This is a very emotional war story I read a few years ago and kept in file until the moment I would like to read it again; I am sure there are hundreds, if not thousands of such poignant letters kept in special souvenir boxes in secret closets in a lot of local houses, those whose grandparents were involved in World Wars I or II or were part of Canadian Peacekeeping forces around the world; some of those letters were maybe very private in nature and were never shared, some other, like Officer Vivian Rosewarne’s letter, couldn’t be kept secret: Vivian’s mother must have been very proud of the values which his son lived by and unfortunately died by and wanted to share her feelings. Here is their story.
“An Airman’s Letter to his Mother”, written by Flying Officer Vivian William Noall Rosewarne to his mother was published in the The Times, Great Britain’s national newspaper, on June 18, 1940.
Rosewarne, the co-pilot, died with the other crew members in Belgium. On May 30, 1940, a force of 17 Wellington bombers from RAF Marham took off to provide close ground support to the British Force as they withdrew from the beaches of Dunkirk. The crew from RAF 38 Squadron took off from RAF Marham in their Wellington bomber (Aircraft R 3162) at 22:35, and crashed in a field outside Veurne, about 25 kilometres south of Ostend, Belgium.
The letter was found by Group Captain Claude Hilton Keith, Station Commander at RAF Marham, amongst Rosewarne’s possessions after the plane and its crew were reported missing and presumed killed. The letter had been left open in order for it to be checked by a censor before it was sent to the mother. ‘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’ did he say. When sending it to Rosewarne’s mother, the Group Captain asked her whether she might give him authorization to publish it anonymously: ‘I felt its content might bring comfort to other mothers, and that everyone in our country may feel proud to read of the sentiments which support ‘an average airman’ in the execution of his arduous duties’, did he add to justify his request. The mother agreed and the letter was duly published in The Times.
According to letters from Rosewarne’s mother written in 1946 and 1947 after her visits to the site of her son’s death, the farmer, in whose field the bomber came down, told her that the plane circled the town twice before choosing the field to make a forced landing. Unfortunately the plane hit a tree and overturned, killing the crew. If the crew had bailed out, the plane might have landed on Veurne, but killing civilians. Mrs Rosewarne was given part of the propellers on which the Germans had written the statement “This flyer and crew died like heroes.” A notice of Rosewarne’s death was placed in The Times on December 23, 1940.
The letter caused quite a reaction. The Times printed it in pamphlet form almost immediately and sold over 470,000 copies within five months. The paper received over 10,000 letters requesting copies and it was reprinted at least three times. It was translated into a number of languages. On July 18 The Times reached agreement with publishing company Putnam & Co. Limited for the letter to be published in book form with drawings. The book was published in August. American and Canadian editions were published over the ensuing months and the book was sold across the world. It was also reproduced in card form for hanging in schools and public places. The BBC broadcast the letter on two occasions during 1940, in full on July 8 and extracts during its Children’s Hour programme. Most significantly, in 1941 it was turned into a short five minute film for showing in cinemas prior to the main feature. It was written and directed by Michael Powell and distributed by MGM. The film was shown widely in America as propaganda for the British war effort at a time when the U.S.A. was still a neutral country.
Finally, Frank Salisbury, the distinguished portrait painter, was commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait of Rosewarne in June 1940. The original painting is now in the possession of the RAF Museum at Hendon.
(source: News @ UK Archives)
Royal Air Force,
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,
‘It is not tolerable, it is not possible that from so much death, so much ruin and sacrifice, so much heroism, a greater and better humanity shall not emerge’. –General Charles de Gaulle
This poem, ASLEEP IN THE VALLEY, was originally written in French by famous poet Arthur Rimbaud at age 16 and later translated to English by Paul Schmidt; the young soldier’s injuries were most probably consequence of bayonet blows or bullets; Rimbaud may have witnessed such a dramatic scenery as France was then at war with Germany (Prussia).
Asleep In The Valley
A small green valley where a slow stream flows
And leaves long strands of silver on the bright grass;
from the mountaintop stream the sun’s rays;
they fill the hollow full of light.
A soldier, very young, lies open-mouthed,
A pillow made of fern beneath his head, asleep;
stretched in the heavy undergrowth,
Pale in his warm, green, sun-soaked bed.
His feet among the flowers, he sleeps.
His smile is like an infant’s – gentle, without guile.
Ah, Nature, keep him warm; he may catch cold.
The humming insects don’t disturb his rest;
He sleeps in sunlight, one hand on his breast, at peace.
In his side there are two red holes.
Blogs From The Canadian War Museum Archives…
Canada Goes To War, 1939
Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939. Britain’s declaration of war did not automatically commit Canada, as had been the case in 1914. But there was never serious doubt about Canada’s response: The government and people were united in support of Britain and France. After Parliament debated the matter, Canada declared war on Germany on September 10. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King promised that only volunteers would serve overseas. Canada was unprepared for war. The regular army of 4,500 men, augmented by 51,000 partly trained reservists, possessed virtually no modern equipment. The air force had fewer than 20 modern combat aircraft, while the navy’s combat potential consisted of only six destroyers, the smallest class of ocean-going warships. It was a modest beginning.
Everyday Life In Canada
The War Measures Act, invoked in 1939, empowered Ottawa to take whatever measures the government believed necessary for the successful prosecution of the war. The federal government carefully managed the flow of information and, in 1941, imposed strict wage and price controls. Beginning in 1942, it rationed many commodities, such as meat, sugar, coffee, gasoline, rubber and textiles. In addition to those in military service or working in war industries or agriculture, millions of Canadians contributed to the war effort by volunteering with organisations such as the Red Cross or participating in salvage campaigns, gathering everything from scrap metal to newsprint. Through it all, millions of Canadians, reading official casualty reports in the newspapers, worried daily about the fate of their friends and loved ones overseas.
The War Comes To Canada, 1942-1945
Canada declared war on Germany after German submarines sank more than 100 ships in Canadian and Newfoundland coastal waters. By May of 1942, German U-boats operated in the approaches to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. They had even penetrated the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River, where they sank more than 20 merchant vessels and warships, including one less than 300 kilometres from Quebec City. These losses prompted Ottawa to close the Gulf of St. Lawrence to ocean shipping. In 1944 and 1945, German submarines returned and sank Canadian warships just off Halifax harbour. Some Germans landed in Canada. In 1942, German submarines put ashore an agent in Gaspé, QC, and another near Saint John, NB; neither did any harm. In 1943, a landing party from a U-boat set up an automatic weather transmitting station in Labrador.