The Second World War ripped the world apart, but newlyweds Cyril and Olga Mowforth managed to make the horrors that much more bearable with the letters they exchanged throughout the war. The couple sent over 1,000 letters to each other over the course of the six years they were separated.
The letters exchanged between Cyril and Olga, from Woodcote, Oxfordshire, were only recently published. Their children, Peter, Sue, and John, discovered the touching letters in their father’s loft and decided together that they were simply too endearing not to share with the world. “War is something our parents, and probably a lot of people in that generation, almost never really talked about,” Peter said. It is tales like these that put a face and a sweet story to a war that saw nothing but blood, tears, and tragedy – and perhaps even teach us a lesson or two as well.
Letters in a Box in the Attic
Peter, who lives in Glasgow, and his sister Sue, a retired air traffic controller from Cheshire, made an amazing discovery in 2017 when they were clearing out the attic of their family home. After their parents died, Sue found a bunch of letters tied up with a ribbon in a box. She didn’t know what to do with them at first and even considered shredding or burning them.
But that was before she and her siblings understood the significance of the letters. After all, “it was personal stuff between our parents,” she said. Still, they mulled it over and agreed to read them. The problem, though, was that the letters were all in “scrawny handwriting.”
Five Years of Organizing the Letters
Sue, now 71, and her neighbor, who has a fondness for deciphering script, spent close to five years typing up and organizing the letters. For Sue, transcribing the letters was an emotional process. Neither she nor her brothers John, 76, and Peter, 66, had read them before; they were completely unaware of what their parents had gone through.
Of course, the children hadn’t known their parents during their first six years of marriage. But, as Sue pointed out, they must both have been largely influenced by their wartime experience. As a result, Cyril and Olga grew into loving parents that their children respected and adored.
Good Evening Sweetheart
In 2015, Sue had the letters printed into a book she titled Good Evening Sweetheart, which they then handed out to their extended family. “When all the grandkids heard about the letters, they wanted to read them, so it seemed like the most logical thing to do,” Sue said.
The book has around 400,000 words (which Peter pointed out is the same as Lord of the Rings). What may not come as a surprise to many is that his mother wrote twice as much as his father, who often didn’t know where he was, but the letters always found him. The letters, which were written between 1940 and 1946, always opened with the same greeting: “Good Evening, Sweetheart.”
Two Newlyweds at the Brink of War
The couple met through their love of youth hosteling in the 1930s. Olga and Cyril married in June 1940, a matter of weeks before Cyril set off to serve in the war. The letters began while Cyril was training at the army barracks in Catterick. He went on to serve as a tank commander with the 42nd Royal Tank Regiment at El Alamein in North Africa and Germany.
Olga, who stayed in their hometown of Sheffield, served as a coordinator for the Civil Defense Service. They decided to stay in touch throughout the conflict despite the circumstances, the distance, and the fact that they would have to wait weeks or even months for a response.
Anecdotes, Poems, and Memories
It’s safe to say that neither of them could ever have expected, in their wildest imaginations, that their six-year correspondence would become a news item. In their letters were anecdotes about everything from rationing food, coupons, transport issues, books, music, and, of course, the horror of fighting on the front line, which Cyril referred to as “living on the edge of eternity.”
Cyril proved to be a romantic and included poems in his letters to his dear wife. In June 1941, while in North Africa, he wrote a poem that began:
“Shall we stroll through lovely Wyoming
Where first we walked together
Along that winding sandy drive
Midst pine trees and the heather.
Or shall we browse along the stream
That comes from Stanage Moor
Then take the road to Ringinglow
Where first we entered Dore.”
Just Six Months More…
In the six years of their separation, they only saw each other for a brief time when Cyril returned home on leave in 1944. As Peter recalled, his father would send his underpants home to be washed and sewn, and his mother would send a few squares of chocolate hidden inside each of his socks. “It’s so evident from these letters,” Sue added, “that our parents were continually in each other’s thoughts.”
Nobody really knew how long the war would last, so they kept saying “six more months” before they could be back together. There were moments when their letters became more and more out of sync, with some being delayed by up to three months.
Censored by the Army
Written in December 1941, Cyril’s poem paints a picture of the scorching conditions of fighting in North Africa. His poem begins:
“Did you ever wander sweating
Through a plain of yellow dust
When the thought of sparkling water
Drives a man half-mad with lust.”
“But by itself, it’s awful
And your thirst t’will never cure
Then you’ll know how precious water is
Just water, cold and pure.”
