Family of British soldier killed at Dunkirk receive his last letter

Family of British soldier killed at Dunkirk finally receive poignant letter he wrote to his mother just before he was shot dead by a sniper nearly 80 years ago

  • Private Harry Cole, 30, wrote the letter to his mother Rosa on May 26, 1940
  • He was shot dead by a sniper three days later at Dunkirk and the letter was lost 
  • But the letter has finally been sent to his family home in Hasketon, near Suffolk
  • His younger brothers Clemmie, 87 and Derek, 89, were shocked to read his last written words

The family of a British soldier who was killed at Dunkirk have finally received a poignant letter he wrote to his mother just days before his death nearly 80 years ago.

Private Harry Cole, 30, penned a letter to his mother Rosa on May 26, 1940, predicting with hopeless optimism that German troops would soon be ‘on the run’ and ‘back in Germany in double quick time.’

He also reported the death of a friend and added poignantly: ‘Well mother, please don’t worry about me, I shall get through it OK.’

The family of a British soldier who was killed at Dunkirk have finally received a poignant letter he wrote to his mother just days before his death nearly 80 years ago

Private Harry Cole, 30, penned the letter to his mother Rosa on May 26, 1940, just three days before he was shot dead in Belgium during Dunkirk

But he was shot dead by a sniper just three days later in Belgium while serving with the British Expeditionary Force in the 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.

His letter was lost as British troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in the face of the lightning Blitzkrieg advance by German forces early in World War Two.

It has now finally been delivered to his old family home in Hasketon, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, almost 80 years later after being kept in an attic by a German Army officer and stored in a council archive for eight decades.

Private Cole’s younger brothers Clemmie, 87, who still lives in the family’s old council house in the village and Derek, 89, who lives nearby, were shocked to finally read his last written words.

The letter was among 50 written on the front line by soldiers from the 1st Battalion, which were sent to a local headquarters for checking by censors to ensure they contained no military secrets.

They were found in an abandoned truck by a German Army officer who kept them in his attic until 1968 when he was having a clear out.

He took them to the British embassy in Bonn and they were forwarded to the Suffolk Regiment Association in Bury St Edmunds, where staff set about trying to trace the recipients in 1969.

Private Cole’s younger brothers Clemmie, 87, (pictured) who still lives in the family’s old council house in Hasketon, near Suffolk, and Derek, 89, who lives nearby were shocked to finally read his last written words


The letter Private Cole (right) penned to his mother (left) was lost as British troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in the face of the lightning Blitzkrieg advance by German forces early in World War Two

Nine were successfully forwarded to the families who were supposed to receive them, but the other 41 remained languishing in archives which were taken over by Suffolk County Council.

The surviving letters, including the one written in pencil by Pte Cole, were uncovered again this year by council researchers planning to exhibit them as part of a local history project.

Incredibly the council’s assistant archivist Heidi Hughes who lives in Hasketon, saw that Pte Cole’s letter was addressed to a house in her home village.

She realised she knew fellow villager Clemmie Cole and made inquiries to find out if he was related to Harry. He confirmed that the soldier was his older brother who had been killed in the war.

Retired prison service carpenter Clemmie, who lives with his wife Joy, recalled how he came home from the village school as a boy in 1940 to find his mother weeping over a telegram, confirming that his big brother was missing in action.

He said: ‘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.

In his letter, Private Cole, 30, predicted with hopeless optimism that German troops would soon be ‘on the run’ and ‘back in Germany in double quick time’. Pictured, a pile of letters featuring in the online exhibition

The surviving letters including the one written in pencil by Pte Cole were uncovered again this year by council researchers planning to exhibit them as part of a local history project. Pictured, the envelope with a censor’s stamp containing the letter

‘My mother had seven sons and no girls. Harry was the oldest and he was her favourite. She thought the world of him and she always looked forward to his letters.

‘He had gone into service in a big house after he left school, but ended up joining the Army. He was posted to India before the war and was in uniform for seven years.

‘I can remember him coming back on leave and bringing his rifle with him. I picked it up when he put it on his bed and thought how heavy it was.

‘My mother used to say that he hated the Army. He was apparently a very quiet chap and it was not the life for him, but he was unable to leave.

‘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.

‘Another soldier who was with Harry when he was shot later told my parents what had happened to him.’

Mr Cole said he had another brother Wilfred who served in the Suffolk Regiment and spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. 

