Wartime Secrets

Virginia Aighton’s book, ‘About the Jam, Darling’ is a moving account of her father’s experiences during WW2, as told through letters to her mum Ella

Three hundred wartime letters, discovered in a small suitcase, has resulted in a fascinating book revealing a soldier’s personal memories.

Author Virginia Aighton’s book traces her father’s time in the army – a time that saw him take part in the Battle of Normandy, which followed D-Day that recently marked its 80th anniversary. The Battle of Normandy lasted almost three months and saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War 2.

Virginia, who lives in the Ribble Valley with her husband, explains that her father, Jim, had given her the little brown suitcase before he died and had told her that it was full of wartime memorabilia.

She kept the suitcase safe, but some year’s later after her father had died, she heard a programme on BBC Woman’s Hour asking listeners if they had any letters from different decades of the 20th century.

So, it was only then that she fully investigated the contents of the suitcase and discovered there were more than 300 letters written from her father to her mother, Ella.

Mindful that the pencil-written letters may fade, Virginia set about copying the letters onto a computer and found that together, they began to form a wonderful, well-rounded story.

Jim was called up in 1940 to join the Irish Guards at the Caterham Depot in Surrey: “He must have shown some promise because he was promoted very early in his army career and became a training instructor at the depot,” says Virginia.

However, in June 1944, Jim, by now a sergeant, found himself on the south coast of England, along with many thousands of other troops, waiting to play his part in the allied invasion of France.

Before crossing the Channel, stormy weather had delayed the ship’s departure: ‘‘The waiting must have been terrible,’’ adds Virginia.

Jim eventually left England on the liner, the LLangibby Castle, on D-Day + 14.

In the first letter he wrote from France, he told Ella, who had just given birth to their baby daughter: “When I have been alone or when I was leaning against the rail of the ship, I have thought deeply and sometimes I have almost cried to think that I have had to give up so much.”

He went on: “Plenty of our planes about and they seem to scare Jerry away because he never troubles us during the day.”

On the Normandy coast, the Mulberry harbours (floating deepwater landing rafts) had set adrift in the storms: “As a result the soldiers, including my dad had to climb down netting on the outside of the ship in open water, to get onto an assault craft. They had 60lbs of equipment on their back. Some drowned before they even got there. When they were dropped on the coast, they had to wade through the sea, then start marching.

“The Battle of Normandy saw more than 22,000 servicemen under British command lose their lives. My dad felt terribly responsible for the younger men in his squad who were killed. He was only 27 at the time but some of the younger soldiers were in their late teens.”

Just weeks later, a petrol can exploded burning Jim’s arm. During his recovery in a field hospital his fellow troops had moved on through France and Belgium to the Netherlands. Keen to rejoin them, he travelled for three days by train, in an open cattle truck to catch up with them: “When he rejoined them, he discovered that in the meantime, some of his close friends had been killed. He found this very hard and this stayed with him all his life.”

In November of the same year, Jim was injured again, this time on a night-time reconnaissance mission near the German border, when he stepped on a booby trap. His body was splattered with shrapnel but there was nothing he could do but lie in the dark in the rain and mud and wait for help. He was eventually found by allies, and subsequently underwent an operation in Belgium before being flown back to ‘blighty’ where he had numerous operations, mainly on his legs and was hospitalised for nine months.

Jim was discharged from the army in August1945, with his paperwork stating: ‘conduct exemplary’.

Virginia says that after the war, Jim returned to normal life with his usual bonhomie: “He always just got on with things.”

Jim lived a long and full life until he died aged 87 in 2003.

Virginia concludes: “My father always walked with a limp and had a caliper for support. I didn’t think anything about it when I was a child or indeed as a young person. To me, he was just my dad. Now I am older and hopefully a little wiser, I see things differently and understand and appreciate so much, the sacrifice he and so many others made for us and our country.”

Virginia’s e-book ‘About the Jam Darling – A Soldier’s Thoughts on Love and War told through Letters’ is available on Amazon.

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