As it turned out, many of Cyril’s letters were censored by the army. There were big gaps in the timeline of the letters; when Cyril mentioned where he was, large portions were cut out and censored. Of course, this was frustrating for Olga, as she missed out on big parts of her husband’s stories.
Some Loving, Some Harrowing
And there were some lovely stories, too. The couple talked (or rather wrote) about their dream of moving to Scotland after Cyril traveled to Glasgow to retrieve a Comet tank from the Finnieston Crane. It’s now referred to by Peter’s grown kids as “Grandad’s Crane.” While some letters were sweet, others had a much more upsetting tone.
Considering that Cyril was in the tank division, it was, needless to say, a dangerous job. Peter once asked his father if he had ever been blown up, and he said that he had been quite a few times. On one occasion, as Peter recounted, Cyril “got blown right out of the top of the tank like a champagne cork.”
The Highest Price
Cyril may have left out many details in his letters, most likely to avoid upsetting or worrying Olga, but the horror still comes across. In one poem, Cyril rather gracefully touches on the “highest price” paid during the action that led to a victory for the Allies in Africa.
“They dream no more inspiring dreams of love and hope
Their hurts no longer ache with thoughts of home
No more will dawn bring light and then the fear
That day which follows, is the last to come.”
Another verse of the same poem reads:
“Bought at the highest price that any man can pay
That, when passing time has dimmed the glory of their stand
The ignorants will, with painful ceremony say
They rest in peace on sacred, hallowed ground
That is forever England.”
The One Who Survived
Peter explained that Cyril was one of the first to arrive at the Belsen concentration camp and was in the first tank over the River Elbe in Germany. Unfortunately, and expectedly, he lost many of his comrades. “The attrition rate in the tanks was huge,” Peter pointed out. “In some instances, he was the only soldier in the tank to survive.”
In a letter dated December 1944, Cyril wrote a poem that expresses his yearning to return to his wife as well as his desire to wrap it up. His words: “As usual when I reach the subject of weather, it means I’ve exhausted all other topics – all that is except the one inexhaustible subject – You and I and me and you.”
A depression hung over the married couple’s correspondence towards the end of Cyril’s time in North Africa. He had to spend many days in a hospital with various ailments. He wrote her another poem, in October 1942, from his tank, as he was trying to escape “the pestilential flies.”
“Thoughts of you unbidden surge
And clamour for admission
To drive me almost to the verge
Of insane blue condition.
The way you looked and walked
And memories of kissing
How you smiled and talked
One of Cyril’s final poems remarks on the war as a whole:
“In a world few understand
With a hard, blue blazing sky
On a frontier drawn in sand
Is where men chose to die.”
A Traumatic Start to Married Life
“It’s been interesting to learn about the extraordinariness of their traumatic start to married life,” Peter said. He also pointed out that it is, after all, only part of their story. He stated that no one in the family thinks of their parents as heroes. “To them, it was ordinary.”
Sue ended up sending the book of letters to the Imperial War Museum, whom accepted it into its collection. The letters will, thus, become part of their archives. Peter rather fittingly pointed out that history tends to be “about kings and queens,” yet there is “very little known about the day-to-day life of war.” To read an exchange between two lovers who shared almost everything can certainly give us a different perspective of the war.
After the War
After the war, Olga and Cyril Mowforth played an active role in their community during the ‘50s and ‘60s. They moved to Woodcote in 1953 since they wanted their children to grow up in the countryside. Sue recalled being nine years old when they moved to Woodcote and remembered it being a “real rural paradise, which is what Mum and Dad wanted.”
Cyril became a remedial teacher, which was a role he enjoyed until his retirement. Olga served as an independent community councilor. They continued to show their love for each other, now in ways that went beyond the written word. They would regularly go on tandem bike rides around the area.
The Egg Lady
They also volunteered for the Youth Hostel Association. Soon after moving to Woodcote, Olga was elected as an independent member of both Woodcote Parish Council and Henley Rural District Council. Olga made an impact on their community. For instance, she successfully lobbied the water board to connect every home in the area to the mains drainage (previously, all properties relied on cesspits).
With time, she became known as the “egg lady” because she and Cyril would keep a large flock of chickens, and they would sell their eggs door-to-door. It was a means of getting by since his income as a special needs teacher was not enough to “bring home the bread,” so to speak.