Pictured, the war memorial in Hasketon, Suffolk, which has the name of Private Harry Cole, 30, who was killed during the British Army’s retreat to Dunkirk in 1940

‘Love to all, Harry’: The letter was kept in an attic by a German Army officer and stored in a council archive for eight decades and will now be included in an online exhibition With Love From Dunkirk on Suffolk Archives

A third brother Alfred served in the Royal Navy on Russian convoys before being posted to Australia in 1945 where he deserted. 

He gave himself a new identity, only writing to his family a decade later to say that he was alive and married with two sons.

A fourth brother Stan also served in the Royal Navy and went to live in London after the war, but never contacted his family again.

Rosa Cole died aged 69 in 1958 while her husband Harry (crt), a former railway signalman who fought in World War One, died in 1989 aged 98.

Extracts from Pte Cole’s letter is in an online exhibition, called With Love From Dunkirk, put on by Suffolk Archives and Suffolk Artlink.

Hannah Salisbury, a community and learning officer for Suffolk Archives, said: ‘When we looked at these 41 letters, we thought we might be able to find some great nieces or nephews of the soldiers who wrote them. It was incredible to find a brother.’

Pte Cole’s letter will appear alongside six others sent by troops and lost at the same time, in the project funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund.

Councillor Paul West, Suffolk County Council’s 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.’

Rosa Cole (pictured) died aged 69 in 1958 while her husband Harry (crt), a former railway signalman who fought in World War One, died in 1989 aged 98

This is the text of the Private Cole’s letter: 

‘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 OK, got it yesterday, and you sent it on the 12 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, 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.

‘Well mother, please don’t worry about me, I shall get through it OK.

‘So Stan thinks of joining up does he, I shouldn’t trouble if were him, I should wait until I got called up, anyway tell him it’s join anything but the infantry.

‘What did you think of the Jerries getting through to France (?) I have an idea that they 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.

‘I am sorry to say that Bob Bishop has been killed.

‘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.

‘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.’

What happened at Dunkirk? How 338,000 Allied troops were saved in ‘miracle of deliverance’

The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940.  The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned.

Described as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.  

The Second World War began after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but for a number of months there was little further action on land. But in early 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and then launched an offensive against Belgium and France in western Europe.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940. The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. Pictured, British soldiers fight a rearguard action during the evacuation at Dunkirk, shooting rifles at attacking aircraft as bombs are exploding in the sea

Hitler’s troops advanced rapidly, taking Paris – which they never achieved in the First World War – and moved towards the Channel.

They reached the coast towards the end of May 1940, pinning back the Allied forces, including several hundred thousand troops of the British Expeditionary Force. Military leaders quickly realised there was no way they would be able to stay on mainland Europe.

Operational command fell to Bertram Ramsay, a retired vice-admiral who was recalled to service in 1939. From a room deep in the cliffs at Dover, Ramsay and his staff pieced together Operation Dynamo, a daring rescue mission by the Royal Navy to get troops off the beaches around Dunkirk and back to Britain. 

On May 14, 1940 the call went out. The BBC made the announcement: ‘The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.’

Boats of all sorts were requisitioned – from those for hire on the Thames to pleasure yachts – and manned by naval personnel, though in some cases boats were taken over to Dunkirk by the owners themselves. 

They sailed from Dover, the closest point, to allow them the shortest crossing. On May 29, Operation Dynamo was put into action. 

When they got to Dunkirk they faced chaos. Soldiers were hiding in sand dunes from aerial attack, much of the town of Dunkirk had been reduced to ruins by the bombardment and the German forces were closing in.

A ship laden with troops sets off for home as Dunkirk burns in the background. Some 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned

Above them, RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were headed inland to attack the German fighter planes to head them off and protect the men on the beaches.

As the little ships arrived they were directed to different sectors. Many did not have radios, so the only methods of communication were by shouting to those on the beaches or by semaphore. 

Space was so tight, with decks crammed full, that soldiers could only carry their rifles. A huge amount of equipment, including aircraft, tanks and heavy guns, had to be left behind.

The little ships were meant to bring soldiers to the larger ships, but some ended up ferrying people all the way back to England. The evacuation lasted for several days.

Prime Minister Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,00 men, but by June 4 more than 300,000 had been saved.

The exact number was impossible to gauge – though 338,000 is an accepted estimate – but it is thought that over the week up to 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops were rescued – men who would return to fight in Europe and eventually help win the war.

But there were also heavy losses, with around 90,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner. A number of ships were also lost, through enemy action, running aground and breaking down. Despite this, Dunkirk was regarded as a success and a great boost for morale.

In a famous speech to the House of Commons, Churchill praised the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ and resolved that Britain would fight on: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’ 

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