Last chance with last airgraph

Airgraph of December 15, 1942

Hugh uses neat, uppercase handwriting for this letter which fitted onto one page of an airgraph. This is his fifth communication to Jim within eight weeks. He is about to leave Beirut for Turbulent’s 10th War Patrol and doesn’t want to get behind with his correspondence. There may be an element of filling every minute to ward off any concerns about going to sea yet again. With no depot ship, there was probably no cinema and less space for meeting socially than on Medway. November and December saw the loss of four British submarines on patrol in the Western Mediterranean and this was the next destination for Hugh. Ever the optimist, Hugh’s next comment is upbeat.

1943 did prove to be something of a turning-point in the war, with Rommel retreating from North Africa. The invasion of Sicily and then mainland Italy followed, with the subsequent downfall of Mussolini. Eventually, the Mediterranean became less of a focus. Once again, service-men could write home long letters (rather than airgraphs) that would be transported on surface ships. The work of Allied submarines in this theatre of war had been immense.

Love stories

Jim was determined to enjoy her free time in the midst of wartime responsibilities. She saw Gone with the Wind on a second attempt. The first was the day after her ESU interview in London when she and her mother failed to get in. Jim had been reading the book during the first month of the war. She finished it a week before returning to teaching after weeks of making curtains.

December 1942  Sat. 5th Saw Gone With the Wind in Chester.

Although the 1940 film does not follow the book to the letter, it has the same mix of excitement, romance and tragedy. To see a film in colour was unusual and for those who, like Jim, had read Margaret Mitchell’s book, it would have been a thrilling experience. Hugh’s interest may have been in the historical context in which the story is set whereas Jim may have reflected on the relationships. Perhaps Jim took some guidance from the situation that Scarlett found herself in. Falling in love with someone who was out of her reach, Scarlett marries more for convenience than for love.  Finally, when Ashley Wilkes becomes a widower, she realises that her dreams are not reality and that she loves the husband who had, by then, tired of her.

During the time of her correspondence with Hugh, Jim was very fond of a married man and he of her. The two spent time together but she realised the situation was hopeless. However, her feelings were so strong that she rebuffed chances of other relationships. Once she had ended this friendship, another man came into her life.  It really looked as though marriage was on the cards but it seemed she had misinterpreted his motives. He was happy to accept offers of help on his farm from Jim and the occasional meal from her mother; but it turned out that his heart was elsewhere. 

Mitchell showed how people can be attracted to each other for many different reasons. In Scarlett’s case, she came to realise that the handsome Ashley was no substitute for the care and devotion she had received from Rhett Butler. Rhett was also very clever at reading Scarlett’s mood and responding accordingly. This caused Scarlett some annoyance at the time.

As Hugh’s letter made its way to England, both sender and recipient were looking forward to the Christmas season. Jim, tired and depressed, limped to the end of term. Her spirits soon picked up as she met with friends and enjoyed the warmth of the winter sunshine working in the garden. She caught up with her journal, managing to think back to the end of November having written nothing since October. Guy was on leave and paid a visit with his wife and six-month-old son on the 23rd.

Last time from Beirut

Hugh, meanwhile, left Beirut for the last time on December 18 for Turbulent’s 10th War Patrol. At first they followed latitude 34, passing Crete to the north. With undoubted great relief, the safe harbour of Malta was reached on the 23rd. The boat would now spend three nights docked with the prospect of the crew celebrating Christmas ashore.

Without their families for a second year running, the crew would have had mixed feelings about the Christmas period. Hugh’s mind may have wandered back to his wedding day. Perhaps he had photographs to remind him, unless these were lost on Medway.

My reply from Mr Ritchie came by email on March 25, 2011. He had been on holiday when my letter arrived but wrote as soon as he got home. He began by saying that he was very moved to read the story of the letters.

I could hardly believe what I was reading. His first names were Hugh and Scott. He was named for Hugh Whyte but always used Scott. Roberta was his father’s sister and Scott had known her well. He spoke of the admiration held in the family for the man who returned to Britain and volunteered for the Navy when he could have stayed in America.

Scott mentioned a box of photographs that had belonged to his parents. Among these were Hugh and Roberta’s wedding ones. He subsequently sent me copies and has given me permission to use them here. It was my turn to be moved. Roberta, in her beautiful white dress, looked so happy arm in arm with her husband. Hugh proudly wore his naval uniform. Much more was to come to light through my correspondence and meeting with Scott.

Wedding photograph of Hugh Whyte and Roberta Ritchie

Last week of 1942

As he predicted, Hugh was to have no opportunity to write again for some time. Turbulent departed from Malta on Boxing Day for the patrol area between the coasts of Sardinia and Naples. On the afternoon of December 29, an Italian merchant ship was sighted off Cape Ferrato, Sardinia. Turbulent fired two torpedoes, one of which caused the ship to sink.

Jim’s Christmas Day, a Friday, reflected the weather – Rather a dull drizzle. She, her mother and younger brother attended Holy Communion at St Thomas’ church in Parkgate. Just a short distance from the front, it is also known locally as the Fisherman’s Church. Jim spent the rest of the morning doing odd jobs. In the afternoon, she helped Rob with the poultry at the farm. Boxing Day was a lovely frosty day.  This was dog-walking weather.

There was no such thing as a prolonged Christmas holiday in those days and things were soon back to normal. Jim took her bike to be repaired on the Monday. She collected it the following day, the slow puncture mended. She had written a seasonal piece entitled Bagpipe Music. Annoyed that the newspaper editor had changed the title, she was nevertheless happy that it was published in time for Hogmanay and gratefully collected her payment of a guinea.

If Hugh marked the beginning of 1943 at all, there was no New Year celebration like the ones he may have known in his youth. The first days of January were spent hunting and avoiding being hunted. The patrol ended in Malta on January 14.