One of the most complete set of love letters exchanged between a British prisoner of war and his wife reveals the hardship of wartime separation.
Hundreds of letters – described by the Imperial War Museum as one of the most extensive collections of their kind – depict the time young sweethearts Peggy and Alan Horton were separated during WWII and the years he spent held as a prisoner of war.
“In spite of time and space you are as near to me now as you were a year ago”, wrote Alan to his beloved as he put pen to paper from the confines of a Nazi prison camp.
Alan’s heartfelt words are among an assemblage of wartime communication discovered in the loft of the couple’s home in Dorset, England, in the United Kingdom, by their son, John Horton – six decades later.
John, 72, said: “When my mother died in 2003, my sister and I were clearing out the loft, and we saw this large box of letters in the corner.
“They are love letters essentially, that tells the story of my parents and how their love kept them going during unimaginable horrors we cannot even begin to fathom today.”
Although Alan would occasionally give talks about his time in Germany as a prisoner of war, John said they were often more light-hearted recollections of the more ridiculous moments he experienced while held in captivity inside Hitler’s Third Reich.
John, a retired aid worker and Christian minister who now lives in Warwickshire, in England’s Midlands region, said the discovery of the letters offered a chance to learn more about what his parents had really experienced in those years.
His new book is based on his parents’ letters. It is being released by Pegasus Publishers in the United Kingdom.
Alan grew up in Deal, Kent, in southern England, and was educated at Sir Roger Manwood’s School in Sandwich, while Peggy – who would go on to serve on the home front in nearby Folkestone and Bobbing – was originally from Chislehurst – a suburb of London.
John and his twin sister, Anne, were born in Cheltenham in 1949, but brought up in Dorset.
Unaware of how their parents actually met, John explained that their mother worked in a voluntary aid detachment during the war, while his father was in the army in the Royal Artillery Regiment in 1939.
John said the pair were stationed close by to one another, so would have visited each other during the early stages of the war.
Peggy and John were married on November 21, 1940, in Sittingbourne, Kent – Peggy aged 22 and Alan aged 29 – while wartime planes were fighting in the skies above the church.
John said: “The spent cartridges from the Battle of Britain dog fight between Nazi and RAF planes fighting overhead were heard rattling on the roof of the church on their wedding day.
“Unsurprisingly they didn’t hang around for wedding photos outside. It is something we cannot really imagine 80 years on.”
A tragically unfortunate timing for the newlyweds meant that within a few weeks, Alan was on board a ship embarking on a two-month journey from Glasgow, Scotland, to Egypt.
From Egypt, Alan and his fellow comrades were shipped to Crete – a strategically-important base on the Greek island for the British armed forces in the Mediterranean sea – where the British army suffered a catastrophic defeat, with thousands killed on both sides.
“In my father’s writing there are lists of all people killed in the battery in the Battle of Crete,” said John.
“12,000 allied troops were taken as POW or killed.
“The Germans then took the Allied prisoners across to Greece and they were put on trains, 37 to a cattle truck, and they were transported for seven days and seven nights across Europe.
“My father very much plays it down in his letters, but it was so bitterly cold for the poor soldiers and they had lost everything they had in the battle, so the men had the clothes on their back and that was it.
“Alan said that all the men had dysentery – some of them, including himself, had jaundice – and the train would stop for just five minutes every day for them to relieve themselves.”
Alan was taken to three POW camps, where he would spend the remainder of the war until the eventual surrender of Germany in 1945.
In June 1941, he was stationed in the first prison camp, Lubek, as he recalled in his log book, “Lubek was a clean but hungry camp.
“The thought of food dominated the mind, sleeping and waking.
“Slow starvation haunted the mind and stayed with us long after the arrival at Warburg where Red Cross parcels were issued regularly.”
From October to September 1942, Alan was imprisoned in Warburg, where he recounted: “Warburg meant dust, filth of every description, and above all, cold. The European winter took the place of hunger as a ghost to haunt us.”
Until the end of the war in April 1945, Alan was placed in Eichstätt, in Bavaria, where prisoners were occasionally taken to the cinema and the circus, and were even allowed to study for professional exams to relieve their boredom.
Alan, who qualified as a member of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and Bankers while kept as a prisoner wrote: “It was set in a lovely green valley through which meanders a narrow river. Quarters are cleaner and much better built and there are good exercise grounds”.
Despite obtaining his training, Alan actually never received his Bachelor’s degree in economics, as John revealed, because the plane carrying his final papers home from Germany to the United Kingdom was shot down.
