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Eighty years ago, as allied forces were retreating towards Dunkirk, soldiers from the Suffolk regiment snatched a moment to write a letter home. They didn’t have long. The advancing German army was at their heels and the finished letters were quickly gathered up and loaded onto a truck that was leaving for the evacuation beaches.
It never reached its destination, however, and was found abandoned by the side of the road by a German officer who picked up the box of letters and eventually took them home. For more than 30 years they sat in the attic of his house, before he passed them to the British embassy in Bonn in 1968.
Nine of the letters were then delivered to their intended recipients, but 41 ended up in the Suffolk Regiment Museum where, while researching the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, archivist Heidi Hughes made a link between a name on her local war memorial and a family still living in the area.
She was then able to track down Derek and Clement Cole, both in their eighties and the youngest brothers of one of the letter writers, 30-year-old Private Harry Cole. Sadly Harry had never made it home, being killed in action just a few days after writing that last letter to his family.
Clement, now 87, told the East Anglian Daily Times: “It was such a shock to receive Harry’s letter after so long. I was quite moved to read his words, knowing that he was killed just a couple of days after he wrote them.
“My mother had seven sons and no girls. Harry was the oldest and he was her favourite. She thought the world of him and she always looked forward to his letters.“
Suffolk Archives has put together a selection of extracts from the letters into an online display, entitled With Love From Dunkirk.
Claire Wallace, curator of the Suffolk Regiment museum, said: “These men had been through great hardships during the war and unfortunately, some never made it home from Dunkirk. It is striking, however, that their personalities and humour shine through these letters.”