RIP, Olga, and Cyril
Cyril passed away in 2004 at the age of 91. But his beloved wife died decades earlier from cancer in 1972, at the age of 54. After her death, the Olga Mowforth House, a sheltered housing unit, was opened in Woodcote. Sue printed the letters and made them into a book for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Part of the reason it took so long for her Sue to transcribe all the letters was because the conditions were “absolutely horrific as he’d get covered in diesel for much of the time… but he fought until Rommel was defeated.” Sue remarked on how admirable and strong they were to keep their marriage going over such a long distance and dire circumstances.
As Long as We’re Together
In one letter after the couple’s brief reunion, Cyril wrote to Olga: “Towards the end of those past years, I often wondered whether or not I really was in love with you. I’d lived so long on memories, faith and hope, but somehow within a few hours of being with you again, all was changed… no doubts… I was head over heels in love with the loveliest girl in the world.”
He continued: “We’ve still got a hard road to travel in this world gone mad. Somehow I don’t care how long and difficult the future may be, as long as we’re together.”
Olga and Cyril happen to be one couple of many whose letters were found after the War…
Chris and Bessie
In late 1943, a 29-year-old Post Office clerk by the name of Chris Barker wrote a letter from his boring wartime post in Libya to a friend of his named Bessie Moore. Bessie, also an employee of the Post Office, was going out with one of their mutual friends named Nick. By the time Bessie replied to Chris’s letter, it was two months later.
By that point, Chris was serving in the Royal Corps of Signals, but her letter to him happened to change their lives forever. After a correspondence of about 500 letters, the two reunited and married. But before that could happen, they were involved in a long-distance love affair – one that would eventually be immortalized in a play (with Benedict Cumberbatch) and made into a book.
70 Years Later
70 years after that first letter was sent off in the mail, the letters — mostly from Chris as he had to burn most of hers — were discovered by writer Simon Garfield. He used them in his book, To the Letter, on the lost art of letter-writing. They instantly struck a chord with everyone who read them.
Today, the letters are compiled nicely in a published volume. Part of what makes the story so endearing is the fact that it’s not only moving but sometimes even hilarious. It’s no wonder that people were enamored by the story of two ordinary people turned heroes by the war they lived through and the passion that kept them together.
When 30-year-old Bessie sent her first letter to Chris, she was no longer with Nick. She remembered Chris with great fondness and chose to make her feelings known to him. Chris was nothing short of delighted. On February 21, 1944, Chris began his letter, in the same way, started nearly all 500 letters:
“Dear Bessie, I received your letter of 1st January on 7.2.44, since then, I have been busting to send you a smashing reply, yet feeling clumsy as a ballerina in army boots. I could hug you till you dropped!” He ended his letter with “Best wishes, Friend.” Then, on March 15, he wrote to her again, this time telling her he is “hopelessly lost in contemplation of YOU… and I last saw you when? I feel like a king.”
A Long-Distance Proposal
It’s quite sweet to see not only how people spoke back in those days but also how much Chris liked Bessie. He went on to tell her that now that she has his ear, he must give her his heart as well. “I am always consulting my diary to see how soon you will get my letters, wondering how soon I will get yours.”
By August 1944, after getting requested photos of her, his letters confessed his love to her. “I think this is necessary because I want to… marry you very soon after I return to England, and I want us to do most of the ‘talking’ through the medium of our letters.”
A Sense of Humor
Sometimes the letters were comedic. For instance, Chris wrote, “I must risk hurting you, my love – I hope you aren’t R.C. I’ll say no more for the present.” Or he would write things like, “I had strawberries today, pal, they were grand. I need hardly say I prefer you to all the strawberries yet or to be.” It’s safe to say that once the war was over, the two were happy to finally reunite.
The pair went on to get married, and their correspondence was eventually discovered by their son, Bernard Barker after Chris passed away. Bernard said he never knew his father was such a great writer until he opened the “small blue box” he gave him before his death.
A Small Blue Box
As soon as Bernard opened the small blue box, “out tumbled 500 letters written in his familiar, clear hand, with half a million words squeezed on to fragile blue airmail paper.” And don’t think that love was all one-sided. Sadly, only a handful of Bessie’s letters to Chris survived since he had to destroy most of them, partly because he wanted to prevent them from being read by prying eyes.
The letters she wrote that did make it out “alive” expressed an equal amount of passion and longing. She wrote: “If I was there, you wouldn’t want any [blankets], you’d be hot enough. Here am I, a blooming iceberg of a maiden waiting to be roused into a fire, not just melted but changed into a fire, and there are you, miles and miles away, needing an extra blanket.”