John said: “By the end of the war, food was so desperately short – both armies were getting very hungry indeed and the Germans were running out of critical supplies.”
Peggy’s words also offered Alan light amid the darkness, as she told her husband to think of home.
In one letter she wrote: “I’m afraid I can’t write anymore for a while, so I’ll bid you good night my sweet – forget the war and dream about me and us.
“Faith, hope and courage are in our hearts – we are young and strong and full of our love.”
Alan felt more comfortable recalling the brighter glimpses of his wartime experience in the years that followed, and he returned to civilian life working in towns across the country for Lloyds Bank.
“I think my father, like a great many people in the armed forces, just erase it from their minds and try not to think about it,” said John.
“Father used to be asked to give talks about being a prisoner of war and I actually heard one once.
“It was full of absolutely ridiculous stories but it told you nothing at all about being a prisoner of war.
“The letters themselves give you glimpses into it, but because he doesn’t want to upset my mother he doesn’t say that much.
“The first thing I remember about my father’s war experience was when I noticed a large scar on his leg when I was very young ”
The author explained how the collection of letters did not just feature those exchanged by his parents, but others from wives, parents and mothers looking for their husbands and sons.
John explained: “People used to contact my mom in case she had any information about what had happened to fellow soldiers.
“My mom wrote a number of letters to the Red Cross throughout the war, who used to send special health and food parcels to Alan and other war prisoners whilst they were captured.”
Also included in the letters is a powerfully moving note from a grieving colonel of the Regiment, Stanley Stebbings, who wrote to Peggy commiserating about the loss of his own nephew – a friend of Alan’s who was one of many killed during the Battle of Crete.
John said: “As the men sailed into harbor in Crete one of my father’s fellow lieutenants – who was Stanley Stebbing’s nephew, turned to my Father and said ‘we are going to die here – you may not, but I most certainly will.’
“And all the people manning his gun were killed within a few minutes. It was pretty much a slaughter.”
Stanley Stebbings wrote in his letter to Peggy on June 14, 1941: “Dear Peggy, You will have heard that the battery took a horrible knock…
“But now everyone is back who can probably get back, so I am horribly afraid they must all be prisoners of war.
“Oh Peggy, I am so, so sorry to have to write, as I know the appalling uncertainty. It will be many weeks before you get the names from the Red Cross of those who are safe but prisoners.
“I just hope and pray that we shall get news that at any rate they are safe.
“Oh Peggy, I’ve a heavy heart these days. My prayers are with you all, the women whose lot, so horrid, to wait and hope. Have faith Peggy as I have.”
John explained that him and his sister were able to get the letters checked by the Imperial War Museum, who described them as one of the “most extensive sets of their kind.”
He said: “My sister’s husband had recently retired from the Army, and he got somebody from the Imperial War Museum to look at the letters and they said it was one of the most complete sets of letters they had seen written between a husband and wife through those war years.
“My mother was able to write more letters because the prisoners were only given four postcards and two airgrams to write each month.
“It really highlights how remarkably communications have improved – how long do you expect to wait before you got a reply now?
“With the youth it’s 10 seconds.
“The idea that a newlywed couple might have to wait three months or more just to get a letter – but that form of conversing was far more descriptive – they are lasting monuments and evidence of history, which is not the case with a text or email which just gets binned upon reception.”
Upon reflection, John explained how the letters made him realize his privilege as well as the striking parallels between culture 80 years ago and now.
John said: “When you read the letters, one realizes how lucky we have been to live with peace.
“But the important thing to think about is that this is actually beginning to happen again in Europe with Russia invading Ukraine.
“This is 85 years old and yet a very modern story.
“I did not expect to be re-writing something that perhaps had that greater poignancy and relevance that it does in fact also have today.”
John added: “The strength and determination that underlined that generation is also striking.”
A powerful message from one of the final letters the pair exchanged on their fourth wedding anniversary, November 21, 1944.
Peggy wrote: “Would that I were back where I was four years ago tonight!
“But as you have pointed out, then we had separation to face; now it is a reunion.
“What a lifetime these years have been. God grant the end is now near.”
Alan died in 1993, after surviving tuberculosis 40 years prior, and Peggy stayed in good health until she passed ten years later, following a series of strokes.
John has hoped to turn his parents’ letters into a book since their discovery back in 2002.
After 20 years, fueled by the free time in his retirement and lockdown, John has finally published the book called ‘Behind The Wire: A Prisoner of War in Nazi Germany’.
“A story told in a collection of love letters written between 1940 and 1945 highlighting the pain and separation of war but enlivened by hope,” declared a description.
Produced in association with SWNS.
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