
"My earthly mission is fulfilled"
"Dearest Mother: Though I feel no premonition at all, events are moving rapidly and I have instructed that this letter be forwarded to you should I fail to return from one of the raids that we shall shortly be called upon to undertake. You must hope on for a month, but at the end of that time you must accept the fact that I have handed my task over to the extremely capable hands of my comrades of the Royal Air Force, as so many splendid fellows have already done.
"First, it will comfort you to know that my role in this war has been of the greatest importance. Our patrols far out over the North Sea have helped to keep the trade routes clear for our convoys and supply ships, and on one occasion our information was instrumental in saving the lives of the men in a crippled lighthouse relief ship. Though it will be difficult for you, you will disappoint me if you do not at least try to accept the facts dispassionately, for I shall have done my duty to the utmost of my ability. No man can do more, and no one calling himself a man could do less.
"I have always admired your amazing courage in the face of continual setbacks; in the way you have given me as good an education and background as anyone in the country: and always kept up appearances without ever losing faith in the future. My death would not mean that your struggle has been in vain. Far from it. It means that your sacrifice is as great as mine. Those who serve England must expect nothing from her; we debase ourselves if we regard our country as merely a place in which to eat and sleep.
"History resounds with illustrious names who have given all; yet their sacrifice has resulted in the British Empire where there is a measure of peace, justice and freedom for all, and where a higher standard of civilization has evolved, and is still evolving, than anywhere else. But this is not only concerning our own land. Today we are faced with the greatest organized challenge to Christianity and civilization that the world has ever seen, and I count myself lucky and honoured to be the right age and fully trained to throw my full weight into the scale. For this I have to thank you. Yet there is more work for you to do. The home front will still have to stand united for years after the war is won. For all that can be said against it, I still maintain that this war is a very good thing: every individual is having the chance to give and dare all for his principle like the martyrs of old. However long the time may be, one thing can never be altered - I shall have lived and died an Englishman. Nothing else matters one jot nor can anything ever change it.
"You must not grieve for me, for if you really believe in religion and all that it entails that would be hypocrisy. I have no fear of death; only a queer elation ... I would have it no other way. The universe is so vast and so ageless that the life of one man can only be justified by the measure of his sacrifice. We are sent to this world to acquire a personality and a character to take with us that can never be taken from us. Those who just eat and sleep, prosper and procreate, are no better than animals if all their lives they are at peace.
"I firmly believe that evil things are sent into the world to try us; they are sent deliberately by our Creator to test our mettle because He knows what is good for us. The Bible is full of cases where the easy way out has been discarded for moral principles.
"I count myself fortunate in that I have seen the whole country and known men of every calling. But with the final test of war I consider my character fully developed. Thus at my early age my earthly mission is already fulfilled and I am prepared to die with just one regret: that I could not devote myself to making your declining years more happy by being with you; but you will live in peace and freedom and I shall have directly contributed to that, so here again my life will not have been in vain.
"Your loving son"
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