My Dear Bessie: A Love Story in Letters
Bessie’s letters also showed her relief to hear that her long-distance lover was safe, saying things like, “Oh Gosh! Christopher, I have just received your telegram – how can I tell you how beautiful the world is, contact again with you, contact with life – Oh, Darling of my heart.”
During the war, Bessie was living with her family in Blackheath, South East London. At some points, her life was more in danger than Chris’s. He was, of course, worried about her safety, telling her he hoped she goes to the shelter and “do not try and be ‘brave’ by going to bed.” If he didn’t get a letter from her, he would be concerned.
Sending Him a Scratch
At one point, there was a full week break between her letters, to which he wrote, “I am beginning to know the terror of these new bombs and the greater job you must have in finding conditions enabling you to write.” He then asked her to send him “a scratch” to tell him she was safe.
Bessie finally replied, but, by that point, Chris was the one in grave danger. He was in Athens, in the thick of a Greek civil war between the socialist anti-German resistance movement and the right-wing royalist party. Some of Bessie’s letters from this period survived, in which she explained what it was like to experience the bombings over London.
Getting Used to the Bombings
She wrote, “I live here, work here, and there isn’t anything to do but live here and work here, and like most things up to a point, you get used to it.” In December 1944, Chris was taken prisoner in an Athens hotel by the Greek People’s Liberation Army after a siege. Bessie heard of the news and wrote to Chris.
She told him she was waiting to hear from the press about the prisoners being exchanged. But she was worried nonetheless, telling him the days have become weeks and without news, she wrote that “I can’t settle down to read, not even in the train.” Luckily, Chris was set free in January 1945.
A Cold, Hungry March
He received the much-anticipated news that the captives would soon be sent back to England. In a letter dated January 28, 1945, he described his experience. He told her that they had spent the first ten days marching – about 120 miles through rain, snow, and hail. They were always cold and hungry.
To make matters worse, their overcoats were taken, and they had no blankets. Some of the lads’ boots were stolen, leaving them to trudge in the snow with only socks. He told Bessie that all he could do to keep himself going was to say to himself, “I am going home. I am going to see her.” And he added that he expected she was feeling the same.
Together, At Last
Their reunion – the first time they saw each other since they became pen pal lovers – was approaching, and Bessie was overjoyed as well as anxious. In February 1945, she wrote to him about feeling “choked up” but also “released.” She confessed that “confidentially, I, too, am a little scared — everything in letters appears larger than life-size.”
She feared that the photograph she sent him didn’t show the “white hairs beneath the black, the decaying teeth, the darkening skin,” and “nasty characteristics, my ordinariness. Yes, I, too, feel a little afraid.” At last, Chris and Bessie met again. He spent three weeks on leave in England. They shared five days alone in Bournemouth.
Wedding Bells in London
Their time together in April 1945 was lovely but short-lived as Chris was posted to Italy. As soon as he got on the train, he started writing to her again. Of course, he declared his love for her as well as his despair of having to be away from her, calling it “absurd, so wrong, so impossible.”
During that summer, on another short leave, Chris and Bessie decided to make their love official, and they married in London. He then went back to Italy, but their relationship quickly grew beyond just the two of them. Bessie quickly discovered that she was pregnant. You can imagine the joy he felt when he read her letter with the news.
And Then There Were Three
Chris returned just in time for the birth of their baby, and, at last, his service came to an end. With more than just one stroke of luck, the romantic soldier was coming home. About three years after they began their long-distance relationship, he wrote his final letter to Bessie while still in his soldier’s uniform.
It was May 7, 1946, and it was his last night in the army. His letter was full of love and hope. After their son Bernard was born, their second son Peter was born in 1949. In what reads like a fairytale ending (against a war-torn background), Chris and Bessie ended up living happily ever after.
Happily Ever After
Once he was back home, as a married man and a father to two, he went back to the Post Office and worked his way up the ranks. As for Bessie, she spent her time in their beloved garden and became an accomplished yet amateur artist. They were finally able to be together, both at home in London and traveling throughout Europe.
With time, Bessie’s memory began to fail, and Chris took care of her in their home. She passed away at the age of 90 in 2004. Chris followed after her, in 2007, at the age of 93.
The pair’s romance was first highlighted in Simon Garfield’s To the Letter. Canongate acquired the rights to their entire correspondence, which was published in 2015 as My Dear Bessie: A Love Story in Letters. Garfield himself called it “one of the most heart-tugging, compelling, and occasionally hilarious correspondences I’ve ever read.”