Hugh’s words are in bold type whilst Jim’s diary entries continue to be quoted in bold and italic.

Where is Hugh?

Writing from #2 Mess, HMS Dolphin, Gosport, Hants., Hugh begins rather formally. Jim was clearly someone he did not know very well and whom he respected. I wondered if he was a colleague. Or, a friend of one of her brothers.   

Dear Miss Roy,

By this time you will have given up all hope of hearing from me again, but, since I last wrote to you circumstances have been such that it has been almost impossible for me to write to you. Just after writing my last letter to you I was drafted and left Devonport in a bit of a hurry. I have been drafted to the Submarine Service and I know you can realize the difficulties of trying to keep in touch with people under these circumstances.  I’ll be in Gosport for a few more days, a week if I’m lucky, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to drop you a few lines and let you know I haven’t forgotten you entirely.

Blue plaque in Cotham Vale, Bristol, home of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books
Blue plaque in Cotham Vale, Bristol, home of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books

Thanks for the Penguins – they were very much appreciated. The one complaint I have against the Navy is that they don’t supply me with enough to read. Lately I’ve been reduced to ‘borrowing’ out of the officers’ mess. I have no scruples about books. Reading becomes a sort of drug after a few years. It seems I can’t sit down for more than five minutes without a book in my hand. I have just finished Aldous Huxley’s ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ – very modern but quite good. I enjoy such writers as Thomas Mann, W. H. Hudson, Hugh Walpole, T.E. Lawrence, John Buchan and any sort of modern verse. A short time ago I read Lewis Mumford’s ‘Technics and Civilization’ – very interesting but rather heavy. See Books for February 1941.

Like minds

This first surviving letter leaves no doubt that Jim and Hugh have corresponded before. She has written on more than one occasion and has sent him books. Reading was to become an important part of Jim and Hugh’s discussions. Their shared love of literature was clear and something that may have fuelled their friendship. Penguin Books was co-founded in 1935 by Allen Lane, fulfilling his aim to produce cheap, pocket-sized volumes for travellers.  Jim found that they were also easy to post to Hugh.

I returned to Jim’s wartime diaries, tracing backwards from the date of the letter. By now, she had filled two exercise books. On E.J. Arnold’s small white label in the top right corner of the cover of her third journal, Jim had written ‘September 1940’.

I found three entries concerning the correspondence. On December 7, Jim had received a letter from Hugh. There was no detail. However, an earlier entry gave more information.

1940 October 29 Letter from Hugh Whyte – he has enlisted in the navy and is training at Plymouth. I sent him some navy knitted gloves.

Finally, the earliest reference to Hugh was on October 5 when Jim wrote to Hugh. It was a Saturday with fine autumnal weather in the morning when she had visited Heswall library, borrowing a copy of Eyeless in Gaza. Maybe Jim had encouraged Hugh to read the same book. On her return home to Leighton Road, Parkgate, where she lived with her mother and sister, the Vicar visited, urging her to take a teaching job at the school for which he was a governor. She did in fact take up a post there at the beginning of December.

Entrance to HMS Drake, Devonport, Plymouth, where Hugh did his basic naval training
Entrance to HMS Drake, Devonport, Plymouth, where Hugh did his basic naval training

What does Jim write about?

Margaret Roy at The Boathouse in Parkgate with the Dee estuary in the background
Margaret Roy at The Boathouse in Parkgate with the Dee estuary in the background

Jim worked for an hour brushing up leaves in the garden and then read a few chapters of the Huxley before taking her dog Rover out for a walk. It was grey and misty on the front at Parkgate and the high tide had left the slipway green. By the 1940s, the Dee was silting up and threatening the fishing industry. This was part of a decline in sea levels which had gone on for decades. Some blamed the cessation of dredging in the Dee itself, others the fact that the debris from the dredging of the Mersey drifted up the estuary.

Teeming rain interrupted Jim’s walk so she sheltered in The Boathouse, still a popular meeting-place decades later. Her friend Mr Catesby turned up and invited her to join him for tea. In the evening, she wrote several letters, including the one to Hugh. The siren sounded at ten o’clock but she heard no explosions amidst the wild, stormy weather. The All-Clear sounded at 11:35pm.

The following Monday, it was a most beautiful day. In the afternoon, she indulged her passion for the outdoors and went for a long walk on the shore.

1940 October 7 The tide came running in eager little wavelets up the estuary. I looked back and the black and white irregular, straggling houses were strangely beautiful, etched in clear outline against a background of billowing white clouds. It was the kind of day that made one feel fresh, clean and full of zest for living.

Maybe this is the sort of thing Jim would have related to Hugh. I still didn’t know how she came to be writing to him. However, she knew his whereabouts. He probably told her on December 7 that he was working at HMS Dolphin.

What is HMS Dolphin?

Alongside my research, I was enjoying giving the talks. By 2011 they occurred about every six weeks. That year I had bookings from two groups for retired naval personnel. I shared my scant knowledge gained from the internet and received more information in return.

At Devonport docks in Plymouth, Hugh would have completed his basic naval training at HMS Drake. Following his selection for the submarine service, he would then have undergone training at the shore-based establishment at Gosport in the Fort Blockhouse fortifications. This was HMS Dolphin.

