11th Dec 1940
I suppose Mother has told you that I’m engaged to a very charming Scotch girl – Shirley Balfour – a nursing sister in an Edinburgh hospital. I hope to send Mother a photo next week – I met her on my six day leave. When I came back we wrote to each other and about a fortnight ago she came down here or at least to a town near here to be with her sister in law who was having a child and I saw her quite a lot and before she went back we got engaged – She’s twenty six, has dark brown hair but a fair complexion and though small built has a lovely figure. I’m hoping though I think it’s a wild hope that I may get enough leave to spend Christmas Day with her….
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It’s now nearly six months since our arrival in England. What a wealth of experience that six months has given us: in moving from camps and barracks we’ve had an opportunity of seeing a good deal of the country and of getting to know the English people. My ideas of the English have been completely changed and I can’t speak too highly of them now. When one sees the terrible drubbing the civilian population have had – their homes wrecked, relatives and friends killed and maimed – no moaning or wailing – no hysteria – no panic of any description – they remain cool, calm and determined. This same spirit dominates the services too – the RAF – their exploits are well known but the various branches of the silent service that get very little publicity are doing a marvellous job – the navy itself – and most particularly the merchant service – the Ned Kelly’s of the war – they take the ships out knowing that the cards are stacked against them – they have to contend with motor torpedo boats, with enemy bombers, with battleships and submarines and though it is futile they fight to the finish as Jervis Bay and Rawalpindi did.
Six months ago the world wouldn’t have given England one chance in ten of winning but now they realise what a nation the English are – and the airforce and Navy go from success to success. Peoples who hesitated to be friendly now wish England well and it looks as though the Italians are regretting their grab for spoils in a war they thought was already won. We’ve had an opportunity of seeing – unfortunately under the worst possible conditions – a good deal of the country and some of the greatest cities in England and Scotland. On our thirty six hours London leave we had a fleeting glance of the world’s greatest city. Whilest in camp on the plains we saw the city of Salisbury – a city of about a quarter of a million people and centre of Britain’s military training grounds. We also saw Winchester – the ancient capital of England with its very old and interesting Cathedral its interesting architecture and statue of King Alfred. We saw Marlborough, Andover, Tidworth …and many small towns and we travelled down the west coast by train right through the midlands, and on six day leave both up and down the east coast – through York, Hull and Newcastle. In Scotland I had a good look round the wonderful city of Edinburgh – was through Dunfermline, Alloa, Stirling, Helensburgh and Glasgow.
Though at times we’ve moaned and whinged about our own personal grievances it’s been a wonderful education and I hope someday to come back and see it all in its peacetime setting.
Our Colonel has been promoted to acting Brigadier and we don’t know whether he’ll come back to us or not. We’ve lost a good CO – because although he was very irregular in dealing with offenders he had the interests of the battalion at heart and was a vey able officer.
The weather is terribly cold here now and the days have less than eight hours of daylight – guard duties these nights are damnably cold however it’s only a week to the shortest day and it may start to mend then. Well May I’ll say cheerio for the present – best regards to Laurie and love to you and Anne
These are for Anne xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Pte M Hickman
2/33 Battalion AIF
The engagement was doomed not to last – it’s not clear from subsequent letters, just how long it was in place, but certainly within a couple of years Shirley had married someone else. There is no photo of her in Dad’s papers, although at least one of his non-family correspondents comments favourably on her appearance so I assume he shared copies of her photo fairly widely. I suspect Dad’s mother did not respond favourably to the news: she would have been anxious about the prospect of ‘losing’ her only son to someone on the other side of the world – but there were probably many complex reasons for the eventual outcome.
The Jervis Bay and Rawalpindi
Both ships were converted merchant vessels that were sunk by German battleships. The captain of the Jervis Bay received a posthumous Victoria Cross. The story of both encounters can be found in Wikipedia. The hope to visit again in peacetime Sadly, Dad never had the chance to return to the UK in peacetime.