Back on October 7, 2010 I introduced my grandfather to you all, Group Captain J.D. Warne. (You can refresh your memory here). Since then I was fortunate enough to spend some time looking through some of his personal letters and R.A.F. records when I visited my parents back in November. It was a moving experience and one that I now willingly share with you.
Papa, as all his grandchildren called him, had a brother, Peter, who sadly never survived the war. He was his younger brother and it seems that they had a very chummy relationship, as brothers often do. Both of them had joined the R.A.F. and both were in Bomber Command, Papa cutting his teeth on Whitley bombers and Peter on Blenheims. Two other brothers, Jock and Stewart, were in the Army and Navy respectively. I cannot imagine how my poor great-grandmother coped with all her children serving their country in time of war.
In this undated letter to his brother Jimmy (Papa), Peter is offering his congratulations on Papa’s recent engagement to Joan, who would of course go on to become my grandmother. Actually, I would go on to become her grandson is probably the right way of putting it, but you get my drift. The language in the letter is so typical of the day, with Peter suggesting on page two that “you have probably been dashing around the country in Whitely’s [sic] in a daring fashion.” I can date this letter to late 1938 or early 1939, given that Papa and Grandma married in July ’39 it would certainly have been prior to that.
The only other letter that I had access to is dated March 5, 1940. This is, as it would turn out, be only six or so weeks before Peter went missing in action. I find myself full of admiration for these young men who fought in the war. Peter talks of flying on missions and knocking out submarines with his bombs as if it was nothing more exciting than a Sunday stroll through the park. In the next paragraph he tells Papa about the rugby he’s been playing for the squadron and the “two lucky tries after someone else had done all the work.” What is particularly poignant in this letter is the following: “I go on leave on April 16 and another fellow and myself are probably going to Cumberland to the Lake District.” At some point between his sending this letter and his planned trip to the Lake District the plans changed, because Peter did not go on leave on April 16. Rather on April 17, 1940 he was flying a mission over Norway with his squadron. It was to be his last.
In the weeks following that mission Papa and the rest of the family were left waiting and wondering what could have happened to Peter. All they knew was that a number of Blenheim bombers did not return from that mission and his was one of them. On Sunday, May 26, Papa wrote the following in his diary:
“Brother Peter has been missing since April 17. There is hardly any hope now that he is all right; but in fact I knew from the very beginning that he was not all right. Poor Peter, he was the finest fellow that has ever lived….”
At the end of April my great-grandmother received a letter from the mission leader that fateful day, Wing Commander B.E. Embry. In it he speculates that Peter was probably not shot down by enemy fighters, rather his plane possibly collided with another whilst trying to take cover in the clouds from those same fighters. Only one of the three planes in Peter’s formation made it back to England and “he was very badly shot up.”
The war was to continue on for five more long years, but thankfully my great-grandmother was not to lose any more of her children. Papa, Jock and Stewart all survived the war. In the journal entry that I quoted above, Papa also stated that “When this war is over we’ll raise something for Peter that will remain for all time.” I think he did one better than that. On May 30, 1944, Papa’s only son, my father, was born. His name, Peter.