On February 9, 1941, the day that Hugh wrote to Jim, she was at home. It was a Sunday. At nine in the evening, she tuned in to the wireless. Churchill was speaking to the British nation and Empire. Jim reports in her diary that it was concurrent with an air raid. She summarises the speech in one sentence.

Churchill dwelt on affairs in Egypt, warned Bulgaria and Balkan countries, praised the police, our generals, said we may expect an invasion.

For the people of Merseyside on both sides of the river, the experience of the next few months would have done nothing to allay their fears. Hugh may also have listened to the speech after writing his letter and heard Churchill end with a plea to America, Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.

HMS Drake's badge on the wall at the gates
HMS Drake's badge on the wall at the gates

Who is Ian Fraser?

There is still no word from Ian Fraser yet. I wrote to him again about the same time I wrote to you. I put my Devonport address on the back of the envelope hoping some kind person might give me some information about him but still no dice. All sorts of queer things happen to one’s mail in these troubled times.

Here was another mystery. Who was Ian Fraser? Did the diaries mention him?

Turning back to the exercise books, I noticed that the first four of the seven written during the war were identical. Only the first was red, the others blue. They all contained thirty-two pages but there was an inconsistency. The first and last dates of each diary showed differing time spans: 3.9.39 – 4.6.40, 5.6.40 – 27.9.40, 28.9.40 – 27.5.41, 28.5.41 – 7.6.43. These books had lasted nine months, sixteen weeks, eight months and two years. What had happened to induce Jim to write so much more in the summer of 1940? Perhaps Hugh’s letter would lead to the answer.

Hugh the submariner

You will be interested to know that my brother has finally gone back to the States. It took some persuasion but it worked. My family is quite pleased about it but I know my grandmother will miss him. I told him not to inform my family that I was serving on a submarine – my grandmother doesn’t even know. It is rather hard to convince people that submarines are a lot safer than most people think. They are very interesting to work on especially if one is mechanically minded.

Here, there is a suggestion that Hugh’s brother was a member of the British army. He had relatives in Britain but was resident in America. Perhaps Jim knew their British relatives. Perhaps Jim and Hugh had never met after all. It was common during the war for people to write to young men in the forces.

This part of the letter also confirmed that Hugh was a submariner. One wonders how long it was before his grandmother knew. Quite another view from Hugh’s was taken by Winston Churchill who, in a speech to the House of Commons said, …there is no branch of His Majesty’s forces which in this war has suffered the same proportion of total loss as our submarine service. It is the most dangerous of all services. The submarine service had been depleted during the First World War and newly-commissioned boats were already suffering great losses. Hugh hints of having worked as a mechanic. The Navy was desperate to recruit submariners and it is likely that Hugh’s experience led to him being one of the ‘direct entrants’ with a shortened training period.

It is surprising how one’s ideas and point of view changes in times like this. Things that one takes for granted in ordinary life acquire a new significance. For instance, a bath, something one considers as a necessity, becomes a luxury. A tubful of hot water is something to look forward to. Yesterday I went ashore for a walk in the country and somehow it seemed different. The trees and fields – even the air – seemed different. One is amazed at the indifference of nature. The seasons come and go war, or no war, and life in the country is disturbed very little. Spring will be here soon and I know you will be looking forward to it. I have read about spring on the Deeside and I know it must be beautiful. How I envy you!

It is more likely that Hugh would have heard of the picturesque Aberdeenshire River Dee, rather than the one where Jim lived on the west side of the Wirral Peninsula, but he obviously shared her love of nature. His comments stem from the contents of Jim’s letter with impressions of her local area undoubtedly reflecting what she wrote in her diary.

1940 Sunday October 13th There were many red toadstools with white specks on them in the silver birches. The view down Thurstaston Hill was beautiful – dark trees bent in the wind and the pale green of the fields patched with brown ploughlands. Overhead the seagulls whirled and circled whilst every now and again a bomber came zooming up the estuary reminding us of War! War! War!

These walks were so precious as Jim knew that the nights would bring more air raids. She speaks of the house shaking and not being able to sleep. There were also daytime air raids. Jim’s school had to decide whether to send children home at the end of the day or keep them safe in the shelters. One day, the bus didn’t turn up because of driver shortages.

I’ll close this letter now as I have a little work to do before turning in. Please write to me again as I very much enjoy your letters. I hope you and your family are all in good health and not suffering too much from the long winter. Cheerio.

Yours sincerely,

Hugh

Jim’s diary tells us exactly when she received Hugh’s letter. The heavy snow of mid-January had cleared and spring was in the air.

1941 Thursday 13th February A beautiful spring day – saw two lambs being born just outside school. Had a long letter from Hugh – he is on H.M.S. Dolphin. Wrote back and sent him a book of ghost stories.

February 13 turned out to be a significant day for Hugh. Jim’s record of Hugh’s surname eventually enabled his Record of Service to be obtained. This shows that he volunteered, joining HMS Drake at Devonport Naval Base on 1 October 1940 as an Acting Engine Room Artificer. He was transferred to HMS Dolphin on January 7. The Record states that on February 13 he was assigned to Dolphin (Osiris). This seemed to contradict what Hugh had told Jim about leaving Gosport. However, we must now go back a year to the beginning of 1940 to see what was happening in Jim’s life.