Joe’s Letters, WWII: Lest we forget

family stories

This week marks another Remembrance Day. I cannot let this go by without acknowledgement, so rather than publish another letter this week I have decided to tell Joe’s story so far. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing this weekend, please take a moment to pause and reflect for the lost youth and futures of the 55,000 young men of Bomber Command who had to rely on people like me to pass it forward.

My Uncle Joe, also known to his RAF buddies as ‘Mac’ lived and died before I entered this world. Yet I know his story intimately. 

His letters, serialised here weekly in this Blog, have survived 65 years longer than he did himself. Something tells me that he probably wasn’t thinking about that when he wrote them.

Every envelope is chock full of irony, as well as the sweet joy and adventure of a boy who was having the time of his life, living it to the full, expecting it to last forever. As a reader with the advantage of hind sight, these flimsy, clumsily scrawled letters have come to hold intense meaning and emotion. Imagine reading of someone’s intention to marry when you know that he is going to die?

There are some avid and relentless archivists who do amazing work to ensure that the boys of Bomber Command are not forgotten. This is just my little bit, in a selfish effort to preserve one of the most important stories in my family history for posterity.

Joe’s Story So Far….

In December 1943, aged 18 and a half, Joseph left home for the very first time, having signed up for gunnery training with the RAF, at the height of the second world war. He arrived in Regent’s Park Air Crew Receiving Centre, after what would be his last Christmas at home for some time, and accepted his fate of discipline and drill for the foreseeable future.

He was billeted in some ‘posh flats’ with no less that 5 other ‘Joes’ and quickly learned that an ill-polished boot or a lost spoon would get you confined to barracks pretty smartly if you weren’t careful.

Two weeks later, Joe arrived at Bridlington, a windy northern seaside resort in Yorkshire, where he joined 15 ITW (Initial Training Wing) for more rough treatment, terrible food and bitter cold ‘digs’. He learned a great deal about aircraft recognition & guns, witnessed a fellow cadet getting killed in a rifle accident in a lecture, stole lots of coal to keep warm, and spent most of his wages on buying extra food. He made what must have been a record number of trips to the RAF dentist, where he had no less than 10 fillings. He came top of the class in his exams and realised that he was a bit of a chick-magnet in his ‘blues’.

By March 1944 he was on his way to Bridgnorth in Shropshire (aka ‘the dump’). Here he undertook his EAGS training (Elementary Air Gunnery School) and encountered the fiercest discipline so far. The dates piled up and the letters from girls poured in. He was star-struck by his Australian ‘ace’ gunnery instructor, and by a meeting with Monty. A firm friendship was formed with his pal, Joe Lee, and together they took and passed each and every setfamily stories joe's letters of exams put before them.

On 10th April 1944 Joe was posted to Stranraer in Scotland where he would spend 7 weeks applying and honing his gunnery skills in the air. There were high jinx and hard work at Stranraer, but actual sugar in the porridge, and as Joe lived for his food, nothing else really mattered. He met a Polish pilot who tried to kill the whole crew with his mad-cap aerobatics, and learned to shoot true by practising on seagulls.

By May 1944, Joe had finished this course, and had earned his Sergeant stripes. He was now less than 6 months into his training but enjoying it immensely. He would pass his 19th birthday at a new camp, however. At Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, Joe joined 218 Squadron and met the crew members with whom he would serve his active operations, and who would form important and life-long bonds together.

We will re-join Joe’s letters next week in June 1944, at Upper Heyford.

I hope you will come along with me for the journey….

family stories, joseph

To read more about Joe’s letters please follow this link. There you will find the full selection of letters to date, as well as more information about his fascinating yet ultimately tragic story.

He was our family hero. He IS our family hero. If I knew how to complete an effective RAF salute, I would salute you now, Joe. Long may your memory live in our family stories. I hope to post a new letter from Joe’s correspondence with his Mother here every Friday until they’re done. It will be a turbulent and heart-wrenching journey. Subscribe to the Blog to make sure you don’t miss any of